This is the same child who, as an infant, instinctively trusted that you would feed and diaper her as needed, that you would show her you loved her with your smiles and kisses and hugs, that you would keep her amused with funny faces and tickles. The same child who would snuggle up to you in bed knowing you would, unfailingly, tell her a story that night as you did every other night. The same child who would come running to you in tears when she had hurt herself, knowing you would “kiss it and make it go away”. And now, at 14, all of a sudden, she doesn’t want to talk to you, has told you she can’t trust you, and if you try to appease her by saying “Have a good time” as she’s rushing out to a party, is quite likely to shout, “Don’t tell me what to do!”
What has happened? How did those steely bonds of trust dissolve seemingly overnight? Therapists typically feel a tremendous empathy for the parents who come to them for help with problems they are having with their teenager. Raising teenagers can be an extremely challenging – apparently maddening -- task. And therapists also typically feel a tremendous compassion for the teenagers who come to them with “issues” – it’s a roller-coaster ride for them, too.
One of the most challenging areas that parents of teenagers struggle to navigate is trust. While a few families seem to never have any problems with this and coast along smoothly, many families really struggle with it.
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Mostly, parents lose the trust of their teenager through well-intentioned, but extremely damaging, actions – or inaction. It’s not uncommon, for instance, for parents of teens to secretly poke around their child’s life to find out what’s going on. At other times, prompted by fears of what “might be” going on, parents demand, threaten or intimidate their teenager into disclosing information. If your teenager discovers that you have violated his privacy or that you are trying to arm-twist him into giving you information, his trust in you goes out the window.
Other ways you can lose the trust of your teenage child include: lying to her, breaking a promise, betraying a confidence, or withholding something important from her.
When a teen feels betrayed by what you have done or not done, she may act out inappropriately. She may yell, call names, withhold affection. All this may seem irrational, and it is easy for distraught parents to lose sight of the fact that teens do not yet know how to handle their emotions in a healthy way, and they may be acting out because they don’t know what else to do.
Trust is not something any of us can take for granted. Unfortunately, you can lose it overnight. Re-building trust once it is lost may take even longer than building trust in the first place, especially if it has been broken in a particularly hurtful manner. The list of suggestions, below, is by no means comprehensive, but it constitutes basic requirements for building (or re-building) a trusting relationship with your teenager.
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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 him. That sends out a strong signal that you trust him. Obviously, you don’t share everything with your teen, but there is no reason to lie to him.
Quit snooping: This is by far the most common trust violation I come across in my practice. Usually motivated by 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, checking the text messages on their phones, or flicking through their diary if they keep one.
To be clear, I am not referring to parents who have an understanding with their teenager regarding the level of supervision or visibility they will have over their child’s various communication channels – e.g., checking their browsing history online. 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 endeavours can be very informative for parents, but if discovered can cause significant damage to the parent-teen relationship.
Teens are at a stage when they are discovering who they are, exploring new and exciting aspects of life. These journeys of self-discovery are often deeply personal and very important to a young person. The sensitivity a teenager feels about his personal life is amplified by the anxiety and uncertainty he feels about who he is and what he is becoming.
It is only natural therefore, that a teenager places a high value on his privacy, his sense of personal space, both social and physical, and his thoughts and feelings. Teenagers spend a lot of their time and energy controlling what parts of their lives they share and whom they will share them with. Parents commonly under-value how important it is for their teenager to feel in control of what they share with the world, and they overestimate their right to know what is happening in their teenager’s life.
There’s a caveat to this, of course. Parents do have the authority to check their child’s cellphone, computer or room if they think their teen is in danger or is involved in immoral, illegal or risky activities.
Acknowledge and apologize: If you have lied to your teenager or betrayed a confidence, acknowledge to him that you did wrong, and apologize. A lot of parents believe they will lose the respect of their child if they say they’re sorry. In fact, you will go up in your child’s estimation if you have the courage to apologize when you have hurt or let him down.
On the other hand, you do not have to wallow in feelings of guilt and try to buy back your child’s trust with a gift or by becoming lax about discipline, say, the time he comes home at night. If you do this from guilt, you are signalling to your child that he can manipulate you to get what he wants.
Know when to butt in and when to back off: It’s normal to be concerned and to ask questions, but you don’t need to question your teen on everything. Also understand that there are some things she may not want to talk to you about, and that doesn’t tote up to her not loving you.
Also, it’s ok to allow her to make her own mistakes provided they are not the kind that will land her in big trouble. She can only learn from mistakes. What she will hate is your attempt to control every action of hers. This kind of suffocating control can really make her feel that you don’t trust her to do anything at all without breathing down her neck.
Spend time with him: The best way to get to know your teen is by spending time with him. Not only will you learn more about and appreciate each other, but it generally results in the teen being more forthcoming with information, and greatly diminishes the parent’s need to snoop and spy. This doesn’t always mean big slabs of what is euphemistically known as “quality” time. Often, you will learn some of the most significant details in short car trips, while shopping at the mall, or over dinner.
Treat her with respect: If your teen feels valued and respected by you, she will be more inclined to trust you. Speak to her without putting her down. Listen to what she is really saying. Don’t humiliate her – especially in front of her peers. Offer her opportunities to have a meaningful say in decisions that affect her. Model civility and the use of positive language.
Validate his thoughts and feelings: At one level, validating your teenager’s thoughts and feelings is also an expression of respect. Many parents have an incorrect notion of what such validation implies. Validation occurs when you acknowledge your teen’s feelings or opinions. You don’t have to agree, but it is important to communicate that you have heard him and appreciate his point of view. What you are essentially saying is, “I accept your feelings in a non-judgemental way”. Examples of how this is vocally expressed: “I can see that this really hurts you.” “I understand how angry that makes you feel.”
Parents fail to validate their teenagers when they ignore, reject, belittle or dismiss their teen’s feelings. Perhaps the most common way they do this is by slipping into ‘fix it’ mode and starting to offer advice and solutions. The message this sends out is, “I care more about you being fixed than I do about how you feel at this moment.”
Another way that parents invalidate their child’s feelings is by denying the significance of situations. When a young person admits to being scared, and the parent tells him, “There is nothing to be scared about”, the parent thinks (s)he is somehow helping the child. What the parent is actually doing is belittling and dismissing the child’s feelings. This makes their teenager less willing to disclose or share his feelings in the future.
A third way parents invalidate their teenager’s feelings is by labelling these feelings as unacceptable or unworthy. “Stop being a cry-baby, toughen up.” Or, “I don’t like it when you’re angry”. You invalidate your teen’s feelings when you laugh away his anguish over the four new pimples on his shiny forehead. All these are forms of rejection, and the net result is that your teenager will in future hide his feelings from you, or even avoid you altogether.
While emotions need to be validated, actions that are expressions of emotion can be inappropriate and should be dealt with. Hitting someone because you’re angry is an example of an unacceptable action. However it is the act of hitting that is inappropriate, the emotion of anger may be a perfectly legitimate feeling in light of the situation. This is an important distinction to make.
A simple outline to keep in mind, in terms of validating your teen’s feelings, is:
- Offer to listen
- Acknowledge his feelings
- Remain present – physically and emotionally
- Accept where he’s at without judging or fixing him
- Communicate you are there for him
Follow through: One of the best ways to re-build trust is to follow through on what you say you are going to do – whether it is making sure you pick her up from school on time, or never betraying a confidence again. Every time you follow through, you show your teenager that she can believe what you tell her and that you are a reliable and consistent presence in her life.
(The author, a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, now works as a counselling therapist)