How to Develop Trust with an At-Risk Child

My wife took our three-year-old son to one of his favorite places yesterday—the mall. He enjoys playing at the indoor toddler playground as long as other children are there.

Sure enough children swarmed the play area, running, laughing, crying, climbing, and playing chase. Some parents sat fiddling with their smart phones periodically checking on their child. While others hovered over their little one trying to protect them from the bigger kids.

Our son quickly made friends with two girls who were sisters. When their mother announced that it was time to go, he followed the family out of the play area telling them he wanted to go home with them.

As my wife ran out to chase our son down, the girl’s mother was telling him that he needed to go home with his own mommy.

Whoa! What is that all about?


The challenge is he either doesn’t know who to trust or he doesn’t trust anyone. This prevents him from securely attaching to us as his mommy and daddy. Children from a hard place often struggle with this.

What is meant by, “a child from a hard place”?

Dr. Karyn Purvis lists six primary risk factors for kids that are from a hard place In her Trust Based Relational Intervention teaching,

  1. Abnormal prenatal conditions
  2. Difficult or traumatic labor or birth
  3. Medical trauma early in life
  4. Abuse
  5. Neglect
  6. Trauma

Notice that any of the first three could easily happen to a child who is in a nurturing biological family. 

A child coming through foster care or institutional care may well meet all six risk factors. This greatly affects the child’s brain chemistry that leads to behavioral challenges.

Trust Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) proposes an approach to parenting children from a hard place composed of three elements.

Following these principles in this order helps build healthy trust and attachment behaviors in a child from a hard place.


Empowerment is attention to physical needs.

Many times the bad behavior stems from a physical need such as, thirst, hunger, or feeling safe.

Reality and perception are very different. A parent can know their child is safe, but the child might not feel safe. To that child, her perception is her reality.

Hunger is an easy example. Many children that come from a neglectful home or homes worry about where their next meal will come from. The parent knows that they will never again have to worry about food, but the child doesn’t know that.

So, the child will hide food in their room, in their pockets, throw a fit when told they can’t have a snack before dinner.

The child needs tangible evidence that they will never go hungry again.

The parent can empower the child by working together to come up with strategies that will help the child feel safe. They can shop together for snacks and put them in a place easily accessed by the child.

Other areas a parent can be aware of and empower their child are transitions (daily, major life, and developmental), sensory needs, and nutrition.

Simply attending to the child’s physical and felt needs helps the child develop trust which can alter the bad behavior.


Connection is attention to attachment needs.

Often when a child exhibits bad behavior, we as parents initially respond with correction. However, the child might be acting from a place of emotional need.

Correction, especially if harsh,  before connecting can cause further damage to the child’s ability to self-regulate.

Self-awareness (the ability of the parent or caregiver to understand their own emotional state), attachment skill, and playful engagement are important ways to connect while correcting.

This approach helps a parent or care-giver build trusting, secure attachment relationships with their child.


Correction is attention to behavioral needs.

TBRI principles never advocate the acceptance of bad behavior. Rather, they encourage a proactive instead of a reactive approach to correcting the bad behavior.


To read a more in-depth explanation of Trust Based Relational Intervention principles go here.

What would have happened if Danielle corrected our son first?

“Come here! You don’t run out of here without me! You don’t ask to go home with strangers!!” Or even more severe, “What is wrong with you!?”

I doubt that this approach would have avoided a meltdown. And, longterm correction would not have happened either.

Instead, (kudos to Danielle!) even though painfully aware that our son was willing to go home with another “mommy”, she calmly picked him up and held him. She knew he was hungry and tired, so they began discussing dinner plans.

Even though our son still “flipped his lid”, Danielle looked to empower and connect while correcting. Not that we get this right every time, but  we understand that this approach helps our child from a hard place develop healthy behavior, such as, trust.

What do you think about the TBRI principles?

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I am a longtime Austinite. Married my beautiful wife over 25 years ago. Adopted our son September 2012. Currently a writer and loving it. Previous jobs and careers include project management, missionary, and pastor. I enjoy sports (both watching and playing), traveling, reading, digging in dirt and hanging with my friends and family.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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2 thoughts on “How to Develop Trust with an At-Risk Child

  1. Yep. It takes a different approach with the deeply hurt children. These methods don’t always work like magic (meaning, they don’t always flow as we would like), but they are at least a good platform to stand on. The more we can understand, the more sense these approaches actually make! I am grateful that we live in a day where we have access to better understanding these kids.