The Freeform television show The Fosters follows the story of teenager Callie and her brother, Jude, as they form relationships with their newest foster family, Stef and Lena (an interracial lesbian couple), Brandon (Stef’s biological son), and the couple’s adopted twins, Mariana and Jesus. In Season 4, Episode 3, titled “Trust,” Callie, after having a meltdown and clashing with Lena, confides in her saying, “I have a lot of walls.” Avid watchers of the show can speak to this as Callie has shown severe difficulty opening up to and trusting others, mainly due to instability and her lack of parental figures for most of her adolescence. Just like Callie, it may be difficult for you to let your walls on your adoption journey.

Whether you or your loved one was adopted as a newborn or a teenager, it is common for adopted children (and foster children) to have trust issues. As someone who is still overcoming the fears of rejection and abandonment in my own relationships, I often wonder how the experiences of being physically abandoned at an orphanage door and living in an orphanage for ten months (two events I do not remember at all) could have affected my life so profoundly. As Salendria Mabrey, the Communication and Development Associate for Foster Care Newsletter, so poignantly states: “When we are born, it is in our DNA to trust others. Inherently, the first person we trust is usually our birth mothers. We depend on them to provide us with everything we need to live. It is only when the basic needs we rely on are not fulfilled that trust issues develop. For children who are adopted from foster care, the line of trust has been broken.” I find that viewing trust as a line, rather than an abstract concept, is helpful towards understanding why I have such a hard time trusting others. 

While I do still have some of my own trust issues to work out, I can confidently assert that I do have friends and family members that I confide in and maintain stable, healthy relationships with. Trust is the foundation for practically every relationship whether romantic or platonic. Even though many adoptees and foster children struggle with trust, there are some things I can acknowledge that from personal experience have helped me open up and feel more comfortable sharing my story with others. 

Share Your Adoption Journey When You Feel Ready

My biggest piece of advice is to open up when you are ready to. Do not let others pressure you into speaking before you are ready. If you feel comfortable with someone and you want to share vulnerable information with them, I encourage you to do so. However, if you have doubts or do not feel completely comfortable about it, you do not have to share until you feel better about it. You dictate the timing and no one should rush you into something you are not ready for. 

On the flip side, do not be offended if an adoptee does not feel comfortable opening up to you yet. Most of the time, we are still processing everything for ourselves. I have some friends who I have known for years that still do not know that side of me. It takes time. 

In The Fosters, Season 1, Episode 19, “Don’t Let Go,” after Callie and Jude’s father signs away his parental rights, Lena expresses to Stef that she wishes Callie would share her feelings with them. Stef responds to Lena, “Well, give her some time. She will. Not all of us are like you with a relentless need to process things the very second they happen. Some of us just need a little more time to figure out how we feel.” Stef brings up a good point; people process information and emotions in unique and perhaps messy ways. It is important to be patient with people who are in the process of translating their feelings into words. On the other hand, if someone is pressuring us into sharing vulnerable parts of ourselves before we are ready, we need to set boundaries. If your loved one is truly supportive of you, they will respect your timing and boundaries.

Recognize Self-Sabotage

Self-sabotage is one thing I am guilty of which is why I am bringing it up. As someone who struggles with trust, there have been times when I have tested relationship boundaries by lashing out or fishing for sympathy. These are not only unhealthy but unfair to our loved ones who are usually trying their best to listen and help. 

In a medically-reviewed article written by Mike Bundrant, “10 Signs You Have Trust Issues and How to Begin Healing,” he explains that one sign of self-sabotage is predicting how people will betray you without evidence of betrayal. Essentially, even if a person has not given you reasons to doubt their trustworthiness, “trust issues from past experiences are being cast into the perceived future, contaminating the present relationship.” It is easy for us to play scenes in our head where our family members, friends, and/or significant others leave us but recognizing the toxicity of this behavior is a big step towards healing. 

In Season 2, Episode 19 of The Fosters, titled “Justify the Means,” Callie, after being distant with Stef and Lena for about a week because she was hiding a secret, breaks down to Stef and confesses, “I just thought that if I left on my own, it wouldn’t hurt as much as if you told me to go. But it does- it hurts so much.” I have often related to this scene as I am guilty of testing relationship boundaries in an effort to determine if my friends are trustworthy and actually love me as much as they say. They have never given me a reason to not trust them but it is my internal fears that drive me mad. By keeping this mindset, I start to read genuine mistakes or innocent actions as signs of betrayal, and there I go sabotaging my own relationships. Recognizing that this is a problem and working to find healthy ways to get out of this thinking pattern is a crucial step towards healing.  

One big motivator for addressing anxieties toward trusting others is realizing that the alternative is nowhere near ideal and possibly even worse. In the process of shutting others out in an effort to protect myself, I have experienced a multitude of negative feelings similar to the pain of being betrayed such as loneliness, anxiety, sadness, and isolation. Because I, like most people, do not want to end up completely alone, it is helpful to keep this point in mind as it is an incentive to address the trust issues before they get worse and ruin otherwise healthy relationships. 

Have Realistic Standards

As mentioned above, many people with trust issues mistake innocent actions, such as not texting back right away or forgetting an important date, as signs of rejection. When we have that mindset, our brains are hypersensitive to anything remotely resembling annoyance or frustration which can snowball into us playing back past memories and wondering what we said or did wrong. This is confirmation bias— the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. If you have the belief that someone you love is going to leave you, any sign, no matter how well-intentioned, could be interpreted as a sign that the person is getting fed up with you. In order to get out of this mindset, setting realistic standards is key. Humans are imperfect; it is unreasonable to expect your loved ones to understand you fully and respond exactly the way you hope they will. 

While I am sure there may be a perfect moment from The Fosters, I am choosing not to illustrate this one with a television scene. Television is scripted and The Fosters is a drama so it is meant to have drastic ups and downs with heart-warming life lessons sprinkled in. Television characters, while based off of humans and their complex natures, are playing a part. We often hope that  maybe our parents or friends or significant others will respond to our problems the same way our favorite television characters do. Stef and Lena are compassionate, communicative fictional mothers and there were times in my life where I wish my loved ones helped me address issues with the understanding patience of Lena and the supportive determination of Stef. Expecting humans to act the same way a television character would ultimately leads to disappointment. Humans are flawed and many people who we think are betraying us or leaving us are genuinely trying their best to help and encourage us. 

Take Baby Steps When Talking About Your Adoption Journey

It is natural to be nervous when sharing something personal and difficult. If you were learning how to ski, you would go to the bunny slopes first. You would not try to tackle the longest, windiest course on your first go. Letting your emotional walls down is similar. From personal experience, I think it is much less daunting to be vulnerable if you are taking manageable steps. For instance, you could start by revealing something little to someone you deem trustworthy and who has shown they love you through words and/or actions. I know that the term little is pretty subjective but even something like “It makes me sad to think that I will never know where I got my dark hair and multitude of freckles from” is a great step towards opening yourself to others. It seems pretty common sense to say that I do not advise revealing your deepest secrets and strongest feelings to someone you are unsure of as this can lead to hurt which could cause you to cut others out more. Taking these little steps towards fully trusting others is a good way to confront your trust-related anxieties. I also want to acknowledge that most of the best heart-to-heart talks are not planned and while they may be uncomfortable or overwhelming, I can guarantee that talking the feelings out is a big weight off your chest. Most humans are sympathetic, especially people you consider loved ones, so try not to go into any vulnerable moments with a pessimistic attitude. 

  In Season 1, Episode 15 of The Fosters, “Padre,” the family endures the death of an extended family member. While reminiscing about funerals and death, Callie recalls a very difficult death she had to process as a young child. As she reluctantly and uncomfortably reveals these small bits of information to Stef, she breaks down crying. Stef holds her and reassures her: “It’s hard to lose someone you love and you never ever want to feel this pain again. But the problem with that is, the only way to make sure that that doesn’t happen is you shut yourself off and you stop loving. And that’s no way to live.” This is exactly what Callie needs to hear at the moment it represents a very crucial moment in Stef and Callie’s mother-daughter relationship as this is truly one of the first times in the show that Callie opens up to Stef about her past and her trauma. And, while it was scary for her at the moment, this conversation did make Stef and Callie a lot closer in the end. 

Katie Kaessinger is an international adoptee from China now residing in Southern California. After graduating from the University of California, Irvine in June 2020 with her BA in English, Katie started law school at the California Western School of Law. Katie hopes to be a family lawyer and specialize in child advocacy and dependency to work with children in the foster care system and adoptees as well as foster and adoptive parents. In her spare time, Katie enjoys listening to and writing music, singing, drawing, playing with her pets, and spending time with her friends (with a mask on and from six feet away!).