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Never Give Up on Loving Those Who Are Difficult to Love

Jessica Mudger

May 21, 2021

As a heart response to James 1:27 (NIV), “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world,” my husband and I were recently moved to begin the training process to become foster parents. This training is arduous, and although we have three healthy children, we were both surprised when many of the concepts taught were brand new to us. One of the most surprising revelations we encountered was that one cannot expect to effectively discipline an at-risk child the same way as a well-adjusted child living in a functional family unit.

This is because the children entering the foster care system have been through some form of trauma, which causes damage to the child’s ability to process any kind of stimuli; stressful or not. To put it simply, these little ones have brains that have been damaged in a way that prevents them from being able to tell the difference between who is trying to help them and who is trying to harm them. It is a difficult situation to maneuver, but by the grace of God, there can be healing through hard work, consistency, and flexibility.

Because of this, the preferred model for disciplining children who have been through moderate to extreme trauma is called Trust-Based Relational Intervention; TBRI for short. According to the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development, “TBRI is an attachment-based, trauma-informed intervention that is designed to meet the complex needs of vulnerable children.” In layman’s terms, TBRI is a holistic approach to helping children with difficult histories to find trust in their caregivers, which consequently enables caregivers to teach those children how to learn from mistakes and make right choices. Although this concept was foreign when introduced to me, as I read the pages of scripture, I realized it was basically the same approach Jesus used.

In Romans 2:4 (NIV), Paul speaks about how God’s “riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience… leads you toward repentance.” In order to be changed by Jesus’ healing power, one must first know how much Jesus loves him or her. As my former youth pastor used to say, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” When we approach any person, including a child in our care, with a motivation rooted in love and relationship, we build the bridge from “this is what you have to do to earn my love,” to “because I love you, I want these good things for you.”

So how do we communicate “I love you and you can trust me,” in a way that children can understand? The first way is by meeting a need. It changes everything when we look at an episode of misbehavior as an indication of an unmet need. Understanding a child’s most basic needs is a tool to communicate love to the child. I would encourage you to take a look at “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” It is a graph showing how a person’s foundational needs build one on top of another. At the foundation, a child needs food, water, warmth and rest. The next time a child in your care acts up, a quick observation could give an easy answer. Are they hungry, thirsty, tired, cold, hot or sick? Those are easy things to address. Once a child has confidence that their caregiver will consistently fulfill those needs, they are ready to move on the more complicated needs like safety, followed by love or belonging, then self-esteem, and finally, self-actualization. It is only when a person has the most basic needs met that they can move on to the emotional and intellectual needs.

Jesus understood this implicitly. Take the woman caught in adultery. What was Jesus’s first action when the woman was brought to him? He understood that she had a basic need for safety. Once he dissected the accusation of the angry mob, he secured her safety by rescuing her from a death sentence. It was only once the need for her safety, and consequently love and esteem were met that He addressed her need to change her behavior. “Jesus stood up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:10-11)

May we never give up on loving those who are difficult to love. The power of love, which is the definition of God Himself, goes far beyond our ability to grasp. Each hardship we face in parenting is yet another opportunity for God to show up and display His glory. The next time I am challenged by a difficult parenting moment, I pray that I will follow the example of Jesus: to love by meeting a need first before I attempt correction. “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13, NIV)

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