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Back to School Is a Trusting Time

How much trust is needed to succeed in any given situation

It’s back to school time—time for our children to establish new routines, connect with old friends or make new ones, meet new teachers, and perhaps even begin in a new school. Engaging in these new situations requires trust, at least initially, which can be challenging for both kids and parents.

Trust is not absolute, it is circumstantial. How do we know that trust varies depending on the circumstances? Think about the people you would say you trust “absolutely.” The number of people we trust for anything and everything, despite how teens may perceive it, is usually pretty small. Teens may say they trust their friends with their life, but how many of these friends are equipped to help if something life-threatening occurs? Parents are the people who are supposed to take care of children’s needs, and most do, but do they even make the top ten list of people teens trust most? For some teens, yes. For most, why is this not the case?

Similarly, the number of situations in which absolute trust is required is small. The well-known polemic says it’s the friends you can call at 2 a.m. who really count. If your house were on fire, if you were injured or otherwise in danger, you might be more likely to call than if the situation were less dire.

One situation that does require absolute trust is in mountain or rock climbing. A person must trust his or her equipment, since it is what anchors the person to the ground. In most situations, another person must also be trusted absolutely, since by steadying the rope or placing the ice axe, the partner holds life in their hands.

Children learn early that adults don’t always mean what they say. Think of a child in second grade. By this time, the child has had more than one teacher and has been exposed to different styles of enforcing rules and consequences. The second grade teacher who says that a student “will fail the year” if he or she does not stop an unacceptable behavior illustrates that adults say they will do things they do not do. Most children who exhibit behavior issues in second grade are not held back.

In school, children learn by observing which teachers do most of what they say they will do. And they figure out how much they have to do to get along with each teacher and to succeed in school. Teens have had a lot of practice with a variety of school situations; they are very good at reading teacher behavior quickly.

No one ever gets to do things entirely their own way. When teens say that they want parents to trust them, but mean that they want to be allowed to do whatever they want to do, they are not asking for trust. They are asking for permissive parenting, which is not recommended, since it has been linked to drug use in teens (Jackson, 2002).

Think about other aspects of your life. Everyone has to abide by rules and meet agreed on expectations. There are inherent power balances in most roles: although many people discuss goals with their employer, if there is a disagreement, it is the employer’s opinion that counts. An employee can decide to seek other employment.

Teens who run away frequently end up in dire situations: Most (75%) do not complete high school (NCSL, 2016), many engage in sex work in order to support themselves on the street (NCSL, 2016), and others engage in harmful drug use (NCSL, 2016). Even imperfect families are generally better than quitting the family.

Teens can be more impulsive in response to emotionally-laden stimuli, as recent brain research supports (NIMH, 2011). As adults, we need to understand and to nurture. It can be frustrating to face an oppositional teen who demands trust while exhibiting unacceptable behavior. Perhaps it is helpful to remember our younger selves, who no doubt posed challenges to the adults in our lives. We may have wanted the adults to do better; now it is our turn.


Jackson, C. (2002). Perceived legitimacy of parental authority and tobacco and alcohol use during early adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Health, 31(5):425–432.

National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) Homeless and Runaway Youth, NCSL: Washington, DC. April 14, 2016.

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) (2011). The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction. NIH: Bethesda, MD. Publication No. 11-4929

Stephen Mitchell, used with permission
Source: Stephen Mitchell, used with permission
Stephen Mitchell, used with permission
Source: Stephen Mitchell, used with permission
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