The pain of a broken promise

Was your childhood littered with broken promises?
Was your childhood littered with broken promises? Photo: Getty Images

It all began with the promise of one sticker. When I was seven-years-old, I'd done something good that my mother deemed worthy of a reward. To my excitement, she decided that my behaviour was deserving enough of one sticker. She promised that the next time she went to the shops, she would buy me that very sticker. She didn't though. And at the subsequent shop, she didn't either. She kept telling me that she'd forgotten. As the months passed by, my tally of promised stickers were stacking up but my motivation for engaging in good behaviour was dwindling. I didn't understand why my mother wasn't staying true to her word. Why did she continue to break her promise? What sort of effect was it having on me as a child?

Keeping promises

According to Jodie Benveniste, psychologist and director of Parent WellBeing, when a parent stays true to their promises, the child is likely to model this behaviour as well.

“When we keep promises with our kids, we help them to develop an understanding of trust and respect for others,” she says.

As parents, it also projects the image that we are “truthful and believable”, which helps to create a sense of security for our children.

The reality is, though, sometimes promises have to be broken. Sometimes we might promise our children that we'll take them to the beach, but it rains. As parents, we can't help but break our promises from time to time.

But it's the regular breaking of promises that matter most. Benveniste says, “If a parent consistently breaks their promises, then the child may learn that people's word cannot be trusted, and that it's okay to promise something and then not follow through.”

Letting children down gently

If plans have fallen through and you have to break a promise, suggesting other activities to do are a good way to ease your child's pain and disappointment. For example, if it's pouring outside, going to the beach would no longer be an option. Benveniste suggests, “Instead, you can talk to your child about something else they might
like to do - it might be baking together, doing some craft or watching a movie.”

Just make sure that no matter what, you explain why you broke your promise.

Sally-Anne McCormack, a clinical psychologist, says, “If you give your word on something, then you either have to carry through with it no matter what, or you have to explain it.”

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And the level of detail in your explanation depends on your child's age, McCormack says. If a rainy day has lead to a cancelled trip to the beach, you could simply tell your two year old that you couldn't go because of the rain. However, if you have an older child, adding that the rainy weather might worsen the cold that they already have, might be more appropriate.

Being mindful of making promises

When it comes to making promises, McCormack says that the key to avoid breaking them is not to use the word 'promise' lightly. Be mindful of your language. Rather than saying, “I promise to do this”, McCormack recommends using phrases such as, “I plan on...” and “I'm going to try...”.

Benveniste agrees. “You can say, 'If the weather is good tomorrow, we'll go to the park'”, as well as “'we'll see' rather than promising something.”

Learning to deal with disappointment

Ups and downs are a part of life, and this is a lesson that children need to learn. According to Benveniste, “Children need to learn that even though we may have the best of intentions, sometimes we can't keep promises. Unexpected things happen in life and plans need to change.”

But we need to also remember that children are a lot stronger than we sometimes give them credit for. “Children can cope with minor disappointments and some broken promises. They go through the disappointment and then realise that it's not the end of the world.”

This is why the occasional broken promise here and there isn't likely to do much harm. McCormack also explains that if a child feels that they can trust and respect their parent most of the time, then a broken promise won't change this attitude.

Building resilience

McCormack also emphasises that a few setbacks here and there are actually great stepping stones to building resilience. “No-one's life goes along in a perfectly straight line. No-one's life is perfect. It's important
for parents to help children deal with things that go wrong,” McCormack says.

“Sometimes it's a promise, how to deal with a toy that broke, or a fight with a sibling. Childhood is about learning and dealing with small issues that can be generalised over time, that teach them certain skills that help them become responsible young adults.”

But in order to help build that resilience, we need to help our children move past those disappointments.

McCormack adds, “A parent breaking a small promise to a child may be the first time they've had to deal with that disappointment, but it won't be the last. If we have to break a promise, then we also have to support them and help them through dealing with it.”

“Because in the future, they will deal with bigger and worse promises that are broken than the ones that we might accidentally or inadvertently make to them.”

So, don't feel too guilty if you have to break a promise once in a while. Just be there to support your child. So that one day, they will be resilient enough to deal with life's disappointments all on their very own.

Thuy Yau is a freelance writer. You can follow Thuy on Twitter, join her on Facebook, or read her personal development blog at Inside a Mother's Mind.