Building trust with an older adopted child

Every relationship takes time to develop. Connection-at-first-sight does happen, even outside of fairy tales, but even when it does, it’s just the first step towards developing a strong, trust-based relationship. When the relationship you’re developing is with an older adopted child, it’s important to remember that your child has memories and patterns of behavior based on the life they have had up until this point, which may include instability, loss, or trauma. This process of getting to know each other can be complicated by the process of building trust. But building a trusting relationship with an older adopted child is both very possible and very rewarding, and it can start with your actions.

Helping your new child adjust to your home

Your new child isn’t just adjusting to a new family, but to a completely new environment, including a home with rules and expectations that your little one may not have encountered before. One way to help make sure your new little one doesn’t feel too lost in your home is to set up a consistent routine that your child can count on, and to talk to your new child about what the expectations and rules in your home are.

Setting expectations is just the first step, though – where you really build trust will be by following through on them. If you tell your new child that bedtime for children in the house is at 8:30, your little one is going to need to see that you take that rule seriously. If you say that the family eats dinner together around the dinner table, your new child will be able to trust that that’s true when they see you joining them for dinner at the table.

Some rules are important to tell your child about because they may not have had them at their previous living situation. Things that may feel basic to you, like asking an adult before going outside to play, or what the laundry hamper is for, may be new to your new child, just because of their life experiences.

Building trust through your actions

Your new child may have had experiences with adults that make it harder to trust new people who come into their life  – and at the very best, they’ve gone through a huge transition. This means that your child probably isn’t starting from the baseline assumption that you’re going to be a permanent part of their life, and that they can count on you. You can start to build the expectation that you can be trusted by making statements, rules, and promises, and then keeping them. If your child sees you following through on the things you say, and being honest with the other people in your life, eventually this will prove that you’ll be honest with them in the future, too.

Allow time for trust

It can be difficult to know that, with the best intentions, a child you’ve welcomed into your family doesn’t quite trust you yet, but developing this relationship is going to take time. Depending on the experiences a child has had in their life up until you met them, it can take months and even years to reach a point where you feel like you’re communicating well with your child. This doesn’t mean that your family won’t love and enjoy each other while you’re developing that trust – in fact, that love and appreciation for each other will be one of the repeated experiences that trust will be built from.

During this time, it can be helpful for your child, and often for the whole family, to have the support of a mental health counselor who is familiar with adoption. It can also be helpful to de-specify your hopes and expectations. It’s right, normal, and healthy, to hope and plan for a point when your whole family can work well together, support each other in positive ways, and trust each other. Where some families run into trouble is in assuming they know what a positive outcome looks like already. Finding a positive balance is going to look different for every family working towards it, and there’s a good chance you won’t know what yours looks like until you find it. Your family and your child are faced with the unique challenges and circumstances, and, with time, good intentions, and determination, you’ll work together to figure out the unique way to address them.

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