Give Teens the Opportunity to Regain Trust
Don’t be shocked if the thought “What were you thinking?!?” occasionally runs through your mind as your child travels through adolescence. Remember that adolescents are trying to figure out who they are. To do this, they sometimes push their limits. Without the space to explore, they would never figure out their strengths and limitations…or be ready for the challenges ahead. Our challenge is to allow adolescents developmentally appropriate opportunities for exploration, while keeping them within safe and morally appropriate borders.
Sometimes, our teens stray beyond our rules. We must respond with appropriate discipline and guidance to make sure they learn and grow from their mistakes. The topic of discipline is covered in greater depth in other articles. Here we want to focus on making sure that relationships with our teens remain unshakably strong — even when they have pushed our limits of disappointment, anger, or even fear.
When your child endangers her safety, jump in as quickly and definitively as you did when she was ready to run into the street when she was two or put her hand on the stove at three. Your actions must be immediate. Then later explain them as a matter of safety. “No! You may not leave the house and get into a car with friends who have been drinking.” If you don’t learn of a dangerous choice until after it was made, it’s your job to ensure it is not repeated. Flexibility or understanding are not options when safety is at stake. “No, you may not use the car until I am certain you will never again drive after you’ve been drinking.” “The answer is no. You may not go to the party after the state you came home in last weekend.”
We do the right thing when we apply strict rules around safety.
However, most discipline is carried out in circumstances far less clear. For example, you might say something like, “Your grades are slipping and we want to make sure you have the best chance of success. You can’t go out tonight until your homework is done. And, you must be home at 10 o’clock, so you get enough rest for school tomorrow.” The key to to discipline is that our children learn from the experience. They won’t learn if they believe our choices were made without thought or were meant to be controlling rather than protective.
Discipline Means to Teach or to Learn
“Discipline” means to teach or to learn. It does not mean to punish or control. It is for this reason that consequences must match the mistaken action. When the consequence is unrelated to the problem behavior, many adolescents will not make the connection between their behavior and your restriction and therefore won’t grow from the experience. When the consequences are unduly harsh, the adolescent feels victimized. Rather than teaching, you have punished. Young people resent the person who punished them. And they have learned little.
The biggest problem may not be resentment, it could be growing distance between us. We discipline out of our love for them and our responsibility to shape them to become successful people and contributing members of society. How do they figure this out? We tell them. As we give consequences we remind them our goal is to protect them because we care about them and want to shape them into people who know how to make wise choices. It is vital they know our actions are taken out of concern for them, not because we don’t trust them. In this way, effective discipline can bring you closer.
During the most challenging times, remind yourself that these are the moments we must draw even nearer. Young people may be angry in the moment. But they appreciate our involvement and guidance — when they know its intention is to keep them safe and to guide them them into becoming the good people we trust they are capable of being.
Our Children Care — Even When it Seems They Don’t
Our teens want to have healthy relationships with us. As parents, we know that healthy relationships keep them on a positive path towards adulthood. The worst possible outcome of a mistake or bad choice our children make would be a damaged relationship.
If teens think a relationship is permanently harmed, they may think they have lost the supportive relationship that is so important to them. This can lead to them thinking they have nothing to lose by continuing to behave badly.
Living Up or Down to Expectations
Here’s the bottom line: Young people tend to live up or down to the expectations we hold for them. This does not mean that if you expect an “A” they will get an A, or if you expect them to score a touchdown they will. Rather it means that young people yearn to be valued, to be noticed, to be viewed as good people. The most protective force in our children’s lives is our expectation that they be their best selves – people of good character. This expectation can’t be concocted from nowhere, rather it is rooted in seeing our children and adolescents for who they really are – as they deserve to be seen, not based on a current behavior.
Once our adolescents believe that we expect them to be trouble or consistently disrespectful or inherently risky, we lose the protective force of our relationship. Let’s be realistic. Sometimes it is more fun in the moment to do the wrong thing. It may get the most attention from peers. Especially if their current behavior draws welcome attention from peers or offers intense pleasure, they will continue along this path if they no longer have the counterbalancing pull to please you. You never want your child to feel she has already lost your respect or knowledge that she is a good person.
If you play the, “I’m not angry, I’m disappointed” card it can backfire by generating guilt and anxiety. It might generate so much internal turmoil in your teen that she will invest heavily in pretending she doesn’t care. If you focus mostly on your teen’s unacceptable behaviors, rather than on all that is good about him, he may learn the way to get continued attention is to repeat the behaviors that get him attention. If you become used to the behavior and have grown to accept it, he may learn to ratchet it up a notch if he believes only worsening behavior will be noticed.
See the Behavior as a “Mistake” Not a Reflection of Who Your Child Has Become
Remember that the person in front of you who may have enraged you is the same person you cherished from the day she was born. Use these wonderful memories to remind you of who your child really is. This will change the frame from which you approach her.
- “You have always cared so much about fairness. I remember when ______________. I am going to ask you to use that commitment to fairness now to ________________.”
- “Ever since you were little, you always cared about protecting others. I remember when ____________. Now I am going to ask you to protect yourself by __________________.”
Take Home Points
- You can reject a behavior entirely, while fully embracing the person who made the mistake. Never believe your child has changed.
- People can do the right thing when they know they already possess the capacity to do so. Let your children know they have the answers within them.
Allow a Clear Path to Regain Trust
It is appropriate to give consequences that keep your child safe and allow her to learn a valuable lesson. However, your teen must know that restrictions are temporary, and that if she does the right thing in the future they will be lifted. Otherwise, she will find a way around them. Perhaps she’ll lie, so you won’t know what she is really doing. Worse, she will learn that she can ignore your restrictions.
The message you want to send is:
“My goal is for you to become the wonderful person I know you are destined to be. To get there, you will make mistakes as we all do. These mistakes do not define you or make me love you even the slightest bit less. But it is my job to protect and prepare you. Privileges are earned with responsibility. You have temporarily lost a privilege because of your behavior. Let me be clear about what I need to see to believe that you are ready for this privilege again.”
Our Youth Advisory Board has prepared a piece for your adolescent titled “Getting Parents to Trust You Again After You Made a Mistake.”
You might also develop an Adolescent Responsibility Contract, which involves sitting down with your teen to “negotiate” precisely how to regain privileges. This strategy can be used with tweens or early teens to help them understand the clear linkage between demonstrated responsibility and earned privileges. You’ll likely find that they feel excited by participating in this exercise. If you start it early, it will set the tone of how you link responsibility and privileges throughout adolescence. Your older teen may be less enthusiastic about periodically revisiting or updating the contract. However, you’ll find it most useful with your older teens as a tool to generate the path towards regaining your trust.
Be a Unified Front
There is a very good chance that your child’s other parent/guardian may not (initially) be on the same page with you. Remember this is a time people must come together because the stress of the situation can easily push us apart. Especially during behavioral challenges, we must be on the same page. Otherwise, one parent will easily become labeled as nice while the other one is seen as overly controlling. This is how families break apart. It’s also the starting point for adolescents to learn manipulative behaviors.
Different people often disagree. But come together before you present a unified plan to your child. Together make these key points. You both:
- Love your child
- Want her to be safe
- Care that he has the kind of character that will assure happiness and success in the future
- Disapprove of the current mistaken behavior
- Have agreed on this consequence
- Continue to see her as a wonderful person who has always (fill in the blank /examples: always been so caring, loving, dependable, thoughtful, insightful) and this mistake does not change that in even the slightest way
- Know that he will again completely re-earn your trust
- Want to sit down with her to come up with a strategy where she can prove that she has learned a lesson and will demonstrate her growing responsibility and independence
Parents Need Time-Outs Too
You are not a robot. In heated moments of anger or extreme disappointment you will not be able to calmly execute any of these strategies. Give yourself a break, parents need time-outs too. Feel free to say “I am so angry now, that I can’t think straight. For now, I must keep you safe so you can’t do _______. After we’ve both had time to think this through we will come back together and talk about what happened and come up with a strategy for you to re-earn this privilege—I love you, and I am so glad that you are safe now. Let’s keep it that way.”