Rebuilding the Trust
When a Kid Messes Up
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
Sometimes your child commits an act which shakes you to your very soul. Perhaps your child has broken one of your explicit rules or has done a foolhardy act which put himself in great danger. Your first reaction may be anger. You may feel that he has betrayed you – turning against you and your values, the careful teachings you have brought him up with. You naturally feel a great disappointment in him but also in yourself for having raised a child who could do such a thing. Your confidence as being a worthwhile parent is undermined if you could produce a child that could commit such an act. Your complete confidence in him is shaken so badly that you wonder if you can ever trust this child to make worthwhile again. You feel a need to monitor his actions, to ground him and to keep tight rein over the possibilities of his future acts.
This is a very sensitive time for both you and your child. His emotions may be as high if not higher than yours. He may feel anger for being found out and embarrassment because you are now subject to what he thought was private to him. He may feel angry for not being allowed to make his own decisions and be rebellious. This is a dangerous time for him. He may completely withdraw from you. He may act out further — doing the very thing that you are objecting to! While you certainly have the obligation to express your disapproval and lay down the logical consequences of punishment and setting forth the guidelines for future behavior, you don’t want to do anything which will have the boomerang effect of more inappropriate behavior.
This is an extremely delicate time for the both of you because the previous trust that you felt towards your child has been violated. You can take steps to insure that in all your dealings with the child, you convey the attitude that he is a trustable human being. He is a person who is capable of making the right decisions for himself. This is difficult to do when you have a child who has not demonstrated this ability to you in the past. Try to convey the impression that his foolish actions are part of a phase, a part of growing, a part of learning to choose and to make decisions and simply a wrong decision at that time. Helping him see his mistake as part of the learning process will help him forgive himself for the misdeed and regain his inner belief of himself as being a worthwhile person.
What is the purpose of mistakes in our lives? Much of our learning does come from making a mistake; we try out a certain way to act and then suffer negative consequences. If we’re smart, we put the cause and effect together learning from them trying to vary our behavior in the future so that we get better consequences. Children who are brought up to believe that mistakes are made so that we can learn better ways to act in the future are more have better self esteem. With the philosophy of errors are made to be corrected, your child will be much more comfortable taking responsibility for his transgressions. You can instill in your child that he can learn from mistakes that he has made. You can ask him, Now, what have you learned? to determine if he sees cause-effect relationship.
Point out to the child when you make mistakes and how you resolve to change in the future. Learning from his mistakes will become a natural process for him. He will learn that it is allowable to make an occasional wrong decision as long as some positive comes out of it.
Allow your child to make mistakes and then learn from them. This says to him You don’t have to be perfect. Asking a child to be perfect is one of the biggest loads that parents can lay on an already confused youngster. By admitting our humanity as parents, by saying, “hey, I’m not a perfect person, sometimes I really goof up,” we allow our child the freedom to grow.
Children try on many ways to acting to see which ones fit them. The process of finding one’s own identity is to try many new behaviors and roles. Some will be good and some bad. Hopefully they discard the foolish, inappropriate ways – that is they will if parents let them. If we can show our trust that they have the intelligence and good sense to learn from their errors, they will come through to become the son or daughter that you expect them to be.
A child will become what the parent expects him to become. If the parent calls the child lazy, dumb, or a liar, a sneak, or a bitch, the child internalizes this negative label. He comes to believe he is that negative expectation that others place on him. That’s why it is important to distinguish between what the child did and what he is. Help him distinguish between the unacceptability of his actions and the acceptability of himself. For example, you might say, For a smart person, you did a dumb thing. You’re not dumb, but boy did you goof up!
Rebuilding of trust then is the goal for the parent and child. You could explain to your child that because of your disappointment it will take some time for him to rebuild the faith that you had in him. You can mention certain things that he can do to help rebuild that faith: being where he says he’ll be, doing what he says he will do, speaking the truth at all times, and staying away from the situations that caused him to get into trouble in the first place. Again, parental reinforcement is needed to further emphasize these positive new ways he is trying out. Statements like, You’re an alright kid. I knew I could count on you. You’re one person I can trust. I appreciate it when you are above board with me. This will help him realize the importance of keeping your word and doing what you say you will. With these positive techniques in mind, parents can breathe a sigh of relief and know that they are instilling in their child positive expectations for change.
Positive Predictions for Behavior Change
Always leave open the channel for change for your child. In every avenue; from your underlying subconscious thoughts to your direct conversations with your child. BELIEVE that this is a temporary stage in his life. That this is something he will outgrow; that he will change for the better.
You must communicate to him that you know things are tough at present but they will get better as he grows older. Things will change because he will make a conscious decision to change.
He will make this decision because it is right for him. Not because someone (Mom or family) wants it, but because it is time for him to move on … to grow.
He will make that decision for change when it is right for him, not when it is right for someone else. Only for himself, not for others … He will do it for himself alone. If others are negative in their opinion of him and want to assign a permanent label on him (dumb, criminal, irresponsible, or a failure), you must help him deal with these people. The danger is that he may accept their negative label of himself. That’s why you label his present state of mind a temporary one. You say, in effect, Sure you’re having trouble with school/friends/the law/drugs/etc. right now but a lot of people go through this. The difference is – you will change, you are strong enough and smart enough to get through this. You are too smart to keep doing some of the dumb things you’ve tried lately.
You recognize how hard the change will be for him and let him know you appreciate his effort. Growth and other important things in life never come easy. But whatever effort it takes, it is worth it … because he is worth it! He is worth everything it takes (money, resources, time, and effort) to get through that bad time of his life. The payoff is worth the price and you let him know it. It’s another way of saying, I value you — no matter what you are doing now; I still believe in your ability to change. You are my child and I will always stand by you during your rough times.
If he denies he has a problem put the responsibility back on him. Say, You may try to con me, but you can’t con yourself. Listen to your inner self. It will tell you what you need to know. A man who tries to fool himself is a fool. You’re too smart to be a fool. William Glasser’s book on Reality Therapy explains this concept well … no denials or excuses for bad behavior are accepted.
This is an attitude of optimism and hope that a parent can portray when all seems hopeless. By getting professional help for your child you are saying, I care. Through professional help (therapist, tutor, etc.) you give him the means to change. And the use of this attitude says to your child, I Believe in you. It’s a positive prediction for the future. You give him the attitude that positive change is possible. Say it over and over!