From The Globe And Mail
“Where were you? It’s 2:30 A.M.!”
“Daniel’s car broke down and my cellphone died.”
“You could have used Daniel’s phone.”
“His died too.”
“You’ve been drinking, haven’t you.”
Maintaining trust is perhaps the toughest problem parents face raising a teenager.
“I want to trust my child. It’s the most important aspect of our bond. If I can’t trust him, then how can I feel close to him? Or know that he’ll be okay?”
Her child very much cares about trust as well, but has a different take on the subject.
“Yeah, It’s really important that my parents trust me. I need to feel they are treating me with respect, not like some little kid who doesn’t know anything. I need to feel they can trust me to go out in the world – my world – with all the stuff that goes on: sex, drugs, drinking, lots of serious stuff. Maybe I’ll make mistakes, but I’ll learn. And no, I’m not going to tell them everything. In fact, my being dishonest – not telling them everything – that’s what allows me to be on my own, allows me to grow up.”
We desperately want to be able to trust them. They desperately want us to trust them as well. Both of us feel that mutual trust is the absolute foundation of any possible positive relationship that we might have during their teenage years. Without trust, how can there be a relationship? It’s tricky, largely because parents and teenagers have such diametrically opposed desires. We want them to be safe. They want to have a good time. And our version and their version of acceptable risk are in two different universes.
“Yeah, it’s my life. And besides, nothing’s going to happen.”
But we know that it can.
It’s great if you have a teenager whom you can trust – who is genuinely open about the activities you might seriously worry about. There are such teenagers. But they are definitely a small minority. The great majority of teens are not fully forthcoming. This includes many teens who are genuinely good, and who will grow up to be genuinely good, trustworthy adults. Even they can be devious.
“Yeah, if my parents knew all of the stuff that I do, they would have died of a heart attack, which would be too bad and unnecessary – as, if you notice, I am still here and okay.”
As a parent of a teen, you have to learn to live with a certain amount of unease when they are out in the world. And when they are less than honest, it’s important to realize you shouldn’t take your feelings of betrayal personally. It’s not personal. So what do you do?
Keep track of them. Ask what they are doing – as specifically as you can. Yes, ask a lot of questions. They are skilled at being evasive. You have to learn to pin them down.
“What’s the movie you’re seeing? Where is it? Exactly what time does the movie get out? Who is picking you up? When?”
As a wise parent, always entertain a certain possibility of doubt. Don’t be devastated if it turns out they have been dishonest. Move on. As the wise parent, you want to include the fact that maybe your kid can’t be trusted in any future planning. And if you are unsure and concerned, you do have to check up on them more closely, even if they’ll hate it. And sometimes, if you are still uncertain, you may have to say no.
“No, I’m sorry. You can’t go to the sleepover at Corinna’s. I just don’t trust you enough as to what you will do.”
“Omigod. Omigod.” (Which doesn’t mean that she isn’t already scheming as to how to get around this.)
Your surveillance – though flawed – does make a difference. You make it less easy for them to be in situations where they are doing what you don’t want them to.
“Omigod, my parents want to know everything. How am I supposed to have fun?”
So, how can you have a loving, supportive relationship with a teenage child whom you don’t trust? The answer is – easily. It is in fact the way most relationships in the world work. We often have mixed feelings. Not feelings that lie somewhere in between, but simultaneous contradictory feelings.
“Sometimes I really like him and really like being with him, but sometimes all I can think of is how dishonest he can be, and I am totally disgusted with him. That’s how I feel.”
It’s okay to have two totally opposite attitudes: love and mistrust. They do not have to be resolved. It’s what the package is. It’s normal. Sometimes one, sometimes the other. Welcome to the club.
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books, including Get out of my life, but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall?: A Parent’s Guide to the New Teenager.