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I've heard of "TBRI" — what is it?

When my wife and I first started foster care seven years ago we were naive. We had no biological children but we were social workers who had worked for years with traumatized and neglected kids. So we thought, “We got this!” 

I remember speaking with a good friend of mine around that time who had been a biological parent for many years and a foster parent for a few. I’ll never forget what he said to me — “It’s totally different!” What he meant was that children who have been removed from their caregivers at any age and who have experienced abuse, neglect, and loss are profoundly different. They see the world through a completely different lens than a secure, attached child. Many of us grew up believing as children that parents are safe, trustworthy, and loving. Our needs were met and we didn’t know any different. For foster children, they have experienced parents who are unsafe, unavailable, and unwilling or unable to meet their basic needs.

Over the past 20 years, an enormous amount of attention has been given and research conducted about the impact of abuse and neglect on children and how best to parent them. This has led to countless books, seminars, journal articles, family camps, and conferences designed to educate and equip parents and professionals for the difficult task of parenting hurt children. 

The late Dr. Karyn Purvis, along with her colleague Dr. David Cross were pioneers in this work and created an institute at Texas Christian University to further their work and aid families in the healing process. The pinnacle of this work is what is now widely known as “TBRI.” This stands for Trust Based Relational Intervention, “a holistic, comprehensive, research-based approach to healing vulnerable children.” Though Dr. Purvis is sadly no longer with us, she is a household name in the foster care and adoption community.

Two key concepts in TBRI are “connect before you correct” and the IDEAL response to children’s behavior. 

In her book, The Connected Child, Dr. Purvis argues that before a child can begin changing their behavior they must first know that they are safe, loved, and cared for. Oftentimes, it will take a long time for a child to trust that they will be safe even though a foster or adoptive parent provides consistent structure and loving nurture. To connect with a child means to meet them where they are, to engage with them as a valuable and beautiful person worthy of your time, affection, and energy. Tactics that can be helpful to encourage children to “use their words” are playful distraction and encouraging eye contact to move the child from the more emotional part of their brain to the thinking part. They have “flipped their lid” according to Dr. Purvis and it needs to be put back down before any correction or instruction can happen. 

In our family, when a request is made disrespectfully we say, “Try that again with respect.” When they comply we praise them and show affection. 

Dr. Purvis has also provided families a handy step-by-step tool to help children. The IDEAL response includes discipline strategies that are immediate, direct, efficient, action-based, and leveled at the behavior (not the child). “Time-ins,” redos, and short, clear communication are methods that fall into the IDEAL response. 

Purvis summarizes her approach by saying that children from hard places need an equal amount of structure and nurture. As German minister Eberhard Arnold put it,, “Truth without love kills, but love without truth lies.” For more information about Dr. Purvis, TBRI, and the bestselling book The Connected Child please visit    

Laura Ann PoehnerComment