Teenagers’ desire for independence and their parents’ concern about their ability to make wise choices often lead to conflicts. Trust is the emotion that can help both parents and teens interact more freely. Teens generally believe that they are entitled to make their own choices because they are more knowledgeable and capable than when they were children. Their desire is also fed by encouragement from their circle of friends. What they often miss is that independence is something they can achieve only by building trust.
Imagine you refused permission for your 15-year-old teen to go to a friend’s party, and they say, “You don’t trust me!” You may counter that you do and try to smooth things over. Truthfully, however, although you may trust them in general, you have doubts about how they’ll behave in this specific situation. If your teen wants to enjoy independence, they must earn your trust rather than accusing you of not trusting them. One path you can take is to teach your teen about trust and ways to earn it. Trust doesn’t show up overnight and must be nurtured over time, sometimes months or years. It requires establishing sincerity, competence, and building a history of reliability. In the party example, they could sincerely commit that they will indeed go to the party, and the party is what they say it is. They can demonstrate their competency to take care of themselves and make sound decisions at the party by following the rules you agree to with them. These will help establish a history of fulfilling their promises.
Traditionally, our interpretation of trust has included a moral dimension. It has been thought of as related to a person’s character rather than just the degree to which we believe they’ll do what they say. In the interpretation I use, trust is seen as a risk assessment tool. It allows us to interact with others without taking excessive risks. In this case, the amount of risk you perceive when your teen goes to the party is the basis of your decision. From their side, your teen will be open with you only if they trust you. In the same way your teen must earn your trust, you must work toward earning their trust. When your teen was a child, they trusted you implicitly. They never had to assess your abilities raising them even if you weren’t very skilled as a parent. Now, as teens, they have begun to challenge your sincerity, competence, and reliability as well.
We hear many stories about teens who have become victims of online predators. Why did they trust those strangers? Did their parents teach them a reliable way to calculate the risk of interacting with strangers? If you didn’t teach your children how to assess trust when they were young, you could begin now. Assessing trust is a life skill that will always be useful. You can help them develop, maintain, and repair trust and even end relationships safely and respectfully. This is essential learning that help you empower your teen to achieve true independence.