By Meghan Vivo
Slamming doors, screaming voices, sulking faces – what does broken trust look like in your home? For many, it’s an ongoing cycle – the teen lies, breaks curfew, experiments with drugs, or gets into trouble at school. The parents respond with guilt trips, threats to take away privileges, and violations of their child’s privacy. Both sides feel trust has been broken beyond repair.
Trust is a fundamental building block of parent-child relationships, especially as children develop into teenagers. “In general, trust is broken when a parent or teen acts in a way that doesn’t meet the other’s expectations,” explains PJ Swan, LPC, Director of Family Services at SageWalk The Wilderness School. “Both parents and teens break the other’s trust when they engage in outbursts or temper tantrums, guilt trips, or threats of any kind. Parents lose their child’s trust when they fail to set and enforce limits and when they resort to snooping or spying to learn about their child’s life.”
Trust is a two-way street. In order to gain their parents’ trust, teens have to demonstrate a pattern of trustworthy behavior. Every time a child follows a rule or meets their parent’s expectation, the baseline trust and respect expand. “The key is remembering trust builds slowly and can be broken down easily,” Swan advises. “For every five times you do the right thing, it only takes one poor decision to undo the trust you’ve built.”
Just as every child wants to be trusted, every parent needs to earn their child’s trust. A parent builds trust every time he treats others with respect, follows through on a commitment or promise, or stands firm in setting and enforcing boundaries. “This doesn’t necessarily mean your children will ‘like’ you or treat you like a friend,” Swan warns. “But trust has little to do with how much we like someone or their decisions. Rather, it is the firm belief in the honesty and reliability of another person. That’s what being a parent is all about – giving a child what they need, not necessarily what they want.”
With years of experience working with families, PJ Swan has put together the following steps parents can take to rebuild trust after it has been broken.
Step 1: Open the lines of communication
“Ask your child open-ended questions about what trust is, how it was broken, and what steps can be taken to rebuild those bonds,” recommends Swan. “Rather than assuming everyone knows what trust is, decide collectively on a family definition of trust, try to understand each other’s perspective, and clear up any misunderstandings up front.”
Families should discuss the fact that trust is a two-way street and that both parent and child have responsibilities in the process of reconnecting. As the family negotiates the rules and boundaries, schedule regular meetings to discuss your progress and evaluate any setbacks.
Step 2: Explain the benefits
When parents trust their child, everyone benefits. “Since teens tend to be somewhat self-absorbed, you may need to explain the concrete ways in which a trusting relationship will benefit your child,” says Swan. For example, a teen may earn greater privileges like a later curfew, permission to drive the family car more often, more time with friends, or the freedom to go on that trip he has been planning. “By explaining how trust is relevant to him, how it can make life at home more peaceful and supportive, and how it can improve his life in general, he’s more likely to stay motivated to do the hard work.”
Step 3: Create a roadmap for success
Telling a child to “act her age” or “do the right thing” won’t give her the information she needs to win your trust. Instead, give her specific benchmarks that will help her meet your expectations. Explain that while behaviors like cursing, slamming doors, ignoring homework assignments, and talking back will diminish trust, behaviors like finishing chores on time, getting good grades, and calling to check in at a designated time will increase trust.
Step 4: Give positive reinforcement
When your child meets your expectations, verbally reinforce those positive behaviors by acknowledging her efforts. Show your appreciation with a simple “thank you” or pat on the back, and offer additional privileges and rewards as she becomes more trustworthy. By giving positive feedback, your child sees that you, the parent, are willing to do the work, and she will feel encouraged to behave responsibly.
Remember, there will always be bumps in the road to rebuilding trust. The family may be making progress and suddenly something happens to break trust down again. The ups and downs are all important parts of the process, and even small failures can result in stronger bonds. “Sometimes teens need to take one step back before taking the next step forward,” says Swan. “For the family’s sake, both parents and teens need to be willing to try and try again.”
Step 5: Trust yourself
Parents are in the best position to know what’s right for their children. Even if both parent and child are working hard to rebuild trust, both parties must set reasonable expectations of themselves and others. Trust grows slowly, piece by piece, with every good decision that is made.
“Trust-building is not an end in and of itself,” says Swan. “It is an ongoing process of renegotiation and personal and collective growth that is required in every relationship. With communication, patience, and a little faith, you can replace past hurts with loving bonds and hope for a more fulfilling relationship.”