When Parents Can’t Trust Teenagers

How should you respond if your teenager’s behvaiour means you are unable to trust them anymore? This is a problem faced by most parents of teenagers at some point during their child’s adolescence.

In the previous post, I discussed how important it is for parents to maintain their teenager’s trust. But trust is a two way street, and it can be just as problematic for a parent-teen relationship when a teenager loses their parent’s trust.

Ironically a common cause of parents acting in ways that could undermine their teenager’s trust is parents feeling they cannot trust their teen. When a parent suspects their teen is lying, or sneaking around, their response is to start sneaking and spying on their teenager. Mistrust breeds mistrust.

For this reason it is important as a parent to act decisively and positively when your teenager does something damaging to your levels of trust in them. Mistrust can be dealt with easily when done straight away for a particular incident.  Things get a whole lot harder if incidents aren’t dealt with and distrust becomes a systematic problem in the relationship.

Have Realistic Expectations

If you expect your teenager to be a truth telling angel who will never try to slip something sneaky past you, then in most cases you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Your teenager will lie to you at some point, even the really responsible ones.  You lied to your parents, I lied to mine, and generations before have second-guessed their parents with varying degrees of subterfuge and dishonesty.

This doesn’t mean you should not trust your teenager, rather you should be sensible in your outlook and expectations.  Give responsibility to your teenager gradually. Follow up with them when you give them a task. Monitor the boundaries you establish. Most importantly, don’t over react when you discover your teenager has lied or not acted responsibly.

Don’t Take it Personally

When you find out your teen has violated your trust, try to remain calm and objective. This is easy advice to give, but very hard to put into practice. When you feel like your teen has betrayed your trust it is only natural to feel angry, disappointed and concerned for your teen.

While it is completely okay to feel these things, it will not help your cause if you choose to let strong emotions shape your response. What is needed from you as a parent is a calm and rational response. By keeping your cool, you will be able to keep the focus of the conversation on the issue and their behavior. If your response resembles a confrontation or emotional outburst you will end up with an unproductive argument and power struggle.

Children and teenagers are more inclined to lie to their parents if they are fearful of an angry or hostile response. As a parent you want to encourage and affirm honesty and openness in the parent-teen relationship. Over reactions and angry outbursts tend to create distrust rather than foster trust. This doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t take such issues seriously. However, a serious response is different to an angry or hostile reaction.

Don’t Despair

It is easy for parental disappointment to be expressed as despair.  In the heat of the moment you might feel like your teenagers’ character is seriously flawed or beyond redemption. Comments such as “I won’t ever trust you again” might reflect how you feel at the time, but is not a message your teenager will benefit from hearing.

While a breach of trust is a significant issue, it is not the end of the world. Teenagers are still learning the place and value of trust in relationships. As with all learning endeavors there will be mistakes and slip ups on the way. Instead of seeing the incident as the expression of a deep personal fault, choose to view it as an opportunity for your teen to learn more about what it means to be trustworthy.

Ignore the Melodrama

When confronted with their sneakiness or dishonesty teenagers will commonly respond with an explosion of indignation and moral outrage. Don’t allow it to distract your from the issue at hand.

Many teenagers will try to deflect your questions and discussions about their failure by making comments about your moral qualifications or lack there of. As a way of responding to their own moral shortcomings teens often try to immediately remove any high ground they perceive you to have by accusing you of all manner of terrible offences including being distrustful yourself, not respecting them, destroying their social life, and even damaging the relationship between the two of you – forever.

Don’t get distracted. Assuming you have your facts straight (always good to be sure of before confronting your teen in the first place) the only issue up for discussion at that moment in time is the behavior of your teenager. Try to ignore the tantrum and calmly request them to settle down and talk sensibly about the issue.

If the tantrum is getting out of control, let your teen know that you will come back and discuss the issue later when they have calmed down. Then walk away. Make sure to come back later and finish the conversation, otherwise you enable your teen’s behavior and teach them how to get out of accepting responsibility.

Explain The Impact

Once you are calm, or at least able to pretend you are calm, explain to your teen the significance of what they have done in terms of trust. Tell your teenage that because of what they have done they have lost your trust. Don’t overstate the impact, but seek to accurately reflect the exact nature of what has been lost by their actions.

Often a teen will not make the connection between their own desire to bend the rules and their own trustworthiness. When your teen decided to ignore, disobey, or deceive you they were undoubtedly more focused on the activity they were engaged in than on maintaining their relationship with you.

Hearing their parent cannot trust them this can have a profound impact on a teenager. Often just hearing such a comment will be the most significant consequence of all.

Look For Recognition

Give your teenager the chance to demonstrate they understand the impact of what has happened.

Ask your teen if they understand the significance of what has happened. Don’t tell them, or ask them to agree with your assessment, but instead ask them to explain to you what has happened. For many teens, this will be a challenging task, and more uncomfortable than any other consequence you may impose.

Listening to their answer will help you determine how aware your teen is of the situation and its implications.

While each situation is unique, and ultimately dependent on your judgment, there are some key things to listen for. You want to know if your teen is sorry for the actions, if they regret the relational implications, and if they are keen to make amends and rebuild the trust they have lost.

Asking teenagers what they consider should be the consequence of their behavior is a good way of gauging their appreciation of the situation. If your teen comes up with a suitably adequate set of consequences, they are demonstrating their comprehension of how important trust is.

Reasonable Consequences

Good discipline is educative and restorative rather than punitive. There should be consequences for betraying trust, but they need to be connected and in proportion to the breach committed.

The temporary removal of a privilege is the most common, and effective consequence for violations of trust. If your teen violates their curfew by coming home late, then they miss out on going out at all for a period or have to come home earlier. If they are misusing their mobile phone then they lose the access to it or have their access restricted for a while.

If the offending behaviour resulted in loss or damage, some form of restitution would be appropriate. At the minor end of the spectrum, an apology might be all that is required. Offenses that are more serious might require paying to fix property damage, or giving up time to work at repairing something.

If the consequences you impose are disproportionate or too harsh your teen will focus only on being angry at you and dwell on the injustice of the situation, rather than learning important lessons about the value and importance of trust.

Provide A Way Back

Be sure not to lose sight of the big picture. Your goal as a parent is to help your teen become a responsible and trustworthy adult. Therefore, any conversation about trust needs to have a forward-looking component. Your teen needs know you still see them as someone who is capable of being trusted. Every time your teen loses a privilege or responsibility they need to know there is the possibility of restoration. This hope of restoration is even more important in the context of regaining your trust as their parent.

For this reason parents need to give teens a way of regaining their trust and the privileges such trust affords. The path back to regaining trust is a unique journey shaped by the nature of the relationship, the significance of the breach of trust and the judgment of the parents involved.

For minor incidents, it could be a genuine apology and a period of probation. For more serious issues, it will require a long-term staged approach requiring consistency of behaviour over time.  Whatever your decision, communicate clearly with your teen you desire to trust them and are giving them the chance to win back your trust.

If you have any ideas about what to deal when it becomes hard to trust your teen please share in the comments section below.


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Showing 19 comments
  • Frustrated Parent - Florida

    My teenage daughter is 16 and I’ve caught her lying on 3 occassions so she could meet up with a guy who is 18 and a freshman at a local college. My husband doesn’t approve of the guy because we’ve been told by my husband’s nephew he sleeps around with lots of girls, and he doesn’t approve of it also because of his age. We’ve explained to her why we don’t approve of them dating or her seeing him, and she still gets caught in lies. I’ve tried to reason with her and give her freedom to date boys in high school and have extended her curfew to midnight. Still, she finds a way back to this kid we don’t approve of. I’ve listened and have explained, and I know she feels differently.
    Is this a lost cause? She values being with this guy more than being honest to her family. That bugs me to no end. As long as she disagrees with us, I see this as a lost fight to get her in a different direction.
    I think I have tried everything reasonable, and still the comprimising parent doesn’t get us where we want her, and that is away from that guy. If he’s filling a void, I can’t figure it out because we spend a lot of time with our daughter and are affectionate and supportive of her in school.
    I don’t understand and am looking for some else’s view.

    • no trust

      OMG, That could be my story, except this guy doesn’t sleep around, he is a drop out with no future. My daughter can’t seem to get away from him. He has cursed at me, and has even called me a bitch to my daughter. She has been forbidden by me to stay away, yet she continues to text and sneak out. I have warned him, but he keeps in touch also. I want more for her than this loser. I am at a loss also on what to do. We have talked about trust and lying and she swore she wouldn’t do it again, but here we are back at square one. When you find an answer let me know. I feel for you…..

    • NCMALE

      Point blank…you are the parent and you are in charge. Don’t put up with your daughter lying to you. Deal with it severely. If she continues to lie then make the consequences more severe until she realizes who is in charge. Too many parents try to be friends with their children. BIG mistake.

    • Mike Pirkkala

      Midnight curfew at 16-years old? That is nuts!!
      Congratulations, you will soon be grandparents.
      Wake up.

  • Somewhat Skeptical

    While I find that many parts of this post are agreeable and true, I can’t put MY trust into this article when it only touches on the parent side of the debate. If this addressed both sides of the argument with documented sources, verified by the personal sources themselves (the teen and parents), then I would truly try to apply this. As far as anyone knows this is your opinion; your advice from experiences only garnered by you. I am not trying to discredit or invalidate, because there isn’t anything here to do that with. I just hope that people take this information cautiously and with their own morals in mind. If I am in fact mistaken and this comes from creditable sources, then my apologies but sources should be posted per article.

    Thank you

    • martin6673

      As I have been a scientific drug advisor for doctors for 17 years I develloped a deep scepiticism towards “Scientific studies”. Because the results are to be statistically relevant, that is what they are. Statistics. And what may be true for 80 or even 99 % of people need not to be true for the one person standing before me!
      So, as valuable and right scientific sources and evidence are: you always have to filter it with – as you say – your own mind and morals to fit the situation and person at hand.
      Thus said I truely value your statement and I truely value scientific evidence. But I equaly (50/50) value personel experience.

  • Youth Culture Report

    Just posted a link back to this article on The Youth Culture Report http://theyouthculturereport.com/ Thanks

  • katerina

    i have a daugther 16 years and the matter of trust is very difficult to me and my husband.we have tried several times to trust her but even though we have discussed it with her she continues to tell lies for various reasons.she wants ro do what her frieds do like to stay out late, to leave school the lesson hours etc.i believe that all these years i try to make her to talk with me for the reasons that she tells lies and she answers that she afraids that when i am angry for her behavior ,i will use what she has trust to me .what is your view?

    • NCMALE

      With all due respect Katerina don’t trust any teenager until they have proven their trust because 9/10 times there is some sort of deception involved in any and everything they say to you.

      • Mel

        Maybe you need to earn your child’s trust instead. They feel like they can’t come to you with anything without you getting angry or upset about it, so they dont tell you things. Would you tell someone who is angry with you something that would make them even more angry?

    • Mike Pirkkala

      My condolences and I relate exactly. My mistake has been trying to continuously give my 16-year old another chance. I am now faced with the fact that he always lies to me. My mistake has also been to try to spare him any pain. WTF? How could I be so weak and feel sorry for him? There is nothing but to make them feel the pain of their consequences. There has to be consequences and the earlier you impose them and the stricter you enforce them, maybe you’ll get their attention straightaway instead of having to fight for a year or so over the same BS.
      Make consequences matter. Make them feel real pain.

  • Mc Trigger Hippster

    My bf and I recently took his 15 yo daughter in from an abusive neglectful environment. In a recent discussion she manipulatively suggested I was cheating on her dad and I was “never home” both false statements. I know what she did was to try to avoid the topic at hand and divert attention for her behavior during the discussion. I am also aware that she said what she said out of fear, hurt, and unaddressed anger elsewhere. However, I’m concerned this manipulative angry behavior may continue and I also have no trust in her. She lies alot (compulsively) and these two lies really push my moral boundaries for behavior. I’m having trouble coming up with a consequence (as my boyfriend stated its up to me what that will be as the offence was against me) that’s fair and will guide her towards better choices in coping with her frustrations in the future. I Don’t know where to start or even know for myself how she is going to make this better and rebuild trust. Any insight or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

    • Anyone

      Ask her why she is lying about it. Talk about her motives? Let her explain by being 100% honest and show her your confusion on why she would do such a thing when someone just wants to help her by taking her in etc. Let her know you expect respect from her just like you respect her and if there isn’t basic two way respect then the whole relationship will have to be re adjusted some way or another.

  • jack

    my teenager is making her way back at school catching up on6 months worth .how ever she is diffiant and continuing the same procastination towards school work whilst spending most of her time filling every second with engagements wether; work, volenteering ,helping people to avoid homework/chores or social activities .when boundaries are set latly she defies them and goes anyway I have inforce some things I have control of Like neibours visiting or work restrictions but I am agin set the same response this week of Thats not going to happen when trying to set boundaries as school work is again lagging .I also think she had a day off wed to avoid a sac that was due please help

  • Anonymous

    My almost 15 yo son said that he was certain that he was going to accomplish his first straight A’s, instead, he lied to us and got an 89.3. We trusted him that he would get an A in math, a subject that he specializes in. He is grounded from any entertainment for the rest of the semester. He is not allowed to contact his friends, who distract him, he is not allowed to bring a smartphone to school, he is not allowed to play video games with his friends on the computer, and he is not to be missing any work for school anymore.

    • wow

      lol i wish my son would get A’s lol he is lucky to get C’s. 89.3 is great why are you punishing him ?

    • Mike Pirkkala

      You are crazy!


    Blah, blah, blah……..yet another professional making excuses for the behavior of today’s youth. My child lies to me it’s an issue….a BIG issue. Someone who let’s their youth slide by on lying because it’s not that big of a deal is doing nothing but setting themselves up to be lied to constantly because once a teen thinks they can lie to their parents and get away with it without major repercussions then they are apt to lie about anything if it will benefit them in some form or fashion.

    • Jeanie

      Maybe if parents did their jobs as a parents properly and actually talked to their children about what is going on in their life without getting angry or upset, then they wouldn’t feel the need to lie to you.

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