Does Your Teen Trust You?

How many of us would walk into a shop to purchase something without making sure we had a means to pay for it? When you go to buy something you make sure you have the means of providing payment, cash, credit card or some form of credit account with the store in question.

Money is the essential ingredient of our everyday commercial transactions. If we don’t have access to money, we are severely restricted in our capacity to obtain goods and services.

In the same way, there is an essential ingredient for parents who want to have open and honest lines of communication with their teenager. That necessary component is trust.

Trust is to teenage communication as money is to shopping. You can’t get what you want if you don’t have it. Trust is the essential element that facilitates the transaction of information from teenager to parent. Trust is the currency of relationships.

Your teenager will not communicate with you in any meaningful way if they do not trust you.

Parents who want their teens to communicate with them openly and honestly but do not have their teenager’s trust will be continually frustrated and disappointed.

Why Trust Is Important?

Stretching the money analogy a bit further, it is possible to get something from a shop without using money (or credit) to pay for it; you can just take it without paying for it. This is commonly known as stealing.

Stealing can be done by stealth (shoplifting or burglary) or by force (armed hold up). In a civilized society, taking something without permission has a consequence if you are caught doing it.

Similarly, parents can pay a heavy price if they fail to use the currency of trust when communicating with their teenagers.

Parents commonly disregard the trust economy when it comes to connecting with their teenager. They spy, or secretly poke around their teenager’s life to find out what is going on. Other times they demand, threaten or intimidate their teen into disclosing information. Parents risk paying a high price when they take risk loosing their teenager’s trust.

If your teenager discovers you have violated their privacy, betrayed their confidence or used fear to get information they will stop trusting you. Once your teen stops trusting you it will be very difficult to have any sense of open or honest communication.

Just as a shopkeeper will be wary of letting a known thief into their shop, so too will a teenager be very reluctant to allow an untrustworthy parent into the important parts of their life.

Teenagers are discovering who they are, exploring new and exciting parts of life. These journeys of self-discovery are often deeply personal and very important to a young person. The sensitivity a teenager feels about their personal life is amplified by the anxiety and uncertainty teens feel about who they are and what they are becoming.

It is only natural therefore, that teenagers place a high value on their privacy and personal thoughts and feelings. This is why a teenager’s sense of personal space, both social and physical, is very important to them. Teenagers spend a lot of their time and energy controlling what parts of their lives they share and whom they will share it with.  This sense of control is vitally important to teenagers.

Parents commonly under-value how important it is for their teenager to feel in control of what they share with the world, and they over estimate their right to know about what is happening in their teenager’s life.

I consistently witness, and hear examples of parents who have violated their teenager’s trust and are then surprised or confused when their teenager stops communicating with them. Typically, this is because parents fail to acknowledge just how vital trust is to parent-teen relationships.

How Parents Lose Their Teenager’s Trust

There are a variety of ways parents can lose their teenager’s trust. Some are obvious, others less so.  Many times parent’s act with best of intentions and good motives, yet risk doing significant harm to the relationship with their teen. Other times trust is lost when parent’s just fail to think or make mistakes (as we all do from time to time). The point of the list is to bring actions that damage trust to the front of mind so next time you are tempted you will have cause to weigh up what you might be risking.

Snooping or Spying: This is by far the most common trust violation I come across. Usually motivated by the concern or the desire to protect, parents regularly violate their teenager’s privacy by reading or listening to communication that was not intended for them. It might be sneaking a look at their Facebook messages, flicking through their journal, or checking the text messages on their teen’s phones.

To be clear, I am not referring to parents who have an agreement with their teen regarding the level of supervision or visibility they will have over their teenager’s various communication channels. Rather I am referring to parents who snoop around areas of their teen’s life that their teen has no expectation of their parent viewing or hearing. Such endeavors can be very informative for parents, but if discovered can cause significant damage to the parent-teen relationship.

Betraying a Confidence: Nothing is more mortifying to a teenager than to discover their most private fears or desires have been made known to the wider public. If your teenager shares something personal with you they are offering you a precious gift, a part of themselves.  They do so on the understanding that you will treat this knowledge as valuable and precious. When you give it away to others without consideration or consent, you communicate to your teen that you do not value who they are.

Being Disrespectful: Disrespect also communicates to your teenager a lack of value. By treating your teen with a lack of respect, either in words or in action, you devalue who they are. If your teen believes you do not value who they are, they will be more inclined to hide from you rather than share with you.

Using Guilt & Fear: Intimidating or shaming your teenager may get you what you want in the short term, but in the long term your teen will have no desire to share anything of value with you.

If your teen is afraid of you, or feels constantly shamed by you, they will avoid sharing themselves with you as much as possible. Shame and harsh treatment will produce fear and loathing not openness and trust.

Demonstrating a Lack of Knowledge: Your teen’s level of trust in you as a parent who understands them can be reduced if you do something that demonstrates a lack of awareness about who they are. It might be buying them a gift that they totally detest, or presuming they like someone or something they actually dislike.   Such mistakes, often innocent, are interpreted by your teenager as confirmation that you do not really know them or understand who they are. The more convinced they are that you do not understand them the less they will trust you.

Lacking Sincerity: Patronising comments, or promise that are not kept erode away at your teen’s trust. Once your teen stops believing the words coming out of your mouth, they have stopped trusting you. The reason a teen will stop believing what you say is if you have been less than truthful or insincere in the past

I am often amazed at how much adults underestimate a teenager’s awareness of what is going on around them. Teens are very sensitive to relational stress and change. If there are problems in the home, or between family members, teenagers will usually pick up on it very quickly. Parents do themselves no favours by trying to convince their teen everything is okay when it is not.

How to Build Your Teenager’s Trust

As with many relational issues rebuilding trust can take time, especially if it has been broken in a particularly hurtful manner. The list below is by no means comprehensive, but is a pretty good list of basic requirements to building a trusting relationship with your teenager.

Be Honest: This is the most obvious, but also the most important. If you want your teen to be honest with you then you need to be honest with them. Obviously, you don’t share everything with your teen, but there is no reason to lie to your teenager.

By being open and honest with your teenager you show them you trust and respect them.

Spend Time With Them: The best way to get to know your teen is by spending time with them. The more time you are in each other’s presence the more you will learn about and appreciate one another. This doesn’t always mean big slabs of “quality” time. Often you will learn some of the most significant details in short car trips, while saying goodnight, or over the evening meal.

The more comfortable your teen is in your presence the more likely they will be to answer your questions honestly. Spending time with your teen can greatly alleviate the need to snoop and spy, as they will be more forthcoming with information and you will have a better of idea of how they are going.

Treat Them With Respect: Show your teen you value them by treating them with respect. If they feel valued by you they will be more inclined to trust you.  Speak to them without putting them down. Listen to what they are really saying.  Give them physical space and honor their right to personal privacy.

Validate their Thoughts & Feelings: I have written about this previously, and in some ways validating their thoughts and feelings is an expression of respect. Validation occurs when you acknowledge your teen’s feelings or opinions. You don’t have to agree, or even sympathise, but it is important to communicate that you have heard them and appreciate their point of view.

When you validate your teen’s thoughts and feelings you demonstrate that you are worthy and deserving of their trust.

Share Your Thoughts & Feelings: Relationships work better when both parties are involved in the give and the take. If you want your teen to disclose to you information about who they are and how they are going then you need to be prepared to do the same.

When parents share appropriately with their teens about how they are going and what is occupying their mind, they model healthy self-disclosure and patterns of communication. When you share about yourself, you are creating an expectation and giving permission about what is okay in your relationship.

Follow Through: If you want your teen to trust you then you need to be true to your word. If you make a commitment, you have to do all you can to keep it. Sometimes stuff happens and life prevents you from following through. When this happens let your teen know as soon as possible, apologise sincerely, be extra careful next time to make sure you are able to follow through.

Trust is A Two Way Street

I am aware as I write this that some parents will be yelling at me in their heads, “What do I do if I can’t trust them?” I acknowledge for many families the pressing issue is not so much teens trusting parents, but teens losing their parent’s trust.

Often parent’s feel like they need to sneak around and spy on their teen because in the past their teen has not honored the trust parents have placed in them.

Trust is very much a two way street. Once one party stops being trustworthy it becomes harder for the other to remain trustworthy. With this in mind, the next post will be focused on the issue of raising trustworthy teens.


Image credit: k.a.i.

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