I’ve written about this many times before and this is an update of an article I first wrote about three years ago. Sadly, no matter how many times we warn parents about blindly trusting their teen, it just doesn’t seem to register until something terrible happens. This week I met a couple who recently almost lost their 15-year-old son and, as they said to me, it just wouldn’t have happened if they had been checking up on him a little more and not simply trusted him to do the right thing. Without going into the details the incident involved fast cars, alcohol and the young man not being where he had said he would be … Their son was so lucky but the parents are now feeling terribly guilty about not making phone calls and finding out more about their son’s movements by talking to other parents. They also feel foolish that they believed that their son was ‘different’ and would not let them down by lying to them. As I said to them, parents can only do their best and beating themselves up after the fact is not going to help anyone. They now have to concentrate on working with their son to rebuild a trusting relationship and just be glad that he is still with them.
The evidence is pretty clear that if you want to do your very best to keep your child safe through the teen years there is a simple parenting formula to follow:
- know where your child is
- know who they’re with, and
- know when they’ll be home
Of course, this is so much easier said than done and involves a heck of a lot of work. It takes time and energy to check up on what your teen has told you, calling other parents to find out whether they’re going where they say they’re going and making sure they do what they say they’re going to … but if that’s what it takes to ensure your child comes home in one piece, I’m pretty sure most would agree it’s worth the effort! As I say in my parent sessions, sometimes when I end my talks with these three simple tips I can see some people in the audience who look like I have just stabbed them in the heart. When I have approached them afterwards and asked them what the problem was, they turn around and say “But if I did those things and checked up on my child they would think that I didn’t trust them!”
Let’s put it really simply, if you think you can completely trust your 15 or 16-year-old son or daughter you’re being quite foolish! Do you have to trust your adolescent? Absolutely! But can you always trust an adolescent? Of course not! If there is one of you reading this who can honestly say that you didn’t lie or cheat at some time or another to get what you wanted during your teens then please take 30 seconds to forward a photograph of yourself to my email address and I’ll include you in all my future talks as the only adolescent in history who didn’t! Blindly trusting your teen will at some stage lead to them taking advantage of the situation and you being terribly disappointed.
A few years ago I met a Mum who shared her story that perfectly illustrated this point … here is an extract of an email she sent me:
“My daughter threw all the usual guilt onto me when I asked her anything about the parties she was going to and what she was doing when she went there with her friends. Every time I questioned her I was thrown the “But don’t you trust me?” line and to be quite honest, I had no reason not to trust her. She has always done exceptionally well at school, I knew all of her friends (and some of their parents) very well (or so I thought) and I was convinced my 15-year-old daughter was the one who never lied. As a result, I didn’t do the checking, I allowed her to go to sleepovers and didn’t make the calls and I was one of those Mums who picked her teen up by text (when I even bothered to pick her up, convinced by her that other parents were doing that perfectly well). This went on for two years until I had a phone call on a Saturday night six months ago from one of her friends to tell me that she had been taken to hospital by ambulance in a critical condition.
In the following weeks I found out things that have made me question everything I believed about my daughter and her friends and, most importantly, my parenting. From the age of 14 she and her friends had been drinking regularly, she had started smoking cannabis at 15 and had been going to nightclubs most weekends from the age of 16. Don’t get me wrong, my daughter is a good girl. Smart (her grades have never dropped once and she is highly likely to get into medicine next year), beautiful and loved by all who know her – she just lied to us continually about her social life for over two years. It wasn’t even that we are strict, controlling parents – we never stopped her attending parties and the like, we never even put a lot of rules around her going out when she was 14 because we trusted her and we believed her. I’m not sure what we would have done about alcohol but, to be honest, she didn’t even give us a chance! We trusted our teen and we were terribly let down.”
This is a fairly extreme example – this young lady had lying down to an art! It must have also taken an awful lot of work to co-ordinate everything she did on the weekends so that her parents never realized what was going on. This is not the norm and teens taking advantage of ‘blind parental trust’ doesn’t necessarily mean that they are going to go and experiment with illegal drugs or get drunk, or rack up debt on your credit card or steal from you in other ways, but make no mistake 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) – they know who to talk to (i.e., who is the ‘weakest link’?), when best to ask the question and they also know exactly what you want to hear? I guarantee they’ll give you the perfect answer to almost every question and if they can make you feel guilty for asking it, well they’ll throw that in every time!
At some point you ‘have’ to trust your teen – every parenting book ever written will tell you that trust is vital in a parent-child relationship. By all means, make an effort to show 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 them every couple of minutes or even every time they go out? Of course not! But asking questions and conducting age-appropriate checking is a must.
It’s also important to remember that 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 as was the case with the mother I met during the week? 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!
Published: September 2019