A guest post by Tyler Jacobson
I like to think that I have pretty close relationships with all my children. This closeness is something my wife and I have always emphasized, as my work with troubled teens has allowed us to see firsthand the struggles of families who don’t prioritize their relationships with each other. However, no matter how close you are with your children, they are going to make mistakes and break some family rules, some accidentally and some deliberately.
In the case of my eldest daughter, she broke several key family rules at once that required me to take some deliberate steps in rebuilding trust between us again.
When my daughter was 13 years old, she and two of her friends were allowed to go to the mall on their own. All three sets of parents had set down the ground rules that they were to stay together, keep their phones on and answer texts, and that they were to be ready for pickup after two hours.
Now, some parents think the idea of leaving our three teens alone at the mall outrageous, but I am a big believer in teaching my children to become appropriately independent. And for the first few trips, all three girls stuck to our rules. If anything, I was far more aware of what my daughter was doing as she texted me pictures of her drink, the jewelry she liked, shoes she thought were crazy-looking, and pretty much anything that crossed her path.
Unfortunately, the temptation to push their boundaries was irresistible to the three girls, and they decided to sneak into the movie theater attached to the mall and watch an R-rated movie. They were caught leaving the movie by the mother of one of the girls, and my daughter was delivered to me, a bit hangdog but also still clearly feeling rebellious.
Talk, Don’t Lecture, About Why the Broken Rules Are Important
Apparently, on the ride back, her friend’s mother had taken them all to task, shouting at some intervals. And, while I’m not a parent who struggles with anger management, I was very hurt and confused by my daughter’s actions.
When children act out and openly disregard family rules, it can feel like a black mark on your parenting skills. However, it is a natural part of growing up, and some research has shown that children who engage in moderate rule-breaking may be developing future leadership abilities.
In the face of my daughter’s clear lack of remorse, I suppose I could have harangued her and lectured about the evils of R-rated movies—which she wasn’t allowed to watch—and sneaking around, I chose to talk to her instead about our family rules and open the dialogue between me and my young teenage daughter.
Provide Small Ways to Rebuild Confidence
During the conversation, my daughter and I talked about what led her and her friends to choose to ignore their mall rules. Apparently, my daughter and her friends were some of the few of their classmates who hadn’t seen the movie and felt left out as it was being discussed. My daughter said she didn’t think it was that big of an issue, as they were still in the mall and were mostly on-time for pickup.
I talked about why sneaking away on unscheduled trips put her and her friends in danger, and how it was actually illegal for her to have snuck into the movie and it wasn’t just a family rule. As we talked, I often stopped to ask my daughter how she felt about things and what her thoughts were. This technique helps children stay engaged in the conversation and allows parents to see what is being comprehended.
To help rebuild trust in my daughter, here are the main steps I took:
Move to semi-supervised mall trips - Instead of just taking away all my daughter’s freedom and undo all the positive independence she was developing, we agreed that semi-supervised mall trips were how we would move forward.
Reiterate the expectations and family rules - While my daughter clearly knew she was breaking the rules, it was also clear to me that she didn’t really understand why the rules were in place to begin with.
Make consequences clear - A fault on the parenting side was that my wife and I hadn’t established any concrete consequences for breaking the mall trip rules.
Allow for her to prove herself - Some parents take a child’s infractions as a sign that their children need more heavy monitoring and control. Since our ultimate goal was responsible behavior, we still said yes to other areas of independence so that she could find other ways to rebuild our confidence in her. Babysitting her siblings on a Saturday night with no mishaps demonstrated to us that she could follow instructions and get her siblings’ cooperation.
Now, I understand that to some people, what my wife and I chose to do was definitely parenting the “hard way” rather than just opting for grounding or other standard punishments. But in the long run, by taking these steps to rebuild trust in my daughter, we have a stronger and more healthy relationship today.