How To Use Choices To Build Trust And Connection
Chosen’s List Of Choices
In the spring of 2019, I made choices. I chose which basketball game I wanted to watch during the NCAA finals. I decided that I would take my daughter to a concert for her birthday instead of buying her a pair of shoes. I made the choice to go to a beach in Florida instead of Chicago to celebrate my anniversary, and then made the plans to do so.
In the spring of 2020, there are no sporting events, concerts, or vacations. I don’t know when I can start long-term planning again, and that’s troubling. So, I cling to the daily choices that I have in front of me: what I make for dinner, what game I play with my girls, and what route I take on my daily run.
When choices are taken away, we feel out of control.
Children who have spent time in foster care or an international orphanage did not make the choice to be there. They haven’t chosen to be taken from their birth parents. It wasn’t their decision to move into the home of a stranger. They didn’t ask for abuse or neglect. Like adults during this shelter-in-place quarantine, children feel out of control because all their choices are being made for them.
As adults in quarantine, the lack of control we are experiencing feels new. Children who have experienced trauma are experts at coping with feeling out of control. They live in a state of fear and respond to feeling out of control by using what is commonly known as “survival instinct,” or the lower part of the brain. Living in this fear state looks like “bad” behavior.
Children with hard histories cannot just stop these survival behaviors. Attachment to safe, loving caregivers who themselves have healthy attachment styles is the key to repairing damage done to the brains of children and teens. This takes time and hard work.
Is there anything that can help as families work on attachment?
Yes! Choices help children feel like they are in control. Giving children choices also builds a level of trust and connection with parents. When children feel in control, their behaviors will feel less difficult to the parents caring for them.
Ironically, telling parents to give kiddos choices makes parents feel out of control. It seems “permissive.” Adults have a deep-seated belief that if a child is in control, they lose control and the children will take over the house. This is certainly true if the children are given choices in the home that only adults should have. When children from hard places are provided opportunities to make decisions about things that don’t matter greatly to adults, but make child feel like they are in control, challenging behaviors in the home improve.
Here Are A Few Examples:
- One family Chosen worked with had a terrible time getting their ten-year old foster son to take a shower. He had a hard history with showers, and taking one made him feel desperately out of control. So, he “took back control” by having a meltdown every night before he had to take a shower. His parents decided to give him these choices: He could race his foster dad to the bathroom, or he could get a piggyback ride to the bathroom. That simple choice made the boy feel in control and the meltdowns finally stopped.
- A teenager I know was failing a chemistry class and, as a result, was at risk of not graduating from high school. Her parents gave her two choices: Get tutoring from a college student they knew who was majoring in chemistry, or get tutoring from her teacher. She chose the college student and passed the class.
- In our family, unloading the dishwasher felt extremely overwhelming to our child with a hyperdeveloped auditory sense. The banging of the plates dysregulated our daughter, so when it was her turn to do that chore, she felt extremely out of control. That feeling came across as defiant behavior, but we knew that it was her way of communicating, “This is hard for me. I need help.” So, the choices we gave were these: You may unload the dishwasher with your ear plugs in or music playing through your headphones.
The Key With Parents Giving Choices Is This:
The choices need to be acceptable to both the parent and the child. In the case of the boy scared of the shower, he felt in control with the choices and he still took a shower, which is what the parents wanted. For the teenager struggling with chemistry, she felt in control with the solution, and still got the help she needed so she could graduate, which is what her parents wanted. In our family, the dishwasher still was unloaded, but it was done in a way that helped our daughter feel like she could handle it with the choices we provided.
In this Covid-19 Quarantine, adults and children alike are operating out of a “fear brain” because we all feel out of control. Children with hard histories living in Covid-19 Quarantine are especially vulnerable, and are in need of ways to feel in control. Starting each morning with multiple choices (try 20!) can set the tone for the day so that your child feels like he/she is in control by making decisions. For little ones, letting them choose what clothes they are wearing is a great plan. An even better idea is to let them choose what clothes you, the parent, are wearing! Talk about feeling in control; when we are sheltering at home, it doesn’t matter what we are wearing! Everyone is dressed (important) and your child made the choice (very important). For teens, letting them choose when they will get schoolwork done, when they will do their chores, and when they will have screen time will help them feel like they have control over their day. The order doesn’t matter as much if everything necessary is getting completed.
Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI)® teaches that parents should give two, simple choices. Holding up two fingers when explaining the choices is helpful as well. The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis and Dr. David Cross summarizes the technique like this: “These modest choices allow children to exercise appropriate levels of control, even while you remain ultimately in charge.”
This technique takes some getting used to. It might be helpful to sit down and write some choices for the specific children in your home that you feel comfortable giving to them. Do not be afraid of giving choices for things that don’t matter to you. We created a list (Image above) that you can use to get your creative ideas flowing.
Watch Choices – Letting your Little Ones Feel in Control on Coffee with Chosen for a real-life example of how to give children choices. Need some help? Contact us today at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are here to help your family!