I don’t know about you, but I am well aware of the crap I pulled when I was a teenager and even a young adult that my parents thankfully were never aware of. They were definitely learning experiences, and I felt fortunate even at the time that nothing terribly serious was happening to my health, my body, or my state of mind. I was never into drugs, thankfully, but I knew plenty of kids who were and it wasn’t a far reach to grab some if I wanted them. Knowing all of this information about ourselves, now that we’re all grown up and adult-like makes you wonder if trusting your teenager is even a possibility. There’s the whole “times have changed” argument, reminding us that things that were unheard of in our youth are now commonplace, and it’s a scary world out there when you watch your teenager leave the house.
However, what is the alternative? Locking them in a closet is against the law, in case you need the reminder. We could start in on them young, and make them paranoid about having friends, trying anything new, and creating a little worry wart with ulcers at the age of thirteen. We could try the “wait and see” approach, the one that says we’ll give you your freedom until you mess it up for yourself. Of course, we know ultimately that no matter how attentive we are they are doing something that we are unaware of and that would make our skin crawl and need written reminders from the state that locking them in the closet is still illegal.
It’s almost completely ironic. From a distance I have noticed the parents with the terribly irresponsible and even dangerous teenagers believe that their child is worthy of all kinds of trust while I’ve watched the parents of the responsible and helpful teenager be kept on a leash so short that it hurt my own neck. It’s embarrassing. Then there’s the parents who tell their child how trustworthy they are but spend their Friday nights tailing them and watching their every move. Parents in homes with multiple teenagers have an even harder time. You simply can not treat each child the exact same way because one will always be more responsible and honest than another. It’s the way life works. So what is a parent to do? We’ve already addressed locking them in the closet, haven’t we?
Your ability to trust your teen has just as much to do with your relationship with them as it does with their behavior. If you really know your kid, and honestly know how they act when you’re not around, which I promise is a different ball of wax entirely, then chances are you can extend them more trust. If you’re on top of where they are, how often they stretch the truth and what their friends do when their parents aren’t around, your trust will most likely be honored. If your relationship is strained, there is chronic fighting, yelling, hard feelings, silence, and disruption in your home the likelihood that your trust is warranted is slim. In fact, kids between the ages of 13 and 17 say that for the most part their parents are still their biggest influence on their right and wrong behavior. Kids who want their parents to think well of them, trust them, respect them, and honor them are less likely to exhibit behaviors outside of their presence that would simply appall their parents. Teenagers who feel resented by their parents are twice as likely to experiment with behaviors that bring us back to that ugly closet issue.
Teenagers have an amazing ability for spin. They can tell the truth in seventeen different ways to seventeen different people, and for all intensive purposes, close scrutiny will prove that they were being truthful. It’s amazing, really. Yet what you need to express to your teenager when extending them trust is that you require the ugly truth. You need them to know that you can survive the ugly truth and so can they, so can your relationship, and so can their potential for freedom. Not all behaviors should result in a loss of trust. If your kid went to a party and got drunk at the ripe old age of fifteen but had the guts to let you in on this ugly truth, there’s room in that for helping them make better decisions without yanking their rug out from under them. If you respond to their ugly truth with chronic punishment, why on earth should they continue to tell you?
Your child should be able to understand your feelings associated with trusting them. Talking to them regularly about your concerns regarding grades, activities, friends, social situations, and potential pitfalls lets them know where you stand and why. It helps them to adjust to the world around them that is bigger than they are but they feel obligated to fill. It’s just as terrifying to be a teenager running amok in the world as it is to be a parent of a teenager running amok in the world. Perhaps one day that whole closet idea will pass into legislation.