Your Children Can’t Give Back the Trust You’ve Lost in Them

Mother hugs young teen as both laugh together while standing in field outsideIn my office, I hear angry parents snap in frustration at their kids. “You broke my trust!” “You have to earn my trust back!” “You’ve got to rebuild my trust!”

These parents are confused and overwhelmed. Most of them mean, “I feel hurt,” “I feel betrayed,” or “I’m disappointed.” Some mean, “I’m not responsible for my feelings, you are!” A few, who parent by retaliation, mean, “You upset me, so now I’m going to show you how it feels!”

Trust is an emotion, just like love, happiness, or sadness. “You need to rebuild my happiness,” “You broke my joy,” or “You have to earn my love back” would all obviously sound like making someone else responsible for your feelings. In my experience, it often seems harder for parents to be responsible for their own feelings of trust or mistrust than other emotions.

Because no one can truly be responsible for another person’s feelings, these parents are demanding that a child do something that is impossible to do. Trying to win their parents’ approval by controlling their emotions places a child in an impossible position. They want their parents to love them, yet there is no way to make someone else feel an emotion or to be responsible for another person’s feelings. A child who is continuously placed in this catch-22 learns they can never really earn the love and respect they desire from their parents. They learn the hopeless lesson of trying to make other people feel the way they want them to feel.

On the other hand, parents who model taking personal responsibility for their own feelings teach children how to manage their own emotions without blaming others for how they feel. Consider: “I’m very disappointed you came home past your curfew. I trusted that you would keep your word. For me to feel trust again, I need to set some boundaries. You can count on me to take 10 minutes off your curfew next weekend for every 5 minutes you come home late. So next Saturday night you have to come in 30 minutes earlier.” (Notice the boundary is for the parent—what THEY can be counted on to do, not the child.)

When parents give away responsibility for their feelings, including their trust and mistrust, they model for their children that they, too, can blame others for their feelings.

Rebuilding your feelings of trust in a child requires setting boundaries for yourselves as parents: “I can be counted on to check your homework online every day and to give you the privilege of the Wi-Fi password if it has all been turned in.” “I’m comfortable with you going to your friend’s home after I talk to her parent.” “I will give you permission to take the car after your drug test comes back negative.” “I promise to drive you to the skate park after you’ve kept your room clean for one week.”

When parents give away responsibility for their feelings, including their trust and mistrust, they model for their children that they, too, can blame others for their feelings. Such parents are also more likely to use shame, guilt, and scolding to try to get their kids to comply with their request. These same parents are often surprised when these tactics are turned back on them by their children. (And when kids blame, scold, and shame their parents for how they feel, it generally sounds less polished and more crude.)

Say what you mean: “I’m disappointed,” “I’m surprised,” “I’m angry.” Then mean what you say: “You can count on me to ______ when I see that you have ______.” Don’t elaborate, lecture, or shame. There’s nothing to be gained in belittlement.

Raising children is difficult. As they grow and individuate, you are likely to experience feelings of surprise, shock, disbelief, even betrayal. None of these emotions is pleasant or comfortable, but all of them represent opportunities to model for your kids how to take responsibility for their own uncomfortable feelings. Knowing you can trust yourself to extend only those privileges that you are comfortable giving may be the best way to reclaim trust you’ve lost.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Tolly

    October 23rd, 2017 at 10:14 AM

    Having been belittled as a child it’s not something that I wish to press on my own children some day.

  • Barrett

    October 23rd, 2017 at 3:53 PM

    I might be the kind pf parent who will lose trust in my children if they give me a reason to, but I am also committed to being the parent who will let them work to earn that trust back too. They are kids, they will make mistakes like we all do. Why do we hold them to these impossible standards that most of us can never meet?

  • Dell

    October 24th, 2017 at 10:35 AM

    We are having a hard time with both of the kids right now in that they are rebelling and doing things that I guess we naively never thought that they would do. Crazy right?

    I mean we were both teenagers once and know the difficulties they face and yet we still never thought that our kids would be the ones acting out and misbehaving.

    Trying to somehow resume the peace that was once so abundant in our home.

  • DR. Lois

    October 27th, 2017 at 2:18 AM

    Raising adolescents is very hard. They live in a fast-paced world with many challenges, and parents are often overwhelmed and exhausted. One of my favorite books is “Get Out of My Life, but First Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall.” Another great book (also funny) is, “How to Talk so Teens will Listen and Listen so Teens will Talk.”

  • Connie

    October 25th, 2017 at 9:48 AM

    Most of us at times have expected way too much from our children and then been disappointed when they have failed to live up to what was already unrealistic. Why not show them the need to not take on more than they can handle at any given time, and teach them how there will be times they will just have to say no?

  • DR. Lois

    October 27th, 2017 at 2:21 AM

    So very true. Being able to say “no” to taking on too much, is one of the important lessons that help protect kids from becoming codependent adults.

  • liam

    October 26th, 2017 at 9:43 AM

    I have a difficult time imagining a case where I would completely turn my back on my children.

  • Geoff

    October 27th, 2017 at 11:31 AM

    Children make mistakes, adults make mistakes, we all do it. So why does it hurt so bad when one of our kids lets us down? I don’t know, they probably feel that exact same hurt and pain when I let them down in some way. I have to show them that we are all capable of screwing up but that we are all also capable of coming back and admitting our mistakes and saying that we are sorry.
    Truly one of the best things that you can ever learn to do is to be able to admit it when you have made a mistake and work hard to make it up to the person who nay have gotten hurt.

  • Fifah

    July 18th, 2018 at 1:32 PM

    I have a teenager and two is on the way. Yes it is tough but we face it together. Love makes everything right.

  • Dr. Lois

    July 18th, 2018 at 2:29 PM

    You have a wonderful perspective. Your teens are very lucky to have you!

  • jo

    January 2nd, 2020 at 4:28 PM

    My now adult child was living a terrible secret life from 16 onwards and she is doing criminal things as well as things that go totally against our values. I cannot trust her as she lies constantly and has shown no remorse. How do we maintain a relationship, we are so hurt and cannot keep getting hurt.

  • Dr. Lois

    January 3rd, 2020 at 8:06 AM

    It is heartbreaking to have a child caught up in something so self-destructive. You might find some answers in Alanon, especially Alanon Parent groups. There might also be Naranon groups in your area. Find support for yourself through individual therapy or a supportive group.

  • Sam

    March 1st, 2022 at 12:06 AM

    Both of my sons are homeschooled and have been dishonest about completing work. Time after time, I allowed them to do better, yet it continued with them deceiving us. I get what you are saying, but people can break trust. Children can damage trust. I can be responsible for my feelings, but that does not mean you can not break our trust. Not sure where to go from here.

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