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. Here’s some help for building trust with your teen.
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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.
The one thing teenagers want more than anything is freedom (Townsend, 2006). 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 understand 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 deserve 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?
Ali is 16 years old and while she has an iPhone, her parents have made it clear she cannot have social media. Her parents check her phone once a week to make sure Ali is not texting anyone she does not know. Ali has voiced anger about the no social media rule because all her peers have some sort of profile on one of the social media sites. Her parents don’t know she has profiles on Facebook, Instagram, and Snap chat. Ali snaps with many friends at school including a few guys from other schools. Luckily, her parents can’t see her snaps to know she is friends with guys she does not know in person. Unfortunately for Ali, her parents find her open Instagram account when looking through her phone and confront her about it. Can Ali’s parents trust her? How do they have a discussion about social media?
- 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.
- Respect. Even if you do not agree with someone, you treat 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.
1. 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. More importantly, she needs you to listen in order for her to feel heard. Emotional attunement is a concept defined by your emotional reaction matching your daughter’s emotional needs (Hemmen, 2012). For example, when your teenager gets in the car after school and she seems upset, your response should be “receptive and attentive” (Hemmen, 2012, p. 43). Instead of asking her twenty questions about her day, communicate “You look upset. I am here to talk when you’re ready.” Emotional attunement is an important aspect of connecting with your daughter. If she feels you respond in a way to hear her emotions, she will respond honestly in conversations about boundaries and trust.
2. 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. A few ways to show your love for your daughter is to initiate time spent together in activities she enjoys, learning a new hobby together, and making a set time each week to spend time together just the two of you. This time should never be taken away as a result of a consequence or punishment. Your daughter should not have to earn quality time with you.
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. When you notice your teen acts in a trustworthy manner, comment on this and praise her for this choice. It may sound something like “Emma, thank you for texting me each location you went with your friends. I know you have communicated you dislike doing this, but it helps me learn to trust you.” Another idea is to work with your daughter to develop a freedom list (Hemmen, 2012). This is a list your daughter would prepare that describes the types of freedoms she desires. With a tangible list, you can discuss specific ways to earn the freedoms on the list and your daughter can have set goals to work toward.
3. 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.
Let’s use the example given earlier in this article with Ali. Her parents have given Ali the opportunity to build trust by allowing Ali to have her own cell phone. They set limits in that Ali cannot have social media profiles, and they check Ali’s phone once a week. While this is a good example of giving a teenager opportunities to build trust, there are a few boundaries that could be changed. First, Ali’s parents should have a conversation with Ali about being able to check Ali’s phone at any time including the once per week boundary. On a side note, younger teens should have less freedom with electronics while older teens who have showed responsibility with electronics may have more freedom, but remember they have to earn this freedom (Hemmen, 2012). Second, at some point Ali’s parents will need to allow Ali to have a profile on one social media site to help Ali learn how to be responsible with the internet and social media. When her parents allow this, they will have to make sure to communicate about the dangers of social media, know the site themselves, monitor content, and know Ali’s password (s). A helpful chapter on this is found in the book Parenting A Teen Girl: A Crash Course on Conflict, Communication & Connection with Your Teenage Daughter by Lucie Hemmen.
4. 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.
For example, you hear from another parent that the birthday party your 16 year old daughter attended over the weekend was not supervised by adults and alcohol was present. The parent states when she went to pick up her daughter she saw your daughter drinking alcohol. At this point you may be furious and want to confront your daughter with accusations. Of course you would be furious! It is best to take a few moments or hours in order to calm down before discussing the incident with your daughter. When you go to initiate the conversation, begin by stating you want to discuss an important topic. Next, set boundaries in stating “I am going to give you information that I received and I would like for you to listen thoroughly. After I finish, it will be your turn to respond and let me know how you feel. I truly want to understand.” As you describe what you heard from the other parent, do not accuse your daughter, state it as information you received. Next, give your daughter a chance to respond and acknowledge her mistake as well as discuss how she feels about the whole situation. At this point, try to put your emotions aside for a moment to understand what your daughter is experiencing. If she admits to the drinking, you would explain you are proud of her for telling the truth and honesty helps build trust. It would be important to discuss how your daughter’s decision to drink alcohol also has an impact on trust: negatively. You would also describe a consequence for the behavior. If your daughter does not acknowledge what happened, you need to refer to the boundary previously set in regard to dishonesty and describe a more severe punishment for the two actions. It would also be a good time to discuss how these two decisions negatively impact your ability to trust your daughter. After talking with your daughter, identify your emotions personally in order for them not to be projected on your daughter.
5. 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. A helpful tip is to think of the words “curious, open, accepting, and loving” as you listen to your teen (Hemmen, 2012, p. 23). Thinking about these words will help you to remember to be curious about the topic, open to hearing your daughter’s opinion, accepting of how she is feeling, and loving toward her. This helps your teen feel understood and develops a closer bond between yourself and your teen. Teens and parents both know that hearing and understanding don’t have to involve agreeing. It is important to be mindful in the conversation and to be focused on connecting emotionally with your daughter. 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.
If you or someone you know needs help in their relationship with a daughter, the our counselors can help. Contact us at MyCounselor.Online.
Hemmen, L. (2012). Parenting a teen girl: A crash course on conflict, communication and connection with your teenage daughter. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. (electronic copy)
Townsend, J. (2006). Boundaries with teens: When to say yes how to say no. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan
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