Trust is a valuable and fragile commodity. In the economy of family relationships, trust is both given and received as parents and teens gingerly pass it back and forth. When these trust transactions are handled properly, relationships grow and thrive. But Mom and Dad—don’t hold on to that commodity too tightly, because your teenage son or daughter will break it. It’s really not a question of “if,” it’s a question of “when.” At some point, you’ll place your trust in the hands of your teenage child, and they’ll drop it and shatter it into pieces.
I’m not just being dramatic here. After four decades of working with, talking and listening to teens and their parents, I know from experience that kids will make mistakes. Disappoint you. Maybe even break your heart. And this is regardless of temperament, personality, or even consequences. But if you’re prepared for having your trust broken, you’ll be miles of ahead of the parents who are still sitting there open-mouthed and shocked.
So how do you prepare and deal with the disappointment coming your way?
Keep the Relationship
Here are the usual responses I hear from parents when their teen blows it—
I can’t believe you didn’t know better!
I thought we had a good relationship!
I don’t know if I can ever trust you again!
How could you do such a thing? You know better!
I don’t know why you would disrespect me in this way.
These types of phrases express your emotions in the moment, but can be misinterpreted by your teen. When a child breaks your trust, don’t let the mistake interfere with your relationship. When you tell your son, “I thought we were close,” what he hears is, “Our relationship is ruined.” In your daughter’s mind, saying “I’m so disappointed with you right now,” is interpreted to mean, “I can’t love you.” Of course, as adults, we realize that teens may read something into our words that we didn’t put there. But perception is nine-tenths of reality. And caught in the moment when his mistakes are being unearthed, a teen may hear your words of anger and hurt as an indicator that he’s lost some of your love and compassion.
Always move towards your children, even when they have betrayed your trust. Explain clearly that there is nothing they could do to make you love them more, and nothing they could do to make you love them less. Don’t let their mistake impact the connection between you and your son or daughter. The best way to avoid this is to tell them openly—“I’m upset right now, but I want you to know, I love you. And nothing you can do will ever change that!”
Acknowledge the Pain
Just because you move toward your child when they break your trust, doesn’t mean you have to hide the pain. I get hurt by kids all the time. I’ve been lied too, stolen from, sworn at and used. I may put on a strong demeanor, but inside I’m crushed. There is no way to dull the pain when your teenager breaks your heart. So be disappointed. Be upset. Be angry, even. But talk to someone about what you’re experiencing. You can’t bottle up those emotions, and your child may not be able to handle hearing how they’ve injured you. Grab a spouse, a friend, a pastor or a counselor, and let them know, “what my child did really hurt me!” Get it out in the open and let those wounds heal in the clean air of a safe relationship. If you let your feelings fester inside you, the pain will build and you’ll slowly start resenting your teen for the mistakes they’ve made. Acknowledge the hurt and the frustration and deal with it, and you’ll have the emotional energy to return to your teen with love and grace.
Set Up Your Beliefs
Sometimes a child will break our trust without even knowing about it. It happens when we cling to unspoken rules or guidelines in the house, and expect our teens to instinctively understand them. Trust me; if that’s the way your home operates, you’ll find yourself disappointed over and over again.
Even if your child is 17 and ready to leave home, I recommend setting up a belief system for your house. Sit down and clearly define and discuss the rules and expectations every person in the house must adhere to. That includes curfews, dating parameters, the kind of language spoken in the house, and the use of social media. Openly state what you believe about honesty, respect, compassion and having fun with the family. Once you’ve set up your specific belief system, follow up by explaining some pre-determined consequences that will come into effect should those rules be broken.
This takes away the surprise when your teen strays out of bounds and has to deal with the results. Once household rules and beliefs are understood, the penalties won’t seem to come out of left field.
The kids at Heartlight understand that the rules we have in place are for their own protection and the safety of others. They also understand the consequences of breaking those rules. I have to stifle a laugh when a kid comes up to me and says, “Well, I know I have yard cleanup duty this week.”
“Why is that?”
“Well, because I was disrespectful to some of the staff.”
They may not like all the rules we have in place, but our teens don’t really complain about the results, because they knew ahead of time what was expected and what the consequences are should they go rogue.
Allow Dreams to Be Crushed
We all have hopes and aspirations for our children. No dad wants his daughter to be an unwed teen mother. No mom is hoping her son will spend some time in jail. Our dreams for our teens include visions of happy families, productive lives and meaningful careers. But sometimes when a teen breaks our trust, a dream may die. The goals we set for our son or daughter start to wither away. That’s a rather hopeless feeling, and it compounds the pain.
But Mom and Dad, let me encourage you to let those dreams die. God has a plan for your teen, and it may be radically different than what you had in mind.
I’ll always remember getting a call from my son telling me that he and his wife were getting a divorce due to an affair. My heart was crushed as I watched my son break not only my trust, but his wife’s as well. My dream for him was leveled in a few minutes on a brief phone call. But God redeemed my son, and now his ex-wife is married to a good man, my son is married to a lovely young lady, and I have some beautiful grandbabies to prove it!
Here’s the point: God can take your broken trust and crushed dreams and transform them into something beyond your wildest expectations. Maybe the life you envisioned for your son or daughter is not coming to pass. That’s okay. God is still in control, and He’s not finished with you or your child yet. Let go of those aspirations, and find hope in what God is doing in your teen’s life.
I wish I could give you practical steps to prevent your child from breaking your trust. But that is never going to happen. As parents, all we can do is prepare for and deal with mistakes as they happen; moving towards our children in the midst of the pain and allowing God to guide our future.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas. He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids. He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.
His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.org. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.
Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program. Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.