What to do when your teen breaks your trust

It's common for teens to lie to their parents or want more privacy from them. It does not have to mean the end of the world for you

Mother fed up of teenage son

We’ve all heard the phrase that “being a parent is tough”. It’s probably more cogent to say being a parent to a teenager is tough. Learning how to manage your own needs versus the needs of a growing child can be hard to envision. Before we even begin looking at what parenting a teen looks like, let’s look at what is unique about a teenager’s life.

Even at a glance, teenagers are in a constant process of change. They are growing both emotionally and physically; they are learning to develop an individual identity; discovering their interests; have more rigorous classes to keep up with in school. To an adolescent, that’s quite a lot of things to go through at once. Recognising that a teenager is experiencing all of the above can be a significant reason for establishing trust in the parent-child relationship.

What is trust?

Simply put, trust is viewed as one’s belief or confidence in another person’s general reliability, dependence or ability to accomplish a task. Even though trust is often seen as one person trusting another, it is always a two-way street. When built, trust is a mutual agreement and when broken, it is a rupture in the relationship. However, no matter how it is established, it can take just one poor decision to undo it. Instead of reacting to the trust-breaking action, parents need to recognise the situation and open new lines of communication to rebuild trust with their teen. Just like trust building is a collaborative process, so is trust repairing.

Even though trust is often seen as one person trusting another, it is always a two-way street

ay and his parents had an agreement that Jay will study hard and get good grades in school. His parents trusted him to manage his time wisely, complete his assignments on time, and study. After one particularly difficult exam, Jay’s parents are notified from the school that he has been caught cheating in class and has been given a failing grade for not only the test, but also the class as a whole. Once his parents hear the news, they are shocked, confused and hurt that their son would ever do something so dishonest. They feel betrayed that Jay broke their trust and wonder whether they had been overly permissive as parents.

A [mindful] plan of action

First of all, remember that when trust is broken, a relationship is damaged but not destroyed. Like most things that are damaged, initiative can be taken to repair and rebuild.

Step 1: Get in touch with your emotions.

After realising that your teen broke your trust, you need to get in touch with your feelings. The best way to be mindful in the moment is to stop and ask yourself questions about your emotional experience. Ask yourself: “What am I feeling right now?” Give yourself time to bring your emotions into your conscious awareness. You may be feeling angry, ashamed or worried. Allowing for a mindful, non-judgmental noticing of your feelings is the first step to not reacting to whatever your teen did to break your trust. Reacting on your anger without awareness of the feeling can result in parental decisions that further hurt the relationship with your child.

Step 2: Notice your emotional action urge.

In order to continue your stream of mindfulness, bring into awareness what your emotion urges you to do. Ask yourself, “What does this feeling make me want to do?” Getting in touch with this urge is extremely important since the purpose of encouraging your teen to rebuild trust is to not engage in this emotionally-driven impulse.

Allowing for a mindful, non-judgmental noticing of your feelings is the first step to not reacting to whatever your teen did to break your trust

Step 3: Look at initial outcomes.

“What sort of outcome would this emotional urge lead to?” The purpose of this step is to realise that acting on your initial emotional reaction can possibly lead to harmful consequences for you and your teenager. By allowing time to explore these outcomes, you give yourself the ability to brainstorm new ways of approaching the situation.

Step 4: Brainstorm alternatives and collaborative conversations.

Now you can brainstorm new strategies and alternatives. Come up with a plan before you speak to your teen. Firstly, avoid using loaded statements such as, “I’ll never trust you again”. Instead, communicate by listening to your teen’s story. Listening to his/her story may give you a different perspective on why it happened. Find a balance between blaming your teen for his/her mistake and minimising his/her actions. Acknowledge together that your teenager is taking responsibility for his/her actions. Your role, as a parent is to encourage rebuilding by asking your teen what you can do to help. Come up with specific goals that both you and your teen can do to reconcile this breach of trust. This way you collaboratively make amends and allow your teen to feel supported and motivated for the future.

Your role, as a parent is to encourage rebuilding by asking your teen what you can do to help

The role of positive reinforcement

After having your collaborative conversation, encourage and positively reinforce any future rule-following or trust-building behaviour in which your teen engages. Be sure to let him/her know that you are willing to support and reward responsible behaviour.

Jay’s parents are aware that they feel personally hurt and betrayed by Jay’s actions at school. They notice that this hurtful feeling is making them want to act from a perspective of anger since they feel violated from his breach of trust. They blame themselves for possibly being too permissive with him in the past, and they notice the urges to yell, scream and blame him for his dishonesty. By taking the time to recognise their emotions and urges, Jay’s parents realise the possible outcomes of following through with their urges. By yelling at and blaming Jay, they will lower his self-esteem and cause him to possibly distrust or even withdraw from them in return. After brainstorming, Jay’s parents decide to talk to Jay about what happened. Keeping in mind any urges to yell or shout at him, they instead decide to listen to his story. They ask him, “What can we do to help so that this does not have to happen again?” Together, Jay and his parents work collaboratively to set goals, study routines and leisure time so that he is better prepared and less stressed for future exams.

Finally, remember that your teenager will make mistakes. As long as your teen keeps growing, he/she will continue to push your boundaries. From a teenager’s perspective, some of the most transformative experiences in their life are after parental reactions to these violations of trust. Keep in mind that rebuilding trust is not a burden that needs to be placed only on you or only on your child.

This was first published in the September 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Akshay Naresh
Akshay Naresh is a doctoral student in clinical psychology in Berkeley, California. He currently works as a student clinician at the Berkeley Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Clinic.


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