Christopher Chelpka

What is TBRI?

This is entry 1 of the blogchain TBRI.


TBRI stands for Trust-Based Relational Intervention. It’s a set of ideas and practices championed by Drs. Karyn Purvis and David Cross of the Texas Christian University Institute of Child Development. TBRI aims to help meet the needs of “children from hard places”; where other interventions are failing, TBRI helps kids with big challenges reach their potential.

As such, TBRI serves an important role in interrupting and in healing. It helps to interrupt the cycles of abuse and neglect that lead to broken families, expulsion from schools, unstable employment, prison time, and out-of-wedlock kids who will face similar challenges. It helps bring about important, life-improving behavioral changes. In the places where TRBI has been adopted, including large school districts, TBRI has made a big difference.

My wife and I learned about TRBI when we were looking for help in parenting a child we adopted. Our parenting strategies that had worked well for our other kids, have not worked well with this kiddo. So over the next few months, even as we explore other possibilities, we are trying to master the fundamentals of trauma-informed care through TBRI and give it a solid chance in our home.

To start learning the fundamentals, we downloaded and listened to most of the 2018 Empowered to Connect conference. This conference provided an overview and some encouragement, but we needed something a little more direct and systematic. So we are currently working our way through this excellent self-guided video course with some coaching support from Mario Sanchez, a licensed counselor and TBRI practicioner in Tucson.

As we learn, I’ll post occasional notes on our learning adventure here.

I’m not sure where this will lead or how much TBRI will help our family, but I do know that as we seek to learn what we can from the research into human development and the thoughtful moral applications of others, we can’t take our eyes off God. In everything we must depend on his grace alone, trusting in his wisdom and power, not ours. So this, from Psalm 74, is my prayer:

Have regard for the covenant, for the dark places of the land are full of the habitations of violence. Let not the downtrodden turn back in shame; let the poor and needy praise your name.

Mercy and Empowerment

This is entry 2 of the blogchain TBRI.


When my wife comes home with groceries in the car, the kids and I will help her unload them and bring them into the house. Even the littlest ones participate.

And while I like to challenge them—”Do you want to try and carry that milk by yourself?“—I’m careful not to overburden them. I also empower them to fulfill their task. If it’s dark outside, I can turn on a light. If an item is fragile and unusual, I can show them how to hold it. If it’s a large bag of dog food, we can carry it together.

The Bible says that God has compassion on his children in a similar way.

“As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Yahweh shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13–14).

“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

TBRI teaches that this principle of mercy + empowerment must undergird the things we ask of kids from hard places. As, I believe, it must undergird all our expectations of others, no matter the kind of relationship (cf. 1 Peter 3:7).

If you owned a trucking company, would you ask a driver to drive if he hadn’t slept for 24 hours? It wouldn’t matter whether the lack of sleep was the driver’s fault or not, you simply wouldn’t require someone to drive who didn’t have the necessary sleep.

Likewise, if a child’s brain is filled with stress hormones—whether you think it should be or not—it’s not right time to have a reasoned discussion about why one shouldn’t flip out over a broken crayon. The driver must sleep before he can drive; the child must calm down before he can reflect.

Getting kids from hard places to do the things they need to do can sometimes feel impossible, and sometimes it is impossible. That’s why getting really good at mercy and empowerment is essential for me.

It has to start with the right attitude. Remembering how merciful God is with me ought to help. And learning more about the effects of trauma is also key. Empowerment is about first knowing what’s going on in a person and then accommodating accordingly, especially according to grace.

Essential Skills and Beliefs for TBRI

This is entry 3 of the blogchain TBRI.


After working my way through an online TBRI course, I’ve concluded that there is an essential set of skills and beliefs that TBRI rests on. I doubt the importance and veracity of a few things it promotes, and I think TBRI neglects the most important element of bad behavior: Sin. But I find the following list of core skills and beliefs that TBRI promotes to be true and very beneficial.

  • For kids, you should normally aim for a connected, playful level of engagement. (I’d guess something similar is probably true for adults.

  • Achieving and maintaining this kind of engagement requires both proactive and responsive strategies.

  • Care for the whole person. This is related to mercy and empowerment. A person’s needs are physical and non-physical. Responsive correction is most effective when a person is empowered and connected. 

  • It is important to be present and mindful of your own needs, as well as the needs of the person you are trying to help. Long-term success depends on it.

  • Learning works well in a calm, alert state. Respond to bad behavior, but use proactive strategies too.

  • Be deliberate and clear about your level of expectations; be ready to raise and low the bar as needed.

  • Teaching how to use words to solve conflicts is a good idea. Learning to use words well empowers us to solve conflicts in good ways and reduces dependence on ineffective and destructive strategies.

  • Remember that with people from hard places, co-regulation is often necessary before self-regulation is possible.

  • Remember that just because someone is safe doesn’t mean they feel safe. Stress hormones, for example, don’t magically disappear just because someone hears “get over it.”

  • Learn and use I.D.E.A.L responses, which requires knowing how to escalate the level of response and how to get back to connected, playful engagement.

This list is a high bar for those who aim to be helpers. And it doesn’t even include the spiritual needs of a person, which must also be considered. But putting these things into practice is important and worth the effort.

Empowering Things that Have Helped Our Kids

This is entry 4 of the blogchain TBRI.

Meeting the physical and connection needs of a person—big or little—can help with a wide range of behavior problems and other challenges. Here are some things TBRI suggests that have been helpful to my family.

Physical Needs

  • Give healthy food every two hours.
  • Keep hydrated.
  • Learn and practice deep breathing. (I like the idea of “bubble breaths” and “smell the pizza”, which I learned of elsewhere.
  • Use sweet smells and tastes to calm down. Purvis suggests putting cotton balls in a film roll container (if you can find one!) with a drop of vanilla.
  • Have regular physical activity like walking, running, dance.
  • Build in regular mini-moments of exercise like a quick set of push-ups or a few laps around a basketball court.
  • Build self-awareness. How is your egine running? If it’s running to fast, what can you do to calm down? Running too low, what can you do to rev it up? Running just right? Great!
  • Chew gum.
  • Suck water out of a water bottle.

Connection Needs

  • Watch carefully for physical signs of stress (shallow breathing, tight hands, dilating pupils, tight face). They are feeling stress and will probably react soon.
  • Watch the environment carefully. Is something overwhelming, too loud, going on too long?
  • Ask, what does this child need right now?
  • Watch for physical signs of stress in yourself. Practice calm presence. This models and leads the way. Provides reassuring safety among other things.
  • Use valuing eye-contact. Can I see your eyes?
  • Use proximity, get close. Get down on their level. Time-ins instead of time-outs.
  • Take time together doing activities they enjoy. Purvis calls these “bridge activities”. Find a time and space the child enjoys. Use this to connect and practice good things.
  • Make sure to reconnect after coming down from a conflict. Let me see your eyes. I love you. What do you need? You can ask for a compromise.
  • Healthy touch is very powerful. Firm, calming touches that reassure love are huge.
  • Give full attention whenever possible. If not possible, give it for just a few seconds: I want to hear what you have to say, but I need to do X right now. Let’s talk about it when I’m doing Y.
  • Teach how to use words and listen well. Learn to use and teach them to use certain scripts. Practice with role play and mirrors.

A Toolbox of Helpful Phrases for Parents and Other Caregivers

This is entry 5 of the blogchain TBRI.


Words are powerful tools to help get kids back on the right track. So it’s helpful to have a toolbox of reliable phrases you can turn to again and again when responding to behavior problems or potential behavior problems.

The following phrases are recommended and modeled by Karen Purvis in these TBRI training videos, especially Chapter 4. Watch them if you can because it’s helpful to see these words used in real life.

I’ve separated them into engagement-types, but don’t be rigid. Many can be used in multiple categories, so be curious and try things. And remember to keep your relationship goals in mind in addition to your behavioral goals.

Level 1 (Playful Engagement) Words

  • “Would you please try that again with respect?”
  • “Let me see your eyes.”
  • “Give me eyes.”
  • “Try nice words.”
  • “Can you try that again?”
  • “Would you like a redo?”
  • “With respect.”
  • “Gentle and kind.”
  • “Use your words.”
  • “Are you asking or telling?”
  • “What do you need?”
  • “How’s your engine running, buddy?”

Level 2 (Structured Engagement) Words

  • “Sweetheart, you have two choices…”
  • “Sweetheart, if you’re asking for a compromise you need to do it with good words.”
  • “No hurts.”
  • “Listen and obey.”
  • “Can you calm your engine on your own or do you need help?”
  • “What did you do wrong? How could you do it right?”

Level 3 (Calming Engagement) Words

  • “Let’s (get and ice cream cone/do some art/take a nice walk) and talk about this.”
  • “You need to think about what you did wrong and how you can do it right. When you’re ready. You say ready. I’ll be right here.”

Reflecting on Attachment Theory in Light of Scripture

This is entry 6 of the blogchain TBRI.

TBRI is rooted in attachment theory, as seen in this animation.

I’ve done some more reading and thinking about attachment theory and it’s level of helpfulness in light of the Bible’s teaching. And I plan to share some of my conclusions thus far. But until then, here are some short essays worth considering.

The first is a careful and solid review of a popular book called God Attachment. The second was more enjoyable to read, though I wished it was more precise in a few places. It contains an overview of attachment theory ( the first does too) and several helpful theological observations.