Four Hearty Ways to Build Trust with Your Teenager

Four Hearty Ways to Build Trust with Your Teenager

As a parent, you know how important it is to build trust with your teens. A good parent/teen relationship is key to having a good teen, according to Dr. Richard Lerner, author of the Good Teen. Dr. Lerner said it’s all about strong, nurturing, and trusting relationships. You need to trust that they won’t take the car keys when you told them not to. You need to know when they say they’re doing their homework and close their door, they aren’t looking up inappropriate videos on their computer. And you hope at that party, they remember what you told them about dangerous drugs and alcohol. 

But what if they do lie, and they do try drugs, and they steal money and the car, and whatever else teens are dishonest about. Or worse, what if they stop telling you about their problems? 

Losing your teens’ trust can be devastating. It’s like a death in the family. You used to spot them on the highest sections of the play structure, wiped their snotty noses, and helped them say sorry for not sharing with their playmate. You’ve got to admit it felt good that whenever they’d skin their knee, they came to you for the bandaid. Not gonna lie, it hurts when you feel they can’t trust you, and when you can’t trust them either. And now they hardly talk to you!

The problems got much bigger, though, didn’t they? Bandaids can’t fix what’s happening in 2020 and 2021. It seems like the usual sex, drugs, and rock and roll talks have developed into way more complicated versions of the usual. It seemed like you were fine last year, but this year, the trust problem is getting worse and worse. 

Today’s teens have been through Hell, being isolated from what used to be the regular checks and balances of a team of ‘teen expert’ mentors: teachers, coaches, tutors, and peers. No one wants to touch being a teen in 2021. 

In response to seeing their children hurt, parents might nag too much. Or ask too many questions. They may forget that a teen needs some privacy to learn how to be independent—to learn who it is they are. Yet who has the luxury of privacy in this day and age? Parents are spending too much time with their teens. So how can a parent hold on to the relationship? How can a parent build trust? Yet the basic trust building methods are still the same as they were in 1990 or even 1950, for that matter. You may not be your teen’s best friend, but you can still be the one they go to with problems. Just follow these simple four ways to stay close to your teen and build that trust like you built this city on rock-n-roll.

Set expectations

You don’t want your teen to feel like they can’t come to you with a difficult problem. You want your relationship to be so strong nothing’s gonna stop us now (just like the Journey song, right?). Yet those bad influences are everywhere, just everywhere. One day, your sweet little punkin’ is obviously lying about something. It’s not quite as obvious as blue frosting across their face proving they licked Dad’s birthday cake before the party, but you’re getting the feeling that that last conversation might have been a fib. Or a stretching of the truth. Or a flat out omission. You don’t believe your teen came straight home after school because they can’t account for the last hour. What the heck is going on here? Perhaps your teen didn’t think they had to tell you because they weren’t sure of your expectations. Your teen can’t trust you because they don’t know where you stand. But you can get much closer if you set expectations. 

Trust is something that needs to be earned by all parties, so as a family, you can sit down and list the expectations you all have for maintaining trust. This could mean that your teen agrees to tell the truth when you ask where they are going, and in return you can agree not to snoop through their diary or open their private text messages. When teens come up with the rules with you, they will feel more a part of things, and that builds trust. Make sure to add why you have a rule in place as well. According to the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, “When teens understand why we put rules into place, they are more likely to both follow and appreciate them.” So be flexible and open to their privacy requests, and set your own boundaries for trust so that you can be shown to be trustworthy. If you need some help on negotiating rules and limits, listen to the podcast on setting expectations with Chris Voss, the former FBI hostage negotiator. Do you need that much help? Well, we never said it was going to be easy.

Be exemplary

You can set the expectations together and iron out the honesty in your home, but if you want to build trust with your teen, you need to set a good example yourself. Be the change you want to see in the world, right? 

If you don’t want your teen to drink alcohol at parties, you probably don’t want to show up at grandma and grandpa’s with a six pack of White Claw, and go on and on about how amazing it is and how everyone should drink hard seltzer. If you glorify alcohol, so will your teen. If you think it’s cool to smoke a joint after work, so will your teen. And if your teen hears you and your spouse fighting because you spent all the savings on fantasy football bets… and lied about spending the money on groceries, your teen is going to think being dishonest is okay … as long as you don’t get caught.  If they hear you gossiping about their friend’s misfortunes, they will think it’s okay to bag on their friends behind their backs. If they see Dad come home with a pile of stolen materials from the construction site, they’re going to think it’s okay to pinch some clothes from their retail job.

So if you want your teen to be honest, and dignified, and moralistic, you need to show them that you are always trustworthy in any and every situation. If they see you lying, cheating, breaking confidences all over the place, not only will they not come to you when they really need you, but they are more likely to act similarly too, and the last things you need to be dealing with is a teen who doesn’t place much importance on being a trustworthy person.

You may want that relationship you had before, and even if you are an exemplary parent, and you model good behavior for your teen, they still might not want to tell you everything. 

Being a teen means discovering oneself, and that is a good thing. Teens like to build themselves up on social media, and text and IM their friends to keep up with their private lives. Yet how much of this do they want to share with their parents? 

Apparently not much. Experts like Elizabeth Donovan, M.A., in an article called “Pssst…Why Is My Teen Keeping Secrets From Me?” say keeping certain secrets from parents can be good for teens. Yet we want our kids to talk to us. We don’t want them to go at it alone! We don’t want them to ever have feelings of depression or despair and not share that with us.

Donovan says children tell their secrets to adults in the early stages of human development because they aren’t ready to individuate from their parents. Yet in early adolescence, teens become aware that secrecy allows them to create their own identity. And they need to keep their Instagram posts, sexy Snapchats, and taboo texts and all that stuff secret from their parents. It helps them sample out different character ‘outfits.’ It helps them soundboard practice scripts, jokes, and conversations that they need to have in order to figure out who they are. It’s really just their age. We adults have had plenty of time to work out who we are. Our teens are needing independence from the childhood days of telling us everything. 

So maybe parents might benefit from knowing teens need to keep their personal ‘rough draft’ to themselves. Depending on the content of the secret, Donovan says, the concept of secrecy and the motivation behind it can be extremely controversial between parents and teens. We want to peek at their rough draft, and they are mortified, because it’s not done yet! If you knew what they said or did, it might be too embarrassing. They think you might not like them as much as you did before. This is a real thing. Teens do care what you think, and that might be the motivation not to tell you.   

“Shame and guilt provide compelling motives for keeping difficult secrets such as sexual assault and eating disorder but they are not the only reasons teens remain silent,” Donavan said, adding that despite the eye rolling, door slamming, and verbal insistence that they don’t want your advice, they do. She said, “In many cases the biggest deterrent for teens is risking their parents’ disapproval or disappointment.” 

Be compassionate

So how about not being so judgemental? How about letting teens be teens? You may not be able to empathize with a teen who is struggling with addiction if you have never been there yourself, but you can, as this article on compassion highlights, show them compassion. Being compassionate rather than acting in anger or punishing your teen will show them that you really care and want to help them. If you lack compassion in response to their problems, you are likely to push them further away and further into whatever scary situation they have found themself in.

At the same time, parents need to keep in mind the year we are living in. We are still at the exit point of a year-long pandemic and lockdowns. A 2018 CDC report found suicide as the number two cause of death in US teens, and that was before COVID. Emergency rooms across the nation have reported unimaginable rise in suicide attempts coupled with a huge rise in drug and alcohol addiction. Bullying evolved into cyberbullying, sex expanded to fear of intimacy, social apprehension dipped germaphobically into OCD, and all the other health and wellness issues with teens are worse. And with this generation’s unique trials and tribulations, increased technology and screen time makes it all too easy to keep secrets. So be more compassionate. Be more present. They need it right now, and if you show less judgement, they will come to you.

Be consistent

Now, there’s being compassionate, and there’s always being compassionate. Can you think of one person in your life who consistently shows compassion and understanding? Be that person for your teen, not just once, but every single time. This is the key to building trust. You know how psyched a teen gets when you handle things right, when you are chill about something? Do that kind of thing more often and your teen will be wanting more time with you. They will enjoy your company. Seriously, would you want to spend an hour at the coffee shop telling your darkest secrets to a drill sergeant? Or would you rather spill your guts to the person who always listens and always tells you they love you no matter what? 

If you want to build trust with teens they need to know where they stand with you, which means being consistent in your parenting. If you let them stay out until 10 p.m. one night, but next week you’re saying it isn’t safe for them to do so and they need to be home by 8:00 p.m., and there is no good reason for that, they aren’t going to have much trust in you. Or if you tell your teen that they can’t do something, but then two minutes later let them do that very same thing, they simply will not know where they stand with you and that will be a real problem when it comes to building trust. Let your teen be a mind-reader. Whenever they do something wrong, they know what you will say, and that will be consistent with the expectations you set as a family. And when they do something right, they will expect you to give them loving encouragement. Building trust with your teen may take time and patience, but eventually, it will pay off and it will be worth it when they can come to you, and you can trust them to act appropriately. You are the dock, and they are the boat. Whenever they float back to you, they know exactly where to tie their rope.

Quick Takeaways

  1. Set expectations: Let your teen know where you stand so they don’t have to guess. 
  2. Be exemplary: Model good behavior. Your teen is watching your every move. 
  3. Be compassionate:Understand these are wack-a-doo times. Give your teen a huge break and more hugs. 
  4. Be Consistent:Don’t be a Drill Sergeant one day and Mr. Rogers the next. Teens can’t stand hypocrisy.