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What Is the Depth of Trust Between You and Your Teen?

Healthy ways to build trust with your teen

Key points

  • Many parents don't know when to punish—or how to create boundaries for behavior.
  • A system of earned trust is helpful.
  • The system is best established by the whole family laying down guidelines together.

I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe that Danny, the teen I was working with, the one who was making so much progress and was about to graduate, had lied to me.

I didn’t want to believe it.

I was too close and blind to the fact that an addicted client I was working with was acting like an addict--and I should have known better. But he even looked me in the eye and swore that he was telling the truth. He gave me all the right responses to what I needed to hear as a trusted therapist, and, in the end, he was unaffected by how he treated the staff and especially me, and he easily moved on without apology, as if to say Screw you, this is who I am, and this is what it is.

In the professional counseling and social work industry, we often forget that an addicted person is someone who will steal your wallet one day and then spend the next whole day with you looking for it. In this instance I couldn’t believe that my coworker found pot on the client, and then I couldn’t believe that Danny would betray me and himself. The savvy coworker who found the contraband on Danny didn’t find it unthinkable, however. But I did—because I was so close to him.

As a professional, I’m willing to give second chances to any client. On a personal level, however, I can’t stand betrayal. I may even write you off if I find that I can’t trust you again. As a therapist I let my personal mind overlap my professional understanding, and this is a trap that most parents also fall into.

From a clinical perspective, it’s interesting to see how much weight parents put on that trust, and how many of us don’t know when to punish, and when to define the terms of that trust.

Springfield 8 Weeks to Wellness
Source: Springfield 8 Weeks to Wellness

Many parents will react to a teen who is lying as if the world was coming to an end-—as if they must respond with the harshest consequences. They’re crushed, dumbfounded, and they cry tears of betrayal.

It’s shocking to have teenagers betray us as parents because we see them as babies, toddlers, kids, and teens all at the same time, when they’re just operating as teens with teenage brains. We think, why would they betray me? Why would they even think to trick me with an untruth, let alone lie to my face about something so serious as their safety and health?

It’s ridiculous to expect that your teen is never going to be dishonest. It’s not like all teens are liars, but for a teen who is struggling with hormones, peer pressure, relationships, sex, and identity, it’s all too much and too new at the same time. They’re navigating it all and they don’t always want to talk about it, or they may feel that they might hurt you.

As strange as it sounds, your teen is not always going to remain upright and virtuous (if they have been so far). Not lying to you should be a standard, but know that they're going to lie to you. When I’ve seen disappointed parents crying at their child’s dishonesty, I’ll pull them aside and tell them to flip or change the script. What if the story was that this is who they are? Or that these are the behaviors to expect? From here on out you need to be able to look at the situation differently. It doesn’t mean that teens can’t be trusted or that all teens are lying con artists, but it doesn’t mean that this isn’t going to happen and we are going to end up here at some point.

Eventually we have to let our teens go somewhere and do something and trust that they make the right decisions and find the best solutions. This is why parents need to put a system in place of what is anticipated or expected, and that system needs to be built on a standard of earned trust. This trust needs to be earned in measurable and consistent fashion, and the family needs to set the parameters together. Once trust is lost, whether it’s from misbehavior at a party, drinking, or breaking curfew, then it needs to be measurably earned again.

After a while, the teenager needs to be trusted enough to win back that bond in a consistent fashion. If they act responsibly, then they get another chance. There has to be a defined system of clear communication for when that trust is broken—on any level. But it can’t be an impossible standard. It has to be a covenant of sorts that exists between parents and child that is open enough to make things work but not closed off to alienate the teen and send them off into a reality where they are only rejected and not allowed to earn that trust again.

In real life, things are lost and found, or we have systems that reward served time and good behavior in regards to debt and punishment. Credit card debt gets charged off after seven years; points and car insurance rates go down over time; and yes, criminals do get rehabilitated and then released with shortened sentences or for good behavior.

JGI / Jamie Grill / Blend Images / Getty Images
Source: JGI / Jamie Grill / Blend Images / Getty Images

We need real life examples, consequences, and systems in place if we’re going to succeed as parents, and not just as guardians who cut off our children at first lie or mistrust. We can’t punish them into earning our trust, but rather we need to set up boundaries and understandings that they agree on. The world is full of broken people who never got the right chance at the right time to turn things around. Many of them ended up missing all the great parenting that could have saved them. Just as well, the world is full of broken people who had the best parenting but who chose a life of addiction anyway.

Our kids need to be honest with us, at all costs. Moreover, we need to believe them—or at least believe that they’re not always lying.

Instead of a quick and harsh punishment for misdeeds, parents could approach their teen with earned trust measures:

If you drink, I’d rather have you call me and I’ll come pick you up.

I’m not concerned about punishing you right now—just tell me what went wrong.

As parents, we’re going to support your healthy choices no matter what.

Whatever parenting structures you put in place will become a part of your relationship through the teenage years and beyond. Your teen will respect you and herself more with this kind of understanding, and you’ll know what outlines of trust you can count on to keep your family together as best as can be.