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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.

Try Not To React Emotionally To Your Child’s Behavior

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.

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Have a Plan Before Giving Your Child Consequences

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.

Have Your Child Write Down What Happened

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.]

Find Out the Details of the Event

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.

Listen To Your Child’s Version of What Happened

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.”

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Don’t Blame Other’s for Your Child’s Behavior

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.

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 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.

When Your Child’s Bad Behavior is Especially Serious, Risky, or Dangerous

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.

How to Deal 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 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.

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 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.

About

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™.

Comments (17)
  • Ossie Patton

    Risky teenagers has to have positive leaderships in their lives and has to be taught how to take on responsibility

    and to be responsible for their actions. Good Consequences plans have be implemented and parents have to stick to them and carry them out. Never provoke your child. Give them a chance to exercise their thoughts whether verbally or written

  • Thank you for your advice. It’s so hard to understand why my 16 year old breaks so many rules. It’s hard to know what to do. I appreciate your article
    Thank you
  • not my daughter
    I cant believe I am having to deal with this, I am ashamed, embarrassed and most of all, I'm hurt. My daughter is only 13.....she has sent some pictures to a few different boys that are in HS. One or both of them sent to someone else and know sheMore is famous..... I just don't understand, why? Why did she do this? She has a family that loves her so much. We do so much together. I feel like a complete failure as a mom.  Worst part is this isn't the first time. It happened about a year ago. Before that she was accused of doing something sexually with a boy in a video! Once the cops got involved he said it wasn't her. Which It wasn't. How do I know that? (I'm sure you are wondering) I don't let her go anywhere without me or her father or an adult. Of course now that she has sent new pictures the video rumor has resurfaced...  I honestly don't know where to go from here. I cant take her phone away because now I worry about her safety when she is at school now. I have locked out the apps and her camera! Her father and I are easy going, we have had many talks with her about this and explain to her the dangers and the fact that these photos are there in cyberland forever. Nothing we can do about it....
  • Happening now
    This is the best and most helpful article I have read on dealing with problem behaviors with teenagers. It does not blame the parent. It deals with the problem behavior in a straight forward and non emotional way. It gives weight to accountability. Thank you for this!!
  • Numila
    I am dealing with my three teenage kids ages 14, 17 and 18 who live with me fulltime, and reluctantly see my separated spouse intermittently.  My daughter 14, and son 17, have hosted large parties when I haven't been home, to include drinking and partying until 4 am.  When IMore have discovered this, I have problem-solved with them, counselled them about rules and expectations, have imposed consequences. However, my ex immediately lifts the consequences stating their remorse and regret is punishment enough. My efforts are met with scrutiny , criticism and ultimately my children seek her out in order to be relieved of their consequences. They learn nothing, and subsequently have repeated this risky behaviour. I am very concerned, and have now sought professional help in an effort to co-parent with aligned values and limits.  I am not sure my ex-spouse will attend given her own ideas about parenting. I am exhausted and feel devalued as a parent, and feel like I can't ever have a break away from the house for fear of ongoing misbehaviour,
    • Ossie patton
      Don’t be quick to act out emotionally to ur child’s behavior overcome you initial response to whatever the child did, being violated by the child’s breach of trust by acting out emotionally you could loose the opportunity to teach the child how to make better decisions. You should have aMore plan before the before setting consequence think about what you gonna do and what you going to say so the consequences can be effective. You can ask the child to write down his actions of what happened so he can see on paper and realize him taking responsibilities Do your investigation about the event, get all details this way, it holds the child responsible you want to listen to the child’s version of what happened and ask him what he was thinking about; not what he was feeling. Please don’t blame others for your child’s behavior because by blaming others if he’s in trouble it enables a child for future troubles and it won’t allow him to ever take responsibilities Allow the child to take responsibility of his own actions When a child does risky behaviors revoke all his privileges,assign specific chores and make some amendments Example take his freedom away as hanging out with friends, video games, etc design plans where he has to earn his freedom back. If the consequences working, make small steps in resuming his privileges back and acknowledge when the child has met his responsibilities allowing him to earn his trust back. Look for the positive and praise him when he does. Parents shouldn’t feel bad Parents should never feel bad when positive plans are set the the child. The child made the bad decision in that moment so don’t beat yourself up. A teenager can never be 100% trusted as long as they are adolescents
    • Jessy
      Awwww I blame myself too but I think kids get alot of self esteem for being cool and having parties. I had a babysitter once who had a flash party in my house and My friends moms saw pics of my house with over 70 kids in it, whileMore I went over to a friends house! I was so shocked she would do that, and my son was sleeping only a level up! ugh so she was a close friends daughter and i couldnt use her to babysit anymore and had to hire other people ---her mom was shocked too because she did it in my house, not hers lol so I guess, i feel your pain, but its not your fault, hun alot of kids have probably more positively rewarded your kids for the party so it was worth it, in their mind, but in the future, tell them your going out and come right back all the time so they get scared that you arent really gone.
  • Brenda2383
    I am currently feeling crushed by my almost 17 year old daughter who allowed her boyfriend to get her started using marijuana. Firstly I feel to blame for not steering her away from him (trouble) secondly for not noticing something was going on. She is an intelligent teenagerMore who used to feel that her boyfriend (ex now) was ruining his life by using. She couldn't stand the thought of cigarette smoking and damaging her body that way but now has been sucked into all of this behaviour. She swears she chose to do this and there was no peer pressure. Even if this is true I feel she felt her own pressure to fit in. She admits she has used more than once and that she drove high. We took her car priveldges away immediately but are now at the stage of giving it back slowly. I am overtaken with mis trust!!!! She comes in the house and I find myself checking her eyes and smelling her clothes. This is causing so much damage to our relationship I'm not even sure what to do anymore.
    • Evan

      @Brenda2383 It is draining to be sure. Did you find any help or strategies to deal with her? We are going through the same thing at 14going on 15 years old with our daughter. Says she will never stop smoking, doesn't care about what it does to her relationship with us. Loves her siblings but, doesn't Love us. Hates it when we tell her we love her and only want the best things for her. She is going down a deep dark path and keeps saying she can't wait to leave our home. Can't wait to be away from us. Scary thing is at 16 she can legally leave, where she would go, I dunno? 

      She claims her friends that live out on their own would support her but, I told her that only last so long.

      I want to simulate that for her, take away her internet, her food, her clean clothes and let her live hear, let her come and go as she pleases but, has to make and provide her own food. Which is impossible as she has no source of income.

      Just feel so lost. Tried calling a dozen support groups today and all I got was dead ends, voicemails, and groups to join. Why is there no immediate help?

      How do you help a child that doesnt' want help?

  • femiart
    We have a 16 year old daughter. Since the age of 7 she has exhibited concerning behavioral changes. We have been to doctors, counselors, talked to school counselors & the police, etc. It started with stealing things at 7, eating things like toothpaste, ketchup, sugar, etc. Then it progressed toMore setting up online profiles at age 10, including dating sites. Last year she was talking to a 50 year old male-potential predator through an App. Last night we found evidence that she is in online adult chat rooms & watching porn online. The things that concern us most is her denial, lack of remorse & lack of realizing the risks of her actions. We have had hundreds of conversations to try to understand what she's feeling, thinking, etc, things that may be troubling her, questioning if anyone had harmed her in any way, etc. We've literally begged her in tears to tell us how we can help her--assuring her that we are there for her. Over the years 2 Counselors said we were too strict, so we loosened up gradually on privileges as our daughter earned trust & responsibility. She has more freedom now than she ever has because we thought she was back on the right track...until we discovered the online adult chat rooms & pornagraphic video links, etc., through a periodic technology check. We still have limitations, rules, a phone contract, TV & computer usage restrictions, etc, but she finds a way to break or get around them. We have tried everything we know to no avail. We are scared to death that something awful is going to happen to her. The confusing thing is our daughter is an all A, honors, AP student, leader in school, an accomplished musician, outgoing, loved by teachers & friends, etc., but this other side of her has left us exhausted, confused & worried. We just don't know what to do at this point. ???
  • Kalee87

    Here is my siuation...

    I recently got engaged and my fiance told me that my ring got bent. He thinks that my 11 year old daughter had something to do with it. He showed her the ring, heard me coming and he hid it infront of her. Later he noticed it and has since got it fixed. He told me that she asked if he was going to propose and that he would be mad at her but did not give a reason to why. He thinks she might have tried to put it on and it got bent taking it off. She knows going in our personal space is off limits (it was hid in his top dresser drawer). So what would be a reasonable punishment for snooping and also messing up the ring??

    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      Kalee87 

      Congratulations on your recent engagement.  You ask a

      great question that we often receive from parents: what do you do about

      consequences when you are pretty sure that a child has broken the rules? 

      Something I recommend is having a conversation with your daughter which

      reinforces your house rules around not invading another’s personal space, and

      talking with her about what she can do if she is tempted to snoop. 

      Because you are not 100% certain that your daughter actually went through your

      fiancée’s dresser, nor that she was the one who damaged the ring, I wouldn’t

      recommend giving her a consequence.  This is because consequences could

      potentially do a lot of damage to your relationship with your daughter if she

      is, in fact, innocent and did not go through his things or bend the ring. 

      Thank you for writing in; take care.

  • Neat As

    My daughter is 14 nearly 15, all her friends are well behaved and their parents have the same guidelines as myself so I feel safe that at this point there's parental hovering still. Yet I've a friend who's daughters who's father had custody of her has been acting up terribly. Hanging out in the city, wandering the streets at night, getting drunk, smoking pot, cigarettes and being sexually active all starting at 13. Her behaviour was so bad she was expelled from her school. The mother has been given custody now, and has had issues herself. yet she allows her to go out all the time and works at night sometimes so during this time slot has total freedom. I've continuously stated to My daughter the only contact she'll have is within our home and never be able to leave the house with her and I don't think I feel comfortable with this. Due to this one single influence of description from this gurl child not blaming but My daughter has stated everyone gets drunk and smokes pot um I rally don't thinks so at 14 and says she wants to know what it feels like to be drunk and to smoke pot so now to me this shows she's not achieved any responsibility and any small steps into freedom are going to be ceased. Any ideas guys that doesn't involve me doing the whole I hate my teenage daughter show thing where they follow their daughter around spying.

    Must state My daughters are very open with me and we do get along very well, the fact she's sharing this with me I feel is a good thing yet bad I'm glad she's told me this. I fear if she's swinging to this interest she may stop telling me everything. Argghhh.

  • anti fatigue mats

    And that's exactly what happened. I'm so upset and disappointed and

    worried and scared!! I can't believe this happened. For the past 2

    months I've been talking to her about all these social media problems

    happening in high schools and middle schools and it really didn't make a

    difference. I don't know what I did or didn't do??? We deleted the

    account and the photos from her phone. But those pictures were sent to

    some random stranger and who knows where they may end up.

  • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

    Worriedskatermom

    It can be distressing to discover your child is sexually

    active. Often, there is a feeling of betrayal, as well as worry for possible

    negative consequences. I would encourage you to have an open discussion with

    your daughter about the situation so you can discuss with her your concerns as

    well as your expectations and family values. You may find this article helpful

    when planning out that conversation: What to Do When You Find Out Your Teen is Sexually Active. It’s understandable you would be angry with her

    partner. You trusted him and believed he wouldn’t betray that trust. I’m not

    sure how to separate the performing relationship from the behavior that has

    occurred. As with any behavior, you can have rules and expectations around the

    behavior but that doesn’t mean your daughter isn’t going to make the choice

    again. You can’t follow her 24/7 and you can’t keep her from making poor

    choices. There are some things that, as a parent, you’re just not going to know

    about. As difficult as that can be to accept, it can be helpful to remember a

    parent’s objective is helping your child learn the skills so she is able to

    make good decisions on her own. Having the conversations discussed above is one

    way you can do that. Hang in there. I know this is a really tough situation to

    be in as a parent. Good luck to you and your family as you work through these

    distressing circumstances. Take care.

  • j
    I love how the cild is only referred to as a male and te author is female.
    • Shesheb
      Maybe because she has a son?
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