Part Two of Rebuilding Trust Between Parents and Teens
Trust is a fundamental building block of all relationships. The parent-child relationship is one of the most delicate bonds of trust, especially as children develop into teenagers. During adolescence, children are exploring their strengths, weaknesses, and interests and deciding who they want to become. In order to detach from their parents, teens often push the boundaries, question authority, and experiment with ways to nurture their growing independence.
As teens spend less time under the watchful eyes of their parents and more time with friends, at work, and in other activities away from home, parents have to trust them to make good decisions on their own. Parents of teens who have struggled with substance abuse, defiance, academic failure, depression, anger management, and related issues often have experienced serious violations of trust and face a number of obstacles in re-establishing this bond with their child.
PJ Swan, LPC, Director of Family Services at SageWalk The Wilderness School, holds seminars and workshops for parents on rebuilding broken trust with their teen. "Parents with teens at SageWalk have to learn new ways to nurture openness and trust with their child after he or she returns home from our wilderness program," says Swan. "Even as parents see their child making progress through phone calls, letters, visits, and reports from therapists during the program, they retain an emotional memory of their child's verbal abuse, defiance, and other destructive behaviors. They want to rebuild trust but they just don't know where to begin."
Ways to Break Trust
Parents want their children to be happy, and children want to make their parents proud. Violations of trust are hurtful and damaging to everyone involved, and can make both sides feel like the other doesn't care.
"In general, trust is broken when a parent or teen acts in a way that doesn't meet the other's expectations," Swan explains. "Breaking curfew, not finishing homework before going out with friends, and getting in trouble at school or with the law are all examples of ways to break a parent's trust. Likewise, if a parent promises his child she can go to a party on the weekend if she finishes her chores, and then fails to follow through, trust is broken."
According to Swan, the following are common examples of behaviors that destroy trust:
Earning a Parent's Trust
Trust is a two-way street. In order to gain their parents' trust, teens have to demonstrate a pattern of trustworthy behavior. This starts with being where they said they'll be, talking to parents with respect, being honest, and taking responsibility for their choices.
"At SageWalk, we remind teens that while they've done excellent work on their own in the wilderness, they need to translate those new behaviors and skills to life at home," says Swan. "They've taken the first critical step of learning they are in fact trustworthy and can earn respect from wilderness instructors and their peers. Now they must earn the respect of their parents by proving how much they have grown."
Every time a child follows a rule or meets their parent's expectation, the baseline trust and respect expand. "The key is remembering trust builds slowly and can be broken down easily," Swan advises. "For every five times you do the right thing, it only takes one poor decision to undo the trust you've built."
Earning a Child's Trust
Just as every child wants to be trusted, every parent needs to earn their child's trust as well. "Nurturing trust is more about what the parents do and less about what their children do," says Swan. "By analyzing and modifying their own behaviors, parents can become trustworthy role models who consistently follow their own rules."
A parent builds trust every time he follows through on a commitment or promise. For example, when a parent says, "I'll pick you up at 4 p.m." and follows through on that commitment, the child learns he can rely on his parent without getting hurt. A parent also gains trust by modeling appropriate emotional management and conflict resolution skills. "Maintaining a calm tone of voice or taking a break when discussions get heated shows a commitment to positive change in the relationship," according to Swan.
In order to build trust, parents need to show the same respect and understanding for their child that they show to adults. For example, if a child is upset about an argument with a friend or a bad grade, parents should take her feelings seriously and avoid sharing private information with family friends or work colleagues. Parents who are compassionate and understanding will raise a child who is open to sharing and receiving thoughts and feelings with their parents.
As role models, parents should treat friends, family, and even strangers with respect at all times. Similarly, parents should treat each other with respect and honor each other's opinions and approaches to parenting. Even divorced parents can agree to leave disagreements behind closed doors and present a united front that gives their children a sense of cohesion and consistency.
"If parents break their commitments and lie to or disregard the needs and rights of others, children will follow their lead," explains Swan. "Likewise, if parents take care of themselves and speak calmly and compassionately to others, their children will act accordingly. If a parent slips up and says something rude or inappropriate, he can model trustworthy behavior by taking responsibility for the mistake and taking steps to make it right."
Parents build trust by standing firm in setting and enforcing boundaries. "This doesn't necessarily mean your children will 'like' you or treat you like a friend," Swan warns. "But trust has little to do with how much we like someone or their decisions. Rather, it is the firm belief in the honesty and reliability of another person. That's what being a parent is all about - giving a child what they need, not necessarily what they want."
Swan continues, "Trustworthy parents are disciplinarians first, friends second. Rather than wishing your child would do the right thing, you have to show your child the right thing and insist on it every time. Once children trust the order, structure, and consistency of the family, the parent-child relationship will deepen."
Teens are hardwired to rebel and question authority, and there's no doubt every teen will get frustrated with the rules at times. "In those moments, parents should simply stand firm and say, 'I want you to trust me to follow through and be consistent in my parenting.' Be honest and verbalize what you're trying to accomplish with your rules and disciplinary actions."