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Can you, or should you ‘trust’ an adolescent?

I recently posted a link to an article on my Facebook page that had been written by a teenager offering a number of parenting tips. It begins with the lines “I have not birthed a child, held one in my arms, and felt what it is like to see my own creation. I have not become a parent.
But I do know what it is like to be held and raised by two really wonderful parents — to be parented.” It made for an interesting read, and even though it would have been really useful to know more about the young woman that wrote it (we really don’t even know if it was an Australian piece or not), I found it thought-provoking and thought some of the suggestions were really great …

  • Remember who you once were
  • Challenge your child daily with household responsibilities
  • You’re the parent, not the best friend

There were, however, a couple that I didn’t necessarily agree with. The section titled ‘Accept experimentation; it’s inevitable’ actually gave some pretty good advice but the use of the word ‘experimentation’ was problematic – perhaps it should have been called something like ‘Accept that they’ll make mistakes’. As regular readers of my blogs would know I don’t believe that parents should “Expect him or her to come home drunk at least once, to try smoking weed and to cut school” as the piece suggested. Not everyone will necessarily do those things but they will almost certainly ‘stuff up’ and make mistakes at some point during their teen years – that’s how they learn.

The piece of advice that really made me sit up was titled ‘Don’t make your child earn your trust’ and this is what it said …

“There is nothing more frustrating than having to update your mum or dad every two minutes on your location and status. If you make an effort to show your child trust from the start, he or she won’t lie about whereabouts, friends, grades, etc. and in turn, you will have nothing to worry about. It will actually be a win-win situation for both of you because your child won’t have to make up lies and you won’t have to waste time investigating for the truth.

Needless to say, some kids will end up losing parents’ trust by taking advantage of it. If that turns out to be the case with your child, make him or her earn it back.”

“If you make an effort to show your child trust from the start, he or she won’t lie about whereabouts, friends, grades, etc. and in turn, you will have nothing to worry about” … what absolute rubbish! This could possibly hold out (although I very much doubt it) until the first time the parent does not like where the teen wants to go, or has problems with the friends they are hanging out with, but I don’t care how ‘good’ the child is, the very first time they don’t get want they want they’re going to lie through their teeth to try to get it! Can you trust an adolescent? The simple answer is ‘no’. Just think back to your teenage years – were you able to be trusted? Even if you were the best kid in the world, you still told some untruths to get what you wanted or to avoid things you didn’t want to do – that’s a teen’s job!

When a parent utters those five little words “But I trust my child …” it takes all my strength not to say something quite rude, particularly if they’re talking about a 15 or 16 year old. Admittedly, sometimes it is said with the best intentions but all too often it is simply stated to try to explain poor parenting:

  • “I do give her a couple of drinks to take to a party but I trust my daughter.”

  • “Why would I call the parents who are holding the party, I trust my son?”

Let’s put it really simply, if you think you can trust your 15 or 16 year old you’re being quite foolish! If you do, without any doubt at some stage they’ll take advantage of the situation. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to go and experiment with illegal drugs or get drunk, or go to real extremes and rack up debt on your credit card or steal from you in other ways, but they will certainly use that trust to get what they want – never forget that teens are master manipulators (I think we all too often forget what we were like at that time).

So if you can’t trust an adolescent, but what about the ‘should you’ part? The author of this piece is right – you do need to make an effort to show your child you trust them and you do that by allowing them to take part in activities that may be risky (e.g., going to a teenage party, surfing the internet), but at the same time you actively parent and try to ensure their safety by checking up on them and imposing rules and boundaries. Should you be checking up on their “location and status” every couple of minutes? Of course not! But asking questions and conducting age-appropriate checking is a must. I totally get that it can be difficult and takes a lot of energy but if you try to live by the following simple parenting formula it is sure to go a long way to ensuring your child’s safety:

  • know where your child is
  • know who they’re with, and
  • know when they’ll be home

Another simple rule that all parents of teens should live by is if they tell you that you shouldn’t do something, you almost certainly should! If they say that you can’t ring the parents to find out what supervision there will be at the sleepover, there’s usually a reason why they don’t want you to make the call …

Of course, at some point you’ve got to start letting go and give them opportunities to make mistakes – but should that be at the age of 15? I think 17 year-olds should certainly be given more trust, it’s the year of the 18th and they’re not far off being legally adults – you want to strengthen the relationship and keep lines of communication open – not giving in a little at this age is highly likely to do more harm than good. But that doesn’t mean you stop asking the questions though, it just may mean you don’t work as hard on checking the answers they give you!

When I visit schools I love asking young people whether they believe their parents should trust them or not … the usual answer is ‘absolutely not’! I don’t think it would be the answer they’d give Mum or Dad but it’s certainly what I hear from them. It needs to be said that the response is often tempered with comments like “it depends what they’re trusting me with” and “I would never do anything too bad!” but most teens are well aware that when put in a situation where they have the opportunity to do something they really want to do or get something they really want it won’t take much for them to break their parent’s trust. Remember, they’re brains are not fully developed and the reward is just too great (they weigh risk versus reward in a completely different way to adults). It doesn’t mean they’re bad kids, or that you are a bad parent – they’re just being a teenager!

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