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Do Our Kids Distrust Us?

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If we look at separation anxiety as a trust-issue,
we may respond differently.

Often, parents think their child cries or clings to them because they’re afraid to be left (wherever) if the parent leaves. Or, they think their child needs comforting when faced with a distorted fear (e.g. the child is afraid to go upstairs by himself).

But when looking at the bigger picture, such behavior suggests something different. Namely, the child does not trust her parent.

What? How can that be when the child is crying because she doesn’t want the parent to leave or because she wants her parent to comfort her when frightened?

Well, if the child trusted the parent, she would know—with 100% certainty—that the parent would never leave her somewhere or have her venture somewhere that wasn’t safe. All the parent would have to say is, “You can trust me”—and the child’s angst would be soothed.

Without that trust, it doesn’t matter how much reassurance the parent offers. Plus, the child learns that by crying or resisting, she not only avoids whatever distorted fear she’s facing, but she also gets a lot of attention. Such concerning behavior then registers in the brain as helpful—even though such response is viewed quite differently by others.

So how do we change all that? We start by believing such kids are yearning to trust their parents 24/7 so that they can feel safe. With that perception in place, we then do the following:

• We use a simple phrase, “You can trust me” for such situations. We say this with a strong presence and conviction as that (initially) will give more assurance than the actual words.

• We establish that no one on this entire planet loves our kids more than us, so we would never leave them with someone we didn’t trust.

• We tell them that we never ask them to do something we didn’t know was safe.

• We believe and tell our child that they’re losing a huge piece of their childhood if they can’t trust when we say something or somewhere is safe. The best part of childhood is that we get to trust others to make those decisions for us.

• We now view comforting our kids when demonstrating separation anxiety or a distorted fear as hurting them—as actually not meeting their emotional need since such response reinforces there really is something to fear, and we (as their parents) can’t be trusted.

• We set up really, really short experiences to allow the brain to register it can trust us. For example, if our child is afraid to be near dogs, we create an opportunity where we stand next to our child while across the street from a dog on a leash—for 60 seconds. That’s it. The next time, we may do this for 90 seconds. From there, we may get closer to the dog—but, again, for only a very short time. In other words, we don’t just “throw our kids into the swimming pool.” We teach them to trust us by showing (not telling) they can.

• We thank our kids for trusting us when they were hesitant, pointing out that such faith also gives them new confidence that makes them feel safe and assured for future situations.

Best of all, when kids trust their parents, the brain registers that the distorted projected fear did not happen—just like the parents said. And that—rather than reassuring speeches, lots of hugging, or finding ways for the child to avoid the distorted fear–is what truly comforts them.

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