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So Your Teen Took the Car for a Spin Without Permission? Here’s How to Rebuild Trust After a Breach

It's been said that "little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems." Parents of teens know this is true. Teens will push the limit and, sometimes, in the process, break parents' trust. The parents' role is to learn to forgive while using the breach as a teachable moment. We've asked psychologists for tips on how to mend the bonds of communication and rebuild trust.

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Understand the teenage brain

Teenagers are impulsive and emotional by nature. (And their junk food habits aren’t helping, by the way.) “Their brains are not always able to think about the future and the consequences of their actions,” explains Joseph Shrand, MD, chief of Adolescent Psychiatry, High Point Treatment Centers in Brockton, Massachusetts. “It’s not their fault, just the way their brains are developing. Adults have the ability to anticipate the consequence of their actions: We are living more in the frontal part of our brain, and this includes how you manage this breach of trust. Your child may never have intended to make you not trust them; they were just doing what teenagers want: to take risks, be social, and feel pleasure.”

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Manage your anger

Dr. Shrand advises parents to keep the scope of a teen’s understanding in check when confronting them after a breach of trust. “Keep this in mind when you talk with—not to—your teen,” he says. “How you manage your own anger is going to model how they manage theirs.” To diffuse a conflict more effectively, try some of these strategies.

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Speak frankly about your disappointment

Clearly explain how you were hurt by their transgression. “Talk with your child about the breach of trust and ask them what they think they could do to build it back,” Dr. Shrand continues. “An honest discussion about how much it hurt that this child whose diapers you changed, who you trusted, has violated that trust and influenced the relationship. I would rather have a thoughtful child than merely a compliant one,” he says.

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Set consequences

There has to be consequences for your teen’s actions. (Speaking of which, make sure you’re not following any of these 52 terrible parenting tips.) Dr. John Mayer, a clinical psychologist in Chicago, and a consultant at Doctor On Demand says that penalty should fit the action. “For example, when they have taken the car out without permission, a good logical consequence is: You can’t be trusted to use the car.” Setting a fair punishment in line with the breach makes the most sense.

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Give them a path to redemption

Beyond a logical consequence, Dr. Mayer advises, parents give a road map on how the child can earn your trust back. “Doing dishes for 16 weeks after they took out the car without permission has nothing to do with the car. I suggest give them short trial runs with using the car again with strict parameters: Limit time and distance, and then increase the parameters as they show increasing trust until they are back to where they were when they did the mistrustful act,” he says. “This is called titration—you slowly add trust and responsibility back in small doses. If they break your trust again, go back to step number one and reset your consequences and parameters.” (And make sure you never utter these words as a parent.)

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Clarify your expectations

Parents should tell their child in a warm, gentle, and honest, “I mean business” tone of voice that the most important thing between two people is to feel trust and security, says Fran Walfish, PsyD, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist and author. “Add that it makes a person feel safe when you know they will always tell you the truth. You can count on them and that’s a good feeling. That’s why telling the truth all the time matters so very much,” Dr. Walfish says. Ever wonder what your teen is thinking? Here you go.

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Consider a one-time pass


If your teen lied only once and demonstrates genuine remorse, regret, empathy, and apologizes to the parents solemnly promising to never ever do it again, then you can grant one pass, and the breach of trust can be repaired, says Dr. Walfish. “I have seen a positive turnaround occur when the prevaricator demonstrates genuine remorse for hurting his or her parents and immerses himself into reform in a completely committed fashion,” she says. Check out these other 11 rules for raising teenagers.

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Keep a positive dialogue going

“Many teens will initially find talking to be akin to torture,” explains Patricia O’Gorman, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in upstate New York. “But it’s what they need. This usually means setting aside time to talk—not lecture. Time to be together.” Use these tips to stay closer to your children.

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Make the rewards of being trustworthy clear

Life gets easier for everyone when you’re able to trust your child, so explain to them in clear terms how it will benefit them. “It could be as simple as saying something like, ‘When I can trust you, I feel more comfortable letting you stay out late, go out different places with your friends, or borrow the car,'” says Jason Eckerman, PsyD, a licensed psychologist with experience working with kids and adolescents in Minnesota. When a child feels trusted and secure their actions most likely will continue on a positive path.