Teenagers want freedom…but it requires TRUST
Love is unconditional, trust is earned.
So how do you help your teen build trust so they can enjoy, responsibly, the freedom they crave?
In This Article
About the Author
September Trent MS, LPC is a licensed professional counselor specializing in eating disorders, self-harm, anxiety, and depression treatment. You can schedule an appointment with September for online counseling or in-person at our Springfield, Missouri counseling center.
Balancing Trust and Freedom
The one thing teenagers want more than anything is FREEDOM . If you are a parent of a teenager, you definitely understand the struggle between protecting your teen and giving her freedom. Before your adolescent can have freedom, she has to BUILD YOUR TRUST.
Often, teenagers view trust and freedom as the same thing, but they need to realize trust and freedom are not the same.
When a teenager is asking for trust, she really means freedom. It is important to make the distinction between these two important aspects of relationships. Balancing limits, freedom, and opportunities to build trust is difficult for most parents.
Due to the frustration this balance can create, there are those parents who blindly trust their teen even though the teen does not deserved it.
When an adolescent has not learned how to be trustworthy, she may use her freedom in an immature way.
Those parents who are fearful of giving their adolescent freedom may be on the opposite side of the spectrum: they do not give their teenager any freedom. This approach can lead to broken rules and dishonesty. How do you adequately balance limits, freedom, and opportunities to build trust?
Can I Trust My Teen?
Savannah, your 16 year old, just got her license to drive. She asks if she can drive two of her friends to a movie, and she promises to come home right after she drops her friends off. As her parent, you are thinking this is a good opportunity to build trust with your daughter.
You remember she has completed all her homework assignments this week, and she has been responsible in her driving. As a result of her responsibility this week, Savannah is allowed to go to the movie with her friends.
About an hour after Savannah leaves, you receive a call from a couple who is a friend of you and your spouse. The friend wants to let you know she saw Savannah with a boy at the mall. This friend was concerned because she saw Savannah kissing this boy.
How would you handle this situation? Is Savannah trustworthy?
- Keeping your word. If you say you are going to do something, follow through.
- Honesty. Choosing to be truthful even when it could get you in trouble.
Even if you do not agree with someone, you treat him/her how you would like to be treated. When you get loud and gruff with your teen, this does not lead to her identifying what she did wrong. It will actually motivate your teen to focus on your poor behavior rather than her own.
- Accepting Limits. Respecting the limits or boundaries set in a relationship because you understand their importance in building trust.
- Acknowledging your mistakes. We all make mistakes. Admitting to these mistakes and taking responsibility for them is what makes someone trustworthy.
How Can I Help My Teen Build Trust?
The following are from John Townsend’s book Boundaries with Teens. This is a great resource for building healthy boundaries with your teenager.
Stay informed about your teen’s life.
If you do not know your teen, how do you know you can trust her? It is important as a parent to stay informed about your teen’s academics, extracurricular activities, and social life. Without this information, it is easier for your teen to be deceptive. When you do not have information about her life, your teen will find it easier to be dishonest. While your teen may appear to dislike your involvement in her life, in actuality, she wants you to be interested in her activities, hobbies, and achievements. Therefore, make it a priority to be informed about your teen!
Communicate that your love is unconditional, but freedom is not free.
Your love should not be based on your adolescent’s actions or ability levels. The love you have for your daughter should be unconditional: you will always love her. Communicating your love is unconditional is just as important as feeling unconditional love. Your adolescent must be told and shown your love is not based on anything she can do. It a free gift you happily give to her.
On the other hand, freedom has to be earned. As we all know, freedom comes at a price and your teen has to learn this concept. It is better she learn it from you than the police. In order to earn freedom, your adolescent must learn how to build your trust. Trust leads to freedom. Communicate with your adolescent how being trustworthy in a certain activity will lead to freedom.
Give your teen opportunities to build trust.
Your teenager cannot build trust without the opportunity of failure. Yes, I said FAILURE! Success as well as failure in these opportunities will provide learning opportunities for your teen. After all, no one is perfect.
Failures are tough but not final.
This is an important lesson. As a parent, you need to provide limits where your teen has a choice to make; if she makes a responsible choice she earns freedom, if the decision is an irresponsible choice she loses freedom.
Opportunities to build trust can be everyday tasks or specific boundaries set by a parent in order to help the teen learn to make a responsible choice. For example, when a teen starts on her homework at night without being asked this builds trust through your teen being responsible for daily tasks.
If your teen is given the opportunity to go to her high school’s football game and she arrives home at her curfew time, this is a specific boundary you set as a parent that is helping your teen build trust.
Give leniency for confession and consequences for deception.
Everyone makes mistakes; no one is perfect.
Surely, you can remember a time when you did not follow your parents’ rules.
For this reason, it is important to let your adolescent know when she does make a mistake, it is better for her to tell you about it than to hide it. While there should be a consequence for the mistake, make sure it is less severe than if she lied to you about the mistake.
This provides another way for you to encourage your teen to be honest no matter the circumstance.
Make time for your relationship with your teen.
With all this talk about trust, freedom, and limits, it can make a parent sound like the bad guy. While it is important to set boundaries and enforce consequences, you have to make sure you make time to build a relationship with your teen.
It is important that you do not see your role as becoming her friend because you are her parent. Always make sure you thoroughly talk with your teen about boundaries and consequences. Make sure to praise her when she is responsible and trustworthy.
When you do have discussions with your teen about trust, freedom, and boundaries make sure you listen to your teen.
This helps your teen feel understood and develops a closer bond between yourself and your teen. Even if your teen does make a mistake, make time to have a discussion about the incident where both you and your teen have a chance to discuss what happened.
It is important your teen feel heard and understood.
Teens and parents both know that hearing and understanding don’t have to involve agreeing.
In the previous example about Savannah, how would you handle the situation?
First of all – You would need to give her an opportunity to explain what happened.
After she has been given a chance to explain herself, you would need to discuss what she did that broke the limits you set on the activity.
Next, you would need to explain to her the need for her to rebuild your trust and the consequences of her actions would be a reduction in her freedom.
At this point she may be upset, and it would be important to give her a chance to express herself and try to understand how she is feeling. Reflect back to her what she shared with you and express your unconditional love for her.
Thoroughly discuss the limits around her freedom and the opportunities she will have to build trust.
Lastly, do not distance yourself from Savannah, but continue to build the relationship despite the mistake.
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- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Depressive Disorders. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. (5th ed., pp. 155-188 ). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- Berlinger, N. T. (2005). Rescuing your teenager from depression. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
- Teen Depression – Mayo Clinic 
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