TEENS: 4 simple ways to a trustworthy teen

10 April 2016

Trust…a word we all have a relationship with, both positive and negative.

Trust is central to day-to-day life, relationships, work endeavours, friendships and family. When trust is lacking, life tends to grind to a halt – people go in their own directions, concern for others diminishes, and hurt and resentment prosper. Yet, when trust flourishes, we have teamwork, communication, care and people working to improve the lives of those around them.

But what about teenagers?

Can they be trusted…and more to the point, should they be?

Through our own teenage experience we know that our parents had no idea about most of the things we got up to, a lot of which involved elements of risk. What we also know is that, thanks to technology, teenagers today have a world of risk taking and mischief available to watch on YouTube, 24/7 access to peer influences through social media, online access to synthetic or real drugs, and more disposable income than ever before. This endless connectivity also means predators have 24/7 access to them. Yet, teenagers need freedom if they are to develop independence and grow into responsible adults.

Many parents struggle with balancing a teenager’s need for independence and the need for protection and guidance. Trust is a key mediator in this balance. Trust works when we trust trustworthy people. Parents who have a good foundation of trust in their trustworthy teen are a lot less stressed about letting them explore the world. Parents who don’t trust a trustworthy teen have ongoing conflict and can be overly restrictive, while parents who trust their untrustworthy teen end up placing that teenager at greater risk of harm.

Modelling trustworthiness as a parent

Trust starts with you as a parent. Teenagers, as much as they may argue this point, look to adults for guidance about how to be and how to act. UCLA professor of psychiatry Dr Daniel Siegel says cultivating healthy relationships means to be Present, Attune, Resonate and create Trust (PART). Being present means being aware of your surroundings and mindful of the person you are relating to, listening to what they’re saying without getting lost in thinking. Attune means to be attuned to the emotion of the situation and person you are relating to. Resonating means to reflect that emotion back to the person you are relating to. Trust is created when this process is translated into reliable interactions. Dr Siegel calls this being a PART of another’s life; being present to attune and resonate your emotion, and build trust through understanding.

This may sound a bit idealistic, a level of perfection beyond daily life. However, we don’t actually want perfection because perfection is unattainable. This is about practising as adults, practising being aware when we deviate from this PART approach and then making an effort to return to it. This is important, because this is what we want our teenagers to do when they stray from the clear path we set for them…which they will. We want them to acknowledge it and make every effort to get back on track. This is trustworthy behaviour.

This process is important as the seeds of whom we blossom into as adults are sewn in our teenage years. Teenagers need freedom to seek out new experiences and discover themselves apart from their parents. And parents also need to begin letting go of their teenagers in order for them to do this successfully. This is how teenagers grow into healthy independent adults. If either process is not completed, we end up with unhealthy dependency and resentment in adulthood. So, how do we navigate this balance between allowing freedom and giving direction? Trust. Trust is the compass that tells us how much freedom to give and how much direction to provide.

When two trustworthy people trust each other, decisions about freedom and independence are much simpler.

Building a pathway of trust for your teen

So now that we are modelling trustworthiness as a parent, how do we instil this in our teenager? We need to build a pathway of trust. There are four basic parts in building a pathway to trust: identify your family values, develop some house rules based on these values, guide your teenager toward your expectation and refine their efforts when they make a mistake.

1. Family Values

Discovering your family values begins with taking the time to sit down and answer the following questions:

  • What do I want my children to remember about their childhood when they are adults?
  • What do I want my children to
  • learn from me?
  • What are my values?
  • What governs my decision making?
  • What did I like, or not like, about my childhood?

Write these up and discuss them as a family when developing the house rules.

2. House Rules

House rules are drawn from family values and are, therefore, different for each family. As parents, start by answering the following questions:

  • How do I want my family to operate when there is conflict?
  • How do I want my family to operate when there is work to be done?
  • How do I want my family to operate when there is someone hurt?
  • How do I want my family to operate when there is someone in trouble?
  • How do I want my family to operate when there is failure?

From this, develop a skeleton of house rules to be discussed and decided upon as a family. Teenagers must be involved, to varying degrees, in household decisions, of which rule making is one. This gives the whole family ownership and reduces conflict later on.

House rules need to include what the expected behaviour is, what constitutes breaking the rule, what the response will be once a rule is broken and how one can rectify the situation after breaking a rule. It is important that once this process is complete and the person who broke the rule has rectified the situation satisfactorily that it is not brought up again in the future. House rules allow us to let go and move on.

3. Guidance

Guidance begins with the development of house rules. Guidance is where you as a parent provide instruction and positive influence on your teenager’s behaviour through development of clear expectations. Guidance also involves providing advice, modelling desired behaviour and attitudes, and sharing challenges to find solutions. Guidance can be obvious or very subtle, but it all involves proactive and supportive involvement in the teen’s life in an effort to make them successful. Guidance relies on relationship.

As a parent of a teenager, your relationship with them is an essential tool for influence. If you have no relationship with them, you essentially have no influence over them. Take the time to know them, revisit what they like and their strengths. Talk to them and make time to spend with them. Develop a special ritual that only the two of you share. It is through the conduit of this relationship that they will ask your advice and, more importantly, ask for your help.

4. Refinement

When something is refined the impurities are removed, generally through the application of extreme heat. Refinement in this context is when a negative part of our attitude or behaviour (the impurity) creates hurt or suffering for ourselves or someone else (the heat). Refinement is the way you respond when rules are broken or trust is lost. Good refinement is essential because, as noted earlier, perfection is unattainable and teenagers will stray.

If a teenager strays a little, house rules should be sufficient to provide a clear response and get the teen back on track. But what if the teenager strays a lot? What if trust has been violated over and over? Then greater refinement is necessary and a detailed pathway back to trust needs to be developed. A basic pathway back to trust involves: do A (the responsibility) and get Z (the privilege). The less trustworthy a person is, the more steps required. For example: do A (a little responsibility) to get some of Z, do B (a little more responsibility) to get some more of Z, and do C (total responsibility) to get the rest of Z.

A pathway back to trust allows for errors to be made, such that if we fail to meet a certain level of responsibility then we lose access to that level of privilege. These errors can then be corrected, the privilege reinstated and trust earned back.
Everyone arrives at parenthood with different experiences of trust based on their experiences of life. However, we all know the importance of trust and how essential it is to life and relationship. So it is worth the extra effort to repair it if it has been broken and build on it for the future. Remember, set reasonable expectations, be firm, and be ‘all in’. When a teen has done the hard yards and earned trust, then trust them. Do not bring up the past, and give them the freedom promised to them unreservedly. This is being a trustworthy parent who trusts their trustworthy teenager.

James McManis is a psychologist at All Abilities Psychology in Noosa & Gympie. All Abilities Psychology work with children and adolescents as well as their families/carers to develop skills and facilitate positive change. They work from a developmental model and firmly believe that all individuals, regardless of age or ability, have the capacity to learn new skills and fully engage in everyday life.
All Abilities Psychology believe that all clients' needs are unique and individually important, and they are committed to meeting those needs by offering individual programs tailored to individual needs. For more information visit www.allabilitiespsychology.com

Written by

James McManis, Psychologist
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