Building trust in preschoolers: Here's what to know

The ability to trust oneself and others is at the root of every good relationship.
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By Michelle Balani

As your children grow, you can continue to build upon their ability to trust by creating a supportive environment and following through on the promises you make. Extending your trust to your children by expecting the best from them and believing in their goodness and potential helps build their sense of social awareness and contributes to their emotional growth. Teaching your child about the importance of trust in relationships can have a profound effect on the way they see the world, and can help build a strong base of trust that is crucial for their social and emotional development.

Although your child may not yet fully understand the concept of trust, you can begin teaching him or her about this value by pointing out examples of this type of behavior. For instance, you can say, "When I ask you to help me pick up your toys, I trust that you will do it,” or, "When I drop you off at school, you can trust that I will come and get you every day.” Children of this age may still experience separation anxiety, and if you explain to your child that he should trust that you will always return for him, you are showing him what trust is, and you are making him feel secure and less anxious about separating from you. There are many situations when separation anxiety is more about anxiety and temperament than trust, and while you may have an excellent job of demonstrating and explaining trust, some children may still have a difficult time separating. When you make promises about returning, try to follow through with them, as showing your child that she can rely on you to keep your promises is another way to build your child’s trust. Keep in mind that some issues, like transportation problems, may cause you to be late when picking your child up from school, and your child may become upset if you are not there to get her on time.

Preschoolers and kindergartners have vivid imaginations and they tend to exaggerate and tell tall tales to get their points across. They are typically unlikely to give you a good answer to a question of, “Why did you do that?” At times, it may seem as if they are lying, but remember that children of this age are so caught up in imaginative thinking that they like to make up stories, and they may not be intentionally trying to hide the truth from you. Director of the Rutgers Social and Emotional Learning Lab Dr. Maurice Elias recommends that one way to build trust is to ask your child to tell you what happened when you saw him or her do something, perhaps spilling or breaking something, taking an item from a peer or sibling, or hitting. When you ask, “Did you do that?” and he says no, you can explain how important it is to tell you the truth and that you will not yell or get very angry if you hear the truth. Explain that trust is when you ask a question and she tells you what really happened. It’s a hard concept to convey, so don’t be surprised if you have to say, “O.K., here is what I saw happened,” and then get her to tell you about it. Eventually, you want to get to the point where your child trusts that if he says something to you, you will not lose control when you hear it. This does not mean you approve of everything that happened. But it does mean that you recognize that having a trusting relationship with your child is hugely important for a parent.

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Anne Morrison, Pre-Kindergarten Teacher, Lycée Français de New York, and Maurice Elias, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab.