Building trust with your kids

You want to know your kids do the right thing when you're not there. But building trust is a process — and a two-way street

Suzanne Bryant* thought her son Matt’s 13th birthday had gone well. A dozen boys partied merrily and stayed for a sleepover. But later that month, when the phone bill arrived, she discovered that the kids had racked up a hefty tab — on a sex line. Matt fessed up: Although he hadn’t made the calls himself, he knew who had. He rounded up the boys involved and their parents. Bryant didn’t hide her feelings — she let the boys know how much they had let her down.

The earth shifts under you when a kid breaks a trust. “Trust is one of the most fragile elements in any relationship and once it’s broken, it’s tough to put it together like it was before,” says David Jull, child and youth worker with the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board in Mississauga, Ont.

We all hope our children will be truthful, honest and respectful. We hope they’ll do what we ask, make good choices and abide by the boundaries we set for them even when we aren’t around to see. But especially as children get older, parents may see their values challenged — and their trust tested.

There are many lessons over these years of growing and questioning. Read on for how you can nurture trust.

Express your expectations

It’s up to parents to let kids know where we stand on honesty and integrity — and on lying and deceit. Jull explains, “We can’t expect to be able to trust them if we aren’t very clear about our expectations.”

This process starts, in small ways, when children are very young — making sure your toddler doesn’t bring another child’s toy home from daycare, encouraging a preschooler to ask her big brother’s permission rather than nick his candy stash.

Use all kinds of everyday opportunities to let your child know what you expect and what happens when a trust is broken, suggests Mary Salegio, executive director at the Parent Resource Centre in Ottawa. Talk about TV shows you’re watching — if a kid on a program lies to his dad, talk about how that strikes you. If an athlete cheats, have a chat about the way that action devalues the game. Tease the issues out of books you’re reading together (many have built-in morals) so kids are aware of your values. Don’t gloss over tough issues in your family — like the cousin who got caught sneaking out of the house.
Honour honesty

“We have to model honesty in order to get it back,” says Salegio. Although we don’t intend harm, parents sometimes tell lies around children. Salegio gives some examples: “Maybe we say, ‘Don’t tell Mommy that we had ice cream’ or ‘Don’t let Daddy know that we bought this.’ And sometimes we lie so we don’t hurt others’ feelings. But we need to explain that to the child — or not do it.”

Keep it cool

Building a trusting connection is a two-way street. Not only do you have to trust a child — he needs to trust you. So when you say, “Come and talk to me any time. Tell me what’s going on in your life,” really mean it. If you overreact when he has something difficult to share, it tells him that, actually, he can’t come to you, he can’t rely on your word — he can’t trust you.

Recently, Salegio helped a mom whose 11-year-old daughter struck up a friendship with a 48-year-old man on Facebook. “Instead of overreacting, we talked calmly about it. I asked the daughter, ‘What do you have in common? Do you think other men that age want to talk to 11-year-olds? Why would a man that age want to be your friend? ’”

No one claims it’s easy to stay composed when a kid tells you something that shakes you to the core. But talking it through helps guide her to think critically and make a good choice in a sticky situation: “Is it really a good idea? What will happen if I do this?” Even if she repeats a mistake (and it might happen), your calm response will reassure her that it’s safe to tell you.

Sometimes, though, you may be too angry to keep a cool head. Be honest. Salegio suggests, “If you say, ‘I’m not upset,’ but clearly you are, you’re telling your child, ‘Don’t believe me.’ Instead you can say, ‘I’m really angry right now. I need five minutes to calm down and then we can talk.’”
Weigh the circumstances

Even if you know your child is responsible and mature, your trust in her isn’t unconditional. It depends on more than your child: What is she doing? Where is she going? Has she done this before with you walking her through it? You may feel OK letting her go to a movie with friends — but not attending a particular party. You’re weighing the circumstances, her judgment and maturity, how outgoing or reserved she is.

You may also want to think about how compliant or independent she is — is she likely to decide for herself what she thinks is right, or go along with her friends? Salegio says, “You really have to know who your children’s friends are, what they are into — and what messages their parents are giving them. As kids get older, friends become very influential.” Be especially wary, she adds, if the friends never come to your home — but your child is always at theirs. You’ll want to ask your child why that is.

Make room for mistakes

Jull says, “If parents hope to build trust, they have to recognize that kids don’t always get it right the first time. They make mistakes and mistakes provide the opportunity to learn. Building trust is like building anything else: You work with partial success sometimes.”

And sometimes partial successes — even failures — turn out, in the long run, to be powerful trust builders. Like Matt’s sleepover. The culprits apologized (in tears) and while the phone company waived the $300 bill, the boys took on chores equal to that amount. The message was that you’re responsible for your actions and when you’ve broken a trust, you work hard to make amends.

Surprisingly, Bryant’s trust in her son has grown, not diminished, as a result of the experience. “I told Matt, ‘You know what I learned in all this? You have good friends. They can go and tell their parents what happened. Now I trust that you have all learned from this.’ And I can guarantee that they will never do it again.”

*Name changed by request.

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