On Trusting Adolescents

11_0077_Layer 25

Let’s say for purposes of this discussion that ‘trust’ is believing that somebody or something will meet your expectations.

Reasonable trust is then based on realistic expectations. ‘Blind trust’ is a belief that somebody or something will meet your expectations, in the absence of any evidence or in spite of significant evidence to the contrary. An example of ‘blind trust’ would be a husband’s belief that his alcoholic wife will give up drinking based solely on her exhibition of remorse after her repeated binges. Such trust is ‘blind’ to the realities of the other person’s behavior and limitations.

When parents discover that their pre-teen or teenage children have done something the parents don’t approve of and/or have lied about what they’ve done, the let-down the parents experience is often the result of the parents’ own unrealistic expectations.

You wouldn’t trust a toddler during waking hours to be left alone for long in the same room with his newborn sibling. You wouldn’t trust your 10-year-old behind the wheel of a car. No matter how earnestly you need and intend to diet, you may not trust yourself around chocolate.

And you shouldn’t trust your preteen or teenager to manage his behavior beyond his capacities or always to tell you the truth about it.

One parent writes to us after discovering a lie told by her 13-year-old daughter. “I used to have confidence in her maturity and judgment,” the mother writes.

But I don’t think It’s particularly sane to have confidence in the maturity and judgment of a 13-year-old! Maturity and judgment are acquired, not automatic. At 13, a person’s experience generally has been too limited for her to have acquired sound judgment in many areas, not to mention that even the experiences she has are likely to be distorted by the chaos of emotions and hormones going on inside. To invest global confidence in the maturity and judgment of a 13-year-old is an example of ‘blind’ trust, which sets up both parent and child for disappointment.

It makes sense to trust your 13-year-old’s ability to mature, to trust that she will eventually acquire good judgment. You express that confidence by giving her increasing freedom to make choices in areas where you think she has the ability to proceed. And then you expect her to make mistakes, and to take the consequences of her mistakes.

You don’t give her freedom to choose in areas where you think she’s not ready if these are areas over which she allows you some control or authority and in which the consequences for her wellbeing or yours are serious.

When you make a rule that your 14-year-old daughter may not entertain her boyfriend in her bedroom with the door shut, she may accuse you of “not trusting her.” But of course you don’t trust her to manage her own behavior in such a situation! A parent need not feel guilty in admitting that she does not trust her daughter to manage the powerful feelings that the parent, more than the daughter, knows a private situation with a boyfriend can evoke. You can try to make it clear to the 14-year-old that it is not her intentions nor her goodness that are in doubt: just her ability to control her behavior under the influence of feelings whose power she does not yet fully grasp.

And if the parent does not feel guilty about telling her daughter that of course she doesn’t trust the daughter in such a situation – if the parent does not feel guilty in taking this kind of stand, then the preteen or teenager will be less likely to feel as if her parent thinks she is bad or deficient as a person. It’s like helping the child to begin to gauge her own capacities and limitations.

But what do you do, and, equally important, how should you as a parent feel when your teen or pre-teen has broken the realistic rules for their behavior that you have set and may also have lied to you about it?

When you find out that the teenager who has been given driving privileges has violated “behind your back” the agreed-upon rules about when, where, or how he may use the car, the appropriate consequence is to deprive him of driving privileges for a time. It is not appropriate to wail about not being able to ‘trust’ him any longer because he didn’t confess his crime. To expect him never to exceed the limits and/or never to lie about it is unrealistic.

We need to implement consequences for behaviors that exceed limits. And we don’t have to condone lying, nor protect our children from the natural consequence of lying, which is that others will doubt what he tells them.

But it is not reasonable to lose faith in our children’s essential goodness or our trust in their capacity to grow up into moral, caring adults, because they sometimes lie to us or in other ways fail to meet our expectations. Instead, we need to take a look at our expectations.

Copyrighted © parenting Adolescents; all rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *