Trust each other again and again, that is what parenting is about. (Desiree Panlilio).
Take a moment and ask yourself, “What is trust? How does my teen earn my trust?” Equally important is, ”How do I earn trust with my teen?” Trust is having confidence, faith, or hope in an individual. It is believing they will follow through on what they have said they are going to do. Trust is what all human relationships are built around. Without trust a relationship will not grow, and the relationship fails. Trust is something that is earned in a relationship and allows for the relationship to grow.
Earning trust is based on four words; competence, reliability, integrity, and communication. Each of these words have meaning, expected behavior, and consequences when any of these aspects are broken or mishandled. As a parent it is important to always begin with the end goal, that of a trusting relationship with your teen. The building of trust is not a single event but an ongoing event that is constantly evaluated by both parties; you and your teen, in the relationship.
The first part of trust is competence. Competence refers to having the knowledge and skills to complete a task. It is having honorable intentions and by demonstrating competence you gain an individual’s trust. For a parent, that is keeping what your teen shares with you, with you. It is knowing to keep their secret. Being competent also comes with the skill of apologizing by either the parent or teen. For the parent it is judging your own actions and realizing that your actions were not building the relationship or helping your teen develop the many life skills they will need to interact in the adult world. I share that when trust is broken, consequences are best decided upon together so that it is not a punishment but more a learning opportunity. If your teen fails a test, does taking away their phone or not allowing them to go to their friend’s party help that grade? Perhaps the discussion focuses on the consequence; the failed grade and the learning opportunities and how your teen takes responsibility to improve their grade, once the cause of the failure is clarified. This creates personal responsibility and personal accountability. As parents we all agree these two traits are important to value and understand.
Reliability is the act of following through on what you said, to be dependable. By demonstrating to another human being that you are reliable, you are expressing your value in them by being dependable. This is one that is easily overlooked by parents. It is simply showing up when you said you would. If you told your teen that you would be at their soccer game but then missed it because a meeting showed up on your calendar, what does that tell your teen? It tells your teen that you are not reliable and that they, your teen, are not your priority. Over time your teen will start to not share when the soccer games are, and the relationship will grow distant as your teen decides that you are not reliable. The relationship is struggling. The solution is to show up not just once but consistently. To understand this another way, if you had a friend that you made dinner plans with and they consistently did not show up, would you continue to make reservations at a restaurant and show up, only to have your friend not show up? How many times would you let that happen before you stopped making the reservation? That is how your teen feels when you tell them that you will be there, and then you don’t show up. You are not reliable, and to your teen, they are not important enough to you for you to keep your word.
Another key term that defines trust is integrity. Integrity is honesty. It is doing the right thing and adhering to a set of principles. It is living your values and teaching your values to your teen. How many of us have sat down and shared with our teen our personal values, our family values, and then helped your teen to start to internalize and understand their own values. Understanding values helps to make sure that your teen picks “right” over what is fun. Or having courage in the face of adversity and peer pressure. To take it further, it is creating an “out” when your teen is faced with peer pressure and needs the added courage and support of you, their parents. What is an “out”? It is a code that you and your teen decide on, and it means, “Come get me.” It may be a text they send you allowing you to call and give them the reason that you are picking them up from wherever they are. It takes courage for a teen to text their parents, and not to give into peer pressure. To do this your relationship has to be built on integrity. Integrity is a part of trust that allows your teen to feel that they can be honest with you and that there will be no judgement. I do not mean that the situation that you “rescued” your teen from is forgotten. It is a learning opportunity, to discuss how your teen ended up in that situation and discuss what other alternatives were available to your teen. It is a teaching opportunity for your teen to empower them with courage to speak up in that situation. Courage is a skill that is learned and developed. It is coming up with statements they can use the next time a similar situation arises. As a parent we all know that a similar situation will soon be on the horizon. Would it not be nice if our teen had practiced and mastered a go-to sentence that allows them to assert their values, to show their character and integrity. It all begins with your teen having that trusting relationship with their parents to discuss the many peer-pressured moments that they may have.
The final word used to describe trust is communication. Communication is how we demonstrate trust. Open, honest communication demonstrates trust in a relationship. Communication has to be intentional. Every time we engage in communication we can decide to build the relationship with positive communication or break down the relationship by negative communication. To build trust it is important to be building positive, honest communication interactions. This is so important when trust is tested in a relationship. With our teens trust is tested by both parties on an ongoing basis. From big tests such as being caught drinking at a party, to hiding a failed test. How a parent engages in the conversation needs to be thoughtful, value-based and with the end goal in mind. The end goal is to have a relationship with your teen, to understand the choice they made and discuss consequences that are equal to the break in trust and values in the relationship you hold together. The impact of such consequences provide meaning and life-long lessons for your teen to grow on. I believe communication is the relationship. It is having a thoughtful dialogue with your teen that brings into the conversation the three other words, competence, reliability, and integrity. Trust is built in the moments of “fierce” conversations where everyone is engaged and listening. For parents that is often hard, as once trust is broken in any one area of the relationship, it has to be rebuilt and that takes time. I caution both teen and parent if you are going to break the trust in a relationship, understand the consequences, the process of repair, and the dynamic shift in your relationship.
Think of the movie, Dirty Dancing, specifically the relationship between Baby and her father. Over the years Baby and her father have built trust and created a relationship built on all the elements described above. The relationship is tested as Baby finds herself, her own values, and questions her father’s values. For this relationship to “survive”, trust was high. Trust is challenged when Baby asks her father for money for Penny without disclosing the reason why. Trust in that relationship was high, and her father gave Baby the money without a lot of questions. Trust was still high as Baby brought her dad to check on Penny who was sick upon her return from the doctor. After that scene, trust has decreased dramatically because the communication did not demonstrate integrity, competence or reliability. Baby had not shared why she needed the money. When it is discovered the money had been used for something illegal and for whom it was used Baby’s father is angry and trust is lost. Baby loses trust in her father for sharing values that she no longer embraced or could follow. The loss of trust had consequences and the opportunity for growth as both Baby and her dad reflect on their individual values. I am not sure the “silent treatment” by a parent ever works, which is what the father decided to do, it only increased the tension and eroded the relationship further. Remember Communication is the relationship. However, trust had to be “earned” again in their relationship.
It is not until the lake scene near the end of the movie, where Baby confronts her father and shares that she had integrity, that she had told the truth, and that she apologized for her part in omitting what the money was used for. Baby defended her choice in wanting to help people and change the world, which she thought her father wanted. However, the “change the world” was a subjective value that each of them had a specific interpretation to. This opportunity for open communication was possible because of the trust, though minimal, still existed in their relationship and this trust fostered Baby’s ability to share her thoughts and feelings with her father. It is a brave moment and demonstrates the need for trust in the parent-teen relationship and that we must consistently be building our relationship and trust with our teen.
Trust fluctuates on a continuum and at times in a relationship one individual may “burn up” some of that trust, and the relationship may have a speed bump. Parenting often sees this oscillation of trust between teenager and parent. The key to trust is to minimize the times that as a parent we have to stress-test our trust with our teenager. I caution parents when using the phrase “because I said so”. This phrase needs to be a part of our communication past. It serves no purpose in building trust. It is the easy answer. I am sure we would not want our teen to be so dismissive of our questions or concerns. It is at that moment when as a parent we take the easy answer that trust melts away from the relationship. It takes time to explain the reason behind a choice made as a parent. It is remembering that parents have to demonstrate the competence, reliability, integrity, and communication that builds trust. It is the responsibility of a parent to demonstrate building trust and then expect your teenager to do the same. If our answer is “because I said so”, is it reasonable or realistic to expect a teenager to divulge information or greater details of a situation if the level of trust has not been established? High levels of trust allow for the parent-teen relationship to have conversations that help your teen to build life skills they will need to have as they enter the adult world and work force. Life skills such as courage, communication skills, critical thinking skills and being able to define their values and boundaries are all part of having that trusting relationship with you the parent.
Teenagers today face many opposing views and now more than ever need to have that trusting relationship with their parents. Creating this trust and building a relationship with your teenager requires the ability of a parent to discipline with love, mentor with authority, and love unconditionally. It is understanding that the teenage brain is changing and growing, that critical thinking skills and high-order cognition are developing, and that sometimes poor choices are made in the light of their inability to understand the long-term consequences of their behavior. However, by developing trust in the relationship, as a parent you are more likely to hear about the bad choice and can intervene at an earlier stage. Trust allows for the dynamic communication between teenager and adult, so that encouragement and guidance can help facilitate their development into adulthood.
Trust establishes the bond of a relationship that allows for fierce conversations. Trust fosters the conversation and the conversation is the relationship. Without conversation the relationship dissipates. I encourage you to take the time to build trust in the relationship and to continue to grow trust on a continual basis in relationships.