Do You Trust Your Teen, and Does Your Teen Trust You? (Part 1)

There are two essential questions you must ask yourself when it comes to the role of trust in your relationship with your teenager. They are both important, but the second one is critical.
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Parents scolding their teenage son and daughter
Parents scolding their teenage son and daughter

There are two essential questions you must ask yourself when it comes to the role of trust in your relationship with your teenager. They are both important, but the second one is critical. They are:

1. Do I trust my teen?

2. Does my teen trust me?

In this article, I'm going to address the first question and in the coming days, the second.

I'm often asked by parents how to know if they can trust their teen. The answer is simple -- though not always easy.

It leads to a question of its own, actually. "You already know," I say. I usually let them sit with that for a moment, and follow up with, "What is your gut telling you?"

The real work is then twofold. First, listening to that "voice within" to hear what it's telling you. And second, knowing how to enter into intentional, positive conversations with your teen on the topic. This is something I believe all parents should do.

I want to make a few points about trust in general, and then share some thoughts on how to have the right conversations with your teen about it.

Trust is actually a simple concept in that you either trust somebody or you don't. It's a yes or no question. A caveat to bear in mind is that in close relationships (family members, friends, co-workers) we will often trust somebody in one way but not another. For instance, you may trust your teen to make good decisions at a party where there are drugs or alcohol, but you may not trust that he's doing his homework rather than watching YouTube when he's in his room "studying."

Also, the closer somebody is to us, the more complicated it is to get clarity on our gut feelings. Our emotions can collide with our reasoning ability and we get confused. For example, you might not trust that your son is being honest with you, but you second guess yourself because if you say something he might get angry, and maybe it's just your own anxiety anyhow, and so on goes the dialogue in our heads.

Bearing those things in mind, how do you talk to your teen about trust? Again the answer is simple (though not always easy): calmly, openly and directly.

Trust should be an ongoing conversation you have that you bring up when a) you have concerns, or b) you want to praise them for being trustworthy, which is a good way to reinforce that behavior.

If you have concerns, here are some five suggestions for making that a positive conversation:

1. Pay attention to your timing. Don't just spring it on them when you're feeling moved to do so. Try to catch them when they are in a calm, receptive mood. When is your teens more "open time"? Late evenings before bed? Late Sunday morning after sleeping in? Aim for a time when they're more relaxed and at ease.

2. Stay calm. Calm parents = calm kids. Ok, most of the time. It may not be perfect math, but the calmer you are, the more you'll create the conditions for them to respond in kind.

3. Call their behavior into question, not their character. State the facts about the specific behaviors or events that are creating concern. Be honest about how you're feeling. They need to hear that. But also let them know you believe in their character, but right now they have damaged your trust through some of their choices.

4. Let them know how to regain your trust. Articulate what they can do to regain your trust. Tell them what specific behaviors you want to see to regain it (i.e. being home on time, being honest about where they are and who they're with, etc.).

5. Be willing to let it be unresolved. Just because you talk about it doesn't mean you'll walk away trusting again. Trust isn't an intellectual process; you'll trust them again when you trust them. It's ok to let them sit with that reality.

Remember the conversation should be ongoing. Check in with them as needed to praise them for the good work done to repair the damage, and to be clear on what still needs attention.

As I mentioned there is an even more important question you should be asking: does my teen trust me? In part 2, I'll dig deep into that question and why it's so important.

Joshua Wayne is a Family Coach and Youth Mentor. He teaches parents to eliminate conflict and power struggles with their teens, and bring healthy communication back into the home. He also speaks frequently to parents and educators around the country. You can learn more about him at