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 not about you. Even though it often feels personal, it’s not a reflection on you or your parenting.
Instead of personalizing your child’s mistake, take action, and help him learn how to take responsibility. Here’s what you can do when your child has broken your trust.
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 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 good actor to keep that emotional side from coloring what you’re going to do.
If you find out your child has misused your trust, you need to have a plan before giving consequences. Let’s say he snuck out of the house, took your car, and was drinking at a party. You don’t have to react to the situation immediately. Instead, take a little time to put your plan together. If you give consequences in the heat of the moment, you might over-react and give a “punishment” that teaches your child nothing.
Remember, there is a difference between a punishment and an effective consequence. If you are unsure of the difference, I urge you to read the following article: How to Give Kids Consequences That Work.
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. This technique and others in this article are discussed in-depth in The Total Transformation Program.]
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.
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 to him:
“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.”
If you find out that your child has gotten himself in trouble, don’t 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’re teaching him not to take responsibility—and setting him up for problems down the road.
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 felt terribly guilty, as children often do, and he confessed to us about two days later. Although it was difficult, we tried not to react out of disappointment, anger, and concern. And, believe me, we were feeling all those things.
Initially, 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.
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 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.”
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.
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 will 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 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 hard, but make an effort—and tell your child when you see him doing something right.
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 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.
Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.