One of the most difficult issues parents and caregivers face is when it feels like our children or teenagers have committed a serious offense. We may feel appalled at their behavior, that what they have done has significant impact. In our programs at Lakeside, we deal with teenagers who have had some really serious problems. We also see the consequences of these problems: the impact on family, friends, community and the child’s self-perception. So, what can parents do when trust is broken?
When trust is broken, it is a critical time
First, I have to say, no matter what your child’s age, when a serious offense occurs, it is a critical time in your child’s development. When a serious situation occurs, it indicates that your child is asking significant existential questions about purpose, meaning and values. Your child is also asking whether or not he/she can be forgiven.
Often, parents make the mistake of assuming kids are unaware of their impact because some have the ability to hide feelings or respond with blatant apathy or anger. In reality, many unseen but noteworthy emotions usually underlie their reactions.
Secondly, it is quite easy to personalize these issues as parents. In other words, we feel embarrassed, humiliated, offended—or even responsible—for what has happened. I think that is a very natural response. But when parents have those feelings persistently, I urge them to talk with someone who can offer an unbiased perspective.
Further, it helps to realize that our kids’ brains are still developing; so, they do things without considering the consequences of their actions. Indeed, they are high-risk creatures with little judgment, experimenting with boundaries, trying to be accepted by their friends, or just exploring life’s adventures.
And no matter how serious the offense, or how it impacts others, they still are vulnerable and need hope that they can recover. So you can see, the most important people in their lives during these times of questioning and seeking are parents and family members who are close to them.
Rebuilding trust and restoring relationships
Once we have recovered from the impact (or shock) of the trust-breaking incident, it is of paramount importance to create a new path to help our children rebuild their lives and restore their relationships.
Children and teens still need to be affirmed as individuals with worth. They need relationships that will openly discuss what happened and why. Then, they need someone to present an appropriate path to them that will allow them to make amends and rebuild trust.
Our society has a very punitive view of discipline. We tend to isolate teenagers who have committed serious acts and think that this type of punishment will somehow fix their behavior. This is rarely true.
Often, parents need a third party to help them with the process of rebuilding trust and restoring relationships. There may need to be a written and agreed-upon plan with an accountability structure in order to insure that the process is well-documented and implemented. Additionally, our kids will need to discuss their thinking as they walk through the process of restoration. The plan and process should be intentional, clear and compassionate to support them through the changes, emotions and losses.
Understanding the reality of consequences
Consequences is a principle that needs to be instilled at a very young age. Whether a toddler breaks a toy, an adolescent talks back to his/her parents, breaks curfew, or gets caught drinking and driving, there needs to be an understanding of consequences, making amends and restoring trust.
Blame, shame and similiar accusatory labels only worsen the situation and provide no hope for recovery. Mistakes should be used to help us learn and grow. I’ve witnessed some very serious issues become sources of restoration in families. Of course, the process was difficult but life-giving to the children and their parents.
Consistent effective discipline is the goal
On this note, I urge parents to always be looking for ways to provide consistent, effective discipline for your children. It can begin with simple I-Messages or be as significant the process of rebuilding trust.
Consistent, effective discipline provides our children and teens with the opportunity to grow and develop responsibly. Then, even if our kids have really blown it, they can recover, be productive, meaningful and successful—especially because an on-going, dynamic and supportive relationship with their parents contributes vitally to their emotional and relational health.
Thank you, parents, for your diligent work to help your children. I have such respect for the hard job that you have each day. Allow me to encourage you that your perseverence is worth it. You will be leaving a legacy of lives that you have nurtured through such vital years of growth and development to a healthy adulthood. Parenting is certainly an exciting adventure full of challenges, difficulties and huge rewards.
Gerry Vassar, President and CEO, Lakeside Educational Network