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Risky Teen Behavior: Can You Trust Your Child Again?

by Janet Lehman, MSW
Risky Teen Behavior: Can You Trust Your Child Again?

Do you feel like your child has messed up so badly that you might never be able to trust him again? Has he wrecked the car, been caught drinking or using drugs, stolen something from school, or gotten involved in vandalism? As a parent, you are probably feeling hurt, embarrassed and disappointed—and you wonder, “Will I ever be able to trust my child again?”

A breach of trust usually happens when you’ve given your child some responsibility, freedom or privilege that he misuses or abuses. While your first reaction might be one of anger and betrayal, it’s important to remember that this is really not about you.  Even though it often feels personal, it’s not a reflection on you or your parenting.

You’re taking away freedom from your adolescent and it’s not going to be comfortable for them, but that’s the point. It’s not supposed to be comfortable.

Instead of personalizing your child’s mistake, take action and help him learn how to take responsibility. Here are 6 steps to follow when your child has broken your trust.

1. Try not to react emotionally: I can’t stress this one enough. Try to overcome your initial response to whatever your child did. It’s normal to feel personally violated by a breach of trust. But if you do get emotional, you might really lose the opportunity to teach your child how to make better decisions in the future. Instead of focusing on his faulty thinking, now you’re both locked in a power struggle. I’m not saying it’s easy to be objective—sometimes as a parent you have to be a really good actor to keep that emotional side from coloring what you’re going to do.

Related: Why you should focus on your child’s behavior instead of on his feelings.

2. Have a plan before you give consequences: If you find out your child has misused your trust—let’s say he snuck out of the house, took your car, and was drinking at a party—you need to have a plan before you issue consequences. You don’t have to react to the situation immediately; take a little time to put your plan together. If you issue consequences in the heat of the moment, you might over-react and give a “punishment” that teaches your child nothing.

3. Have your child write down the facts: If your child has done something wrong, first have him reflect on it. He could go to his room and write about what happened, for example. This should not be an account of how he felt at the time, but just the facts of what happened. It’s also a way of getting your child to begin taking some responsibility. [Editor’s note: This technique and others in this article are discussed fully in The Total Transformation Program.

4. Be a Detective: Meanwhile, you can act as a detective and get your facts together. That might entail calling other parents to see what they know about the incident. So if there was drinking at a party, find out who was involved and how far it went. Get all the details as a way to further hold your child responsible.

5. Listen to your child’s version of events: Once the facts seem fairly clear, you can have a discussion with your child and hear his side of it. Ask him to go back and talk about what he was thinking at the time—not what he was feeling. Focus on his faulty thinking. You might say, “So your friends were drinking and you were too embarrassed to say you’d never had alcohol before, so you went ahead and had a beer.” If he tries to blame his friends, say, “It sounds like you’re blaming your friends for the fact that you were drinking.”

6. Caution: Don’t blame or minimize: If you find out that your child has gotten himself in trouble, it’s important not to enable him by blaming others or minimizing the problem. Don’t make excuses and say, “The other kids talked him into it.” Remember, if you give in and enable your child, you’ll be teaching him not to take responsibility—and setting him up for problems down the road.

When Our Son Broke Our Trust

I’ll give you an example from my own life. When my son was in high school, he and his friends went out on Halloween and vandalized some street lights. Some of the kids were caught but our son got away. Afterward he was feeling terribly guilty, as children often do, and he confessed to us about two days later. Although it was difficult, we tried to not react emotionally to what happened or get overwhelmed with disappointment, anger and concern. (And, believe me, we were feeling all those things.)  First we put that plan into place; we focused on remaining pretty objective and neutral. Next, we had our son go and write the facts of what he’d done. While he was busy doing that, we got on the phone with the other parents. After we’d talked to them and heard our son’s version of the story, we had him take responsibility for his actions by calling the police and reporting the vandalism himself. In the end, he had to suffer the logical and legal consequences for his actions and then make amends. While it was painful at the time, he learned an important lesson.

Related: Learn the best ways to give consequences that will stick.

Serious, Risky or Dangerous Activities

If you catch your child doing something risky or dangerous, such as drinking and driving, I believe you have to respond to the seriousness of that action. The consequences you give should bring your child’s freedoms back to the basics. Car privileges should be revoked. You can give your child specific chores as a way to make some amends or take responsibility for what he did. In other words, give a “cost” to the offense. You can also take his cell phone away at any time; most parents are paying those plans. So in short, you’re taking away freedom from your adolescent and it’s not going to be comfortable for them, but that’s the point. It’s not supposed to be comfortable.

But remember, this is not about making your kid feel ashamed. It’s really about saying, “Having a car is a huge responsibility. Since you abused this freedom, you’ve lost the privilege to drive it.” The consequences have to do with freedom and responsibility, not shame. It doesn’t work for parents to try to make their kids feel ashamed or guilty, because it then becomes the parent-child conflict. Instead, you want your child to pay attention to the real issue at hand, which is their bad decision-making process.

When you talk to your child about it, say,We thought you could handle this amount of freedom, but this situation showed us that right now, you aren’t able to. So we’re going to go back to basics and you’re going to have to earn your freedom back. You’re also going to have to earn back the use of the car.”

Related: How to get your defiant child to listen to you.

For a time, your child will be expected to toe the line at home. During that time, you need to see how the consequences are affecting your child. Do they seem to be having an impact? Is there some remorse? If he behaves responsibly and does what you ask, you might consider allowing him to earn some of his freedoms back.

Remember, when you give privileges back, it should be in small steps. The first step might be, “You can have the car to drive yourself to and from school. If you do that for X amount of time without any problems, we’ll let you take the car to a game. If you do that for X amount of time, you can earn one weekend night. But then you have to come home at an earlier curfew for awhile.” So you are reinforcing your rules and you’re watching how your child responds to those rules—and giving him back his freedom one bit at a time.

The consequence you give needs to be time-limited; it can’t last forever. Each step should be a significant enough period of time so it’s both meaningful and achievable by your child. (This also depends on what he did wrong, of course.) There should be time limits on these steps and your child should be building from the least amount of freedom to more freedom. So instead of grounding your child indefinitely, take away his freedom and require him to earn it back in a responsible way. As my husband James always said, “Grounding kids just teaches them how to do time.” It’s much more effective to teach him how to behave better while he’s paying the price for his bad choices.

Checking up on your child: dealing with lingering mistrust

Many parents deal with lingering resentment and fear after their child has broken their trust. They might check their child’s drawers and clothes all the time and wait up all night for them. They become consumed with the thought that their kid is going to screw up again, and it eats them up inside.

I think it’s okay to just acknowledge that you’re going to have certain misgivings about your child. Don’t beat yourself up, just name it and acknowledge it. Again, it’s really not about you—it’s about the poor decision your child made in that moment. Keep giving back freedom in small steps, and acknowledge when your child has met his responsibilities. Allow him to build the trust back and be open to seeing him do the right thing. Look for the positives rather than always looking for the negatives. This may be really hard, but make the effort—and tell your child when you see him doing something right.

Will I ever completely trust my child again?

Sometimes, parents who have been in this situation ask me, “Will I ever be able to completely trust my child again?” My answer is simple: “No. As long as your child is going through adolescence, you won’t be able to trust him 100 percent of the time.” An adolescent's role is to push limits, so always consider that you’re not going to know the whole story as a parent.

Here's the deal: When your child engages in risky behavior, try not to react from an emotional place. You are not your child’s friend—rather, you are his coach and mentor.  As his coach you will need to set those limits consistently and follow through in order to teach him how to be a responsible, accountable adult. And remember, seeing your child take responsibility for his actions is really the first step toward rebuilding trust. 

Make sure you have your own support system to help you get through the hard times. This could be your spouse, partner or a group of friends who are positive people and not into creating drama. It’s important to take care of yourself because parenting is the hardest job you will ever have. While you won't always feel good about how you've dealt with issues with your child, if you keep doing what needs to be done and don't take his behavior personally, you will know that you've done your best—and you’ll be able to move on to whatever is ahead. 

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Janet Lehman, MSW has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years and is the co-creator of The Total Transformation Program. She is a social worker who has held a variety of positions during her career, including juvenile probation officer, case manager, therapist and program director for 22 years in traditional residential care and in group homes for difficult children.


Our son got into serious legal trouble a week prior to his 17th birthday last year. He had run away for 5 months prior to being caught out of refusal to comply with house rules & expectations. Our lives were spiraling out of control and the Total Transformation Program saved our sanity, possibly our marriage, and our relationship with our son. Although it's been 7 months since he's been home, and his attitude toward life and his family is positive, I struggle daily with not trusting him completely. I ask myself, "Yeah, but what if he's lying to us?" Janet has answered this for me now: As long as your child is going through adolescence, you won’t be able to trust him 100 percent of the time. I just have to stick to the techniques, pray for him, and stop obsessing about whether or not he's lying. The biggest struggle has been not taking it personally (I'm still working on this), and allowing his behavior to be a reflection on me. I don't know another Mom who's been as engaged and relentless about his success, only to have this happen, and I have taken it personally for YEARS. To help him and save our relationship, I've had to retrain my brain and emotions. I'm still a work-in-progress. Thanks & so much love to James and Janet; I'm so thankful to have found you both.

Comment By : trowbee

Thanks for the information. It's worth sharing with other parents.

Comment By : AK

In reading the article many of the situations are very much the same in every school we service depending on the degree of each case we manage. Most families end up either angry, dissapointed and sometimes betrayed. There for they may look for antoher venting avenue elsewhere may share the problems with people they can trust. We feel that every student deserves to be heard if they feel they cannot approach their parents about their own behaviors. This can cause great stress on parents and for some they just simply throw in the towel.

Comment By : Island Families

I am so happy to have found "Empowering parents web page. So far, I am impressed and excited to see that i am not alone in my delimmawith my 17 year old son; although frankly, at times that's how I feel. I can relate to the writer Trowbe who expressed her feelins in the Reader's Comments section because I feel exactly the same way. A mother's love is forever, and it's hard when the child youare trying to protect doesn't understand or frankly don't care. Thank you

Comment By : threeplumes

I have been scouring the web for just this kind of advice. I caught my daughter in some risky internet behavior. And did not feel comfortable in talking to friends and family about how to handle it. The punishment part was easy, it's how to handle things afterward. I really appreciate your words of wisdom. thanks so much

Comment By : olivefrm

My 17 yr old continually lies, smokes weed, runs away on the weekends and school holidays, and ditches class. He comes home and acts as if nothing is wrong with his behavior. when we talk to him he tells us he will not do it anymore he will go to school, stop smoking, etc... only to turn around an walk out again. He comes and goes as he pleases. We have taken away his phone, car, ipod, money, bike, skateboard and have called police when he leaves. There is no fighting that goes on he just knocks at the door and says he wants to come home now and then apologizes and tells us whatever else he thinks we want to hear and moves on with his life. We have had him in drug and alcohol counseling and regular counseling he goes with no hesitation or complaint (if he is here) and participates and tells them exactly what they want to hear and then bam! gone again out partying and doing what he wants until the party is done and he wants to come home again. We seriously don't know what to do! The police, school counselors, regular counselors all tell us we are great parents and keep doing what we are doing BUT I DON'T FEEL LIKE A GREAT PARENT WHEN MY KID IS OUT OF CONTROL AND WALKS ALL OVER US AND THERE IS NOT A THING WE CAN DO ABOUT IT!!!

Comment By : justathought

please advise I recently discovered my 16 yr old carrying a forged health card, which is a legal document in the country we live in. It had a picture of her, but she had changed her last name and date of birth. When we confronted her, she laughed and said, they use it to access movies and concerts. We are horrified as we have never been in trouble with the law, and done anything so blattant. Kindly advise how to handle the situation and the implications if shes carrying this around, should we take it to the police

Comment By : Shanel

* Hi Shanel. It’s certainly frustrating when you discover that your child is engaged in behavior that is so much against your family values, as well as illegal. It’s hard to know if your daughter is really using it for what she says or if she is using it to participate in more serious activities that are off limits to minors. You can certainly go to the police if you want to, or you can hold her accountable at home. You might reiterate to her that fake IDs are not allowed for any reason and if you find another, you will turn it in to the police. For now, you could destroy the one she has and monitor her social activities more closely for a while as a consequence, until you are sure she is not engaging in any risky or unsafe behaviors. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

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risky teen behavior, trusting your child, teen trust, serious misbehavior, drinking, drug use

Responses to questions posted on are not intended to replace qualified medical or mental health assessments. We cannot diagnose disorders or offer recommendations on which treatment plan is best for your family. Please seek the support of local resources as needed. If you need immediate assistance, or if you and your family are in crisis, please contact a qualified mental health provider in your area, or contact your statewide crisis hotline.

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