When Your Teen Breaks Your Trust


The Importance of Trust

Trust is a concept that we absolutely must teach our children and teens. It is so important that it should be treated as a separate issue from other misbehaviors.

Let’s say your teen took your car without permission. There are now two problems: one is the taking of the car and the second bigger issue is the breaking of your trust, which is the most important aspect of a healthy relationship.


Remember as you deal with issues of trust with your teen that becoming trustworthy:

  • happens gradually over many years.
  • is not an all or nothing proposition.

trust bambooYou will probably have to teach the concept many times as opportunities arise. Your teen may slip quite a few times before he is able to integrate trustworthiness into his character and behavior on a reliable basis.

Knowing that teens will most likely break trust with their parents, at least once in a while, helps parents to be more accepting and less upset. Believing that they will eventually become trustworthy can give you hope and encouragement so that you will persevere in teaching this critical character component to your teens.


General Principles of Trust

These principles can be helpful to you in deciding how to deal with issues of trust as they arise. They help you to maintain perspective and decide how to react to broken trust.

You can also teach your teen those that are relevant as circumstances occur in your everyday life raising your adolescent, and to respond to the frequent battle cry of teens, “Don’t you trust me?”

Understanding Trust

Trust exists on a continuum.
There is a whole range between the two end points: full trust and no trust.
Trust is not always fair.
Parents can trust their teens too much by not providing the guidance and limits that they still need. Parents can also under-trust by being suspicious and overly intrusive. Either extreme can set your teen up for failure and cause damage to the relationship.

Earning Trust

Trust is earned.
It is not static: it can be damaged and can be repaired and re-built.
When you see more trustworthy behavior, give more freedom.
As you see improved judgment and better impulse control, you can give a little more freedom and privileges.See how your child does. Often being given more privileges inspires a teen to be more responsible and trustworthy.
Determine how much to trust each child in each situation.
This is not always clear-cut and obvious. You may trust them in certain situations and not others. Or you may trust your teen but worry about other people they are with who might not be reliable.

Trust is not blind; it is based on knowledge.
“I need to know where you are and what you’re doing. You’re on your way to being an adult, but you’re not there yet and you can make some mistakes along the way that can hurt you very much. It is my job to help see that that doesn’t happen.”

When Trust is Broken

Broken trust damages the relationship.
If trust is broken repeatedly. . .
You may need to get help as it could be a signal that something else is going on.

<return to top of page


How to Teach the Concept of Trust


The best way to teach trust to teens is by modeling, not lecturing. Modeling is a powerful and effective way to influence your teen and it builds respect between the two of you. Part of modeling involves keeping your promises, with your child and with others – you are being watched.

Having Discussions

trust blocksDiscussions around the issue of trust can build a good relationship with your teen and increase your teen’s awareness of what it takes to be trustworthy. This can ultimately improve his self-image as he begins to see himself becoming reliable and responsible. Here are some tips for these discussions:

Interweave information about trust into discussions.

Since the concept of trust is abstract, you may need to interweave information about what trust is and why it is so important:

“When you are trustworthy, others can rely on you. They know that if at all possible, you will do what you said you would do. “

“People who are trustworthy are known for their determination, reliability and truthfulness. They can be trusted to tell the truth, do their part and try their best to keep promises even if it becomes difficult. “

“Being trustworthy means that you keep your word. When people are trustworthy with each other, they can relax, knowing that promises will be kept.”

“Without trustworthiness, agreements and promises don’t mean anything. You never know what you can expect from someone who is not trustworthy. Other people don’t know if they can believe you.”


Discuss what your teen can do to become trustworthy.

He can:

  • stop and think before making a promise to be sure he really wants to and can do it.

  • remember what he promises to do and to do the things he promises.

  • finish the job to completion.

  • keep doing what was promised even when he feels like doing something else.

  • be aware of things that could prevent him from keeping his agreement. There are obstacles, such as promising more than he can deliver, being pressured by friends, being distracted, procrastinating, wanting to do something more fun, or being tired.

<return to top


Reacting to Broken Trust

Your Reaction

Don’t get personally insulted by your teen’s betrayal of trust.
Remember he is just learning about trust, and it will take a lot of practice to get it right. He probably does not fully understand why trust is so important. You can set high public goals that you communicate to your teen, but keep your real expectations for trustworthiness low.
Don’t despair if your teen breaks your trust.
You can look at such betrayals as an opportunity to have a discussion about trust and being trustworthy.

What to Do

Separate a trust violation from other rule infractions.
Let your teen know that a betrayal of trust is a unique and serious situation – simply having a consequence imposed does not adequately address the problem.
A calm conversation is most effective.
Getting angry about broken trust does no good, and makes it less likely that you will be able to engage your teen in a meaningful conversation.
Ask your teen what he thinks should occur after breaking trust.
Keep repeating that trust betrayal has to do with character, values and respect for oneself and the other person.
Focus on the issue of trust and not on punishment.

    mother and son talking

  • It usually impacts a teen greatly when a parent tells him that he cannot trust the teen.

    That statement alone can sometimes be consequence enough for a betrayal – even more powerful than a punishment because the child has to then deal with the results his behavior has had on the relationship with his parent.

  • Make him think about it. This could be the worst thing you can do to him from his perspective. He would much rather have a consequence imposed and be done with it.

  • Ask him what he thinks happened when he betrayed your trust; don’t tell him. You want him to understand how critical trust and honesty is to your relationship and that the more he betrays your trust, the harder it will be and the longer it will take to re-establish it.

  • Let your teen know that everything else gets put on hold until you resolve this current crisis in trust.

<return to top


Help Teens to Rebuild Trust

When your teenager betrays your trust, one of your jobs is to help him find ways to rebuild that trust.


  • Parents need to determine when and how much to re-trust. Often this occurs in stages.

  • “I will never trust you again” is not a healthy response. It takes hope away from the teen that he can make amends and re-gain your trust.

  • Initiate discussions about the whole subject of trust in general and specific things you have seen with him in particular, especially times in the past when he has been trustworthy.


Making Amends

Allow your teen to make amends to you and accept his apology. You can help your teen find ways to make amends, which involves:

    I'm sorry

  • restitution to the harmed party for damage done (for example, paying for something that he damaged, apologizing)

  • a resolve and a definite plan to avoid making the same mistake again

  • reconciliation with the person who was harmed (to re-establish trust and mend the relationship).

Once he speaks honestly and from his heart about trust and has made amends, you have accomplished your goal of helping him to understand the importance of being trustworthy. The fact that he has demonstrated that he has learned about trust can restore your trust in him. Affirm and congratulate your teen when he is being more trustworthy.


Imposing Consequences

  • If your child has not shown remorse or made amends, then you need to impose reasonable consequences, such as limiting all privileges, until they have learned to take the breaking of trust seriously.

    Remember, however, that if your consequence is too harsh, he will focus on his anger and resentment toward you and you will be letting him off the hook simply by accepting his punishment. In this case, he will not have learned the real lessons about trust.

  • Be sure that consequences teach rather than punish. Try to include your teen in determining a fair and appropriate consequence.


Encouraging the Truth

the truthSometimes teens don’t tell the truth because they are afraid their parents will become angry. Let your teens know that telling the truth is so important that you won’t get angry if they tell you.

But this doesn’t mean you have to let them off the hook for their misbehavior when they fess up. Sometimes a fair consequence needs to be imposed; other times, an apology is enough.

The most important thing for you to do is to deal calmly with whatever your child owns up to, maintain a positive relationship with him, and to congratulate him for having the courage to tell the truth.

<return to top of page



Many thanks to Diane Wagenhals of Lakeside Educational Network for some of the material in this article. Other sources for material covered in this article include:

Lickona, Thomas, Raising Good Children: From Birth Through The Teenage Years

Bradley, Michael J., Yes, Your Teen is Crazy!: Loving Your Kid Without Losing Your Mind

Popov, Linda, The Family Virtues Guide: Simple Ways to Bring Out the Best in Our Children and Ourselves

Coloroso, Barbara, The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander


For more information about raising a teen, check out the following books. Purchasing from Amazon.com through our website supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.

Yes, Your Teen is Crazy by Bradley Uncommon Sense for Parents of Teenagers by Riera The Roller Coaster Years by Giannetti and Sagarese The Second Family by Taffel Raising a Teenager by Elium How to Hug a Porcupine - Negotiating the Prickly Points of the Tween Years by Ross You and Your Adolescent by Steinberg

<recommended books about raising adolescents

<all our recommended parenting books


<return to top of page

<additional articles about teen issues

<Library of Articles topic page

<additional online resources for parenting teens