Trust: A Two-Way Street

Written By: Laura Cole, ACS Clinical Intern, Community Counseling and Adolescent Substance Abuse Treatment Programs

In relationships trust is an essential component.  But, what is this sometimes seemingly “intangible” thing we call trust among parents and teens?  How is it built and maintained on this two-way street?  How does one repair when a breach occurs?  All too often, in the therapeutic realm, therapists encounter this underlying rupture between parent and teen.  Parents often report feeling like they cannot trust their teen or they fear the worst possible scenarios and want to protect their teen. Alternatively, teens often want to regain their parent’s trust and/or simply desire to be trusted by others.

So, parents: I want you to take a moment and think back to when your child was a toddler.  In many ways, the teenage years are similar to toddlerhood.  The toddler is learning about the world around them, and as an encouraging parent you would help them navigate and learn about the surrounding world.  Your toddler took risks while you encouraged them, helping them master aspects of their world, and sometimes having to stand by and watch as your toddler struggled to gain mastery.  This is how confidence and self-esteem are built in those early years.

The teenage years have striking similarities, whether it is risk taking, “temper tantrums” or outbursts of sorts, and the child’s need to know their parent(s) are STILL there as they are striving to develop their autonomy and independence.  A key difference in the teenage years is that the world is now a lot bigger and broader and your child has more volition, which can make things a bit tricky to say the least.

In adolescence, privacy becomes a need as your teen is learning to develop their independence: exploring who they are, dealing with different challenges and a developing a sense of responsibility that will support their pursuits in young adulthood (i.e. when they may be off at college, away from mom and dad).  In this phase of development, socialization with their peers is of paramount focus and becomes a practice ground.  Thus, the parent’s role begins to shift and it can be scary and frustrating.  This is where striking the balance between allowing your child their privacy while continuing to monitor them comes in.  Conceptually, this is not much different from toddlerhood.  Realistically, teens are not quite yet ready for the adult world, as their brains are still developing and are apt to exhibit impulsive behaviors without thinking about the consequences.  This is why teens still need their parents; they need advice, direction, and support.  But when balancing teens’ need for privacy and independence with the parents’ need for monitoring, this is where trust building is a key factor.

Monitoring is different from intruding upon your teen’s life.

Monitoring means you are checking in with them and upholding boundaries in regards to a curfew, knowing their general whereabouts, and keeping an open line of communication, devoid of knowing all the details of your teens interactions with peers. With appropriate monitoring, a parent is better able to identify more extreme forms of secrecy, which may indicate a deeper problem such as depression, anxiety, substance use or other activities that may be problematic.

An intrusion on the other hand, may look like “tracking” your child’s every move–sometimes literally with location software and devices.  According to a recent publication on ethical parent responsibility (Fahlquist, 2015) “if a child’s parents use GPS [tracking system] and know all his/her whereabouts, this sends the message that someone else is in control and presumably also takes responsibility.”  Further, “…if youth experience parental control dually as care and a sign that the parents see the child as incompetent, this is presumably not merely counteracting trust, but also their developing sense of responsibility” (p. 43; see Pomerantz and Eaton, 2000).  GPS tracking tools may generate ‘safety, security, and anxiety relief’ for parents, but it can also produce a breach in your teen’s trust, development of autonomy, self-esteem, and independence.  These are the factors you, as a parent, must weigh out when fostering growth and safety for your developing teen.

Trust is a two-way street with you and your teen.  When breaches occur, they ought to be met with consequences appropriate to the breach, allowing your teen to re-build trust and know the parameters of healthy and unhealthy behaviors.  Building your teens trust comes in the form of “practicing what you preach,” listening more than talking, keeping promises, and showing appreciation for honesty.  Parents can breach trust with their teens too, often these come in the forms of: outbursts, guilt trips, threats, inconsistency, and violations of privacy.  Parents and teens alike will make mistakes and be perfectly imperfect.  This is also another opportunity to model for your child how to work through mistakes.  And when they make mistakes, maintaining boundaries along with a continued expression of LOVING them, even when they make mistakes, will often keep the lines of communication open and will allow your teen to feel safe coming to you when they are really in need of advice and guidance.