The Secret to Overcoming Trust Battles with Your Teen

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The other evening at dinner, my twelve-year-old daughter recalled a serious auto accident she was in when she was four. Her memory was terrifying: the car skidding on a rain-slick street, flipping over a guardrail, and finally coming to rest upside-down. It’s a wonder she wasn’t killed.

Her memory was terrifying…but the wreck never happened. I explained to my daughter that she was mistaken.

“Oh,” she said, laughing, “it must have been a dream!”

Memories- real or imagined- form the basis of trust, which begins in the emotional part of the brain. Like fear, trust forms rapidly, and it’s based on your memories. They might be memories of a similar situation, something similar you’ve seen or heard, or even someone similar you’ve known. The complexity of trust deepens because your memories can have been formed from any experiences-  real, imagined or virtual. Even TV informs your memories and affects whether or not you trust a situation, a person or an idea.

So why does this matter to you and your teen?

Trust is critical in the development of your teen’s self-esteem and healthy relationships, including the one with you. This means you have to trust your teen to learn from mistakes and not to repeat behaviors or decisions that turned out poorly.

But does that mean you must give your teen free range? No. Why? Because there’s something else you need to trust: your gut.

With less life experience, teens have limited memory banks. That means the memories informing their decisions and activities just aren’t robust enough to help them make safe choices. That’s when the battle begins to brew. Your teen trusts his or her own ability and knowledge. But, informed by your own experiences and memories, you don’t share that trust.

So how does that battle play out?

Let’s say your teen got his driver’s license three months ago. After those long three months, your teen considers himself the best driver in the universe, capable of handling any situation, including driving at 60 mph through a blinding hailstorm. And he’s not bragging; he truly believes in and trusts his abilities and rapid-fire instincts. Now he tells you that he wants to drive a group of his friends downtown to a great new ice cream shop. He’ll be driving into the city for the first time.

Neurons across your brain light up, each sending an SOS, and you immediately say, “No way, not today.” Your son’s sense of rejection is visible on his face, and the battle for trust begins- the first shot his assault on your ears: “Mooommmmm, why?”

In a fraction of a second, you envision twenty different scenarios: the damaged car, the higher insurance payments, the rental car to get to work, your teen watching the tow truck pull away, all the idiot drivers you’ve dealt with over the years, the reported carjackings downtown, perhaps even an accident you saw or experienced yourself. It’s the chemistry of all these memories that causes you to respond, “Because I say so! You’re not ready.”

Meanwhile, in that fraction of a second, your teen is thinking: “I’ve been driving for three months and I haven’t had an accident. I know what I’m doing. Parents are such a pain! WHY DOESN’T MOM TRUST ME?” He doesn’t have that extensive memory bank that helps him draw conclusions or even remotely understand your decision. For him, it boils down to one thing: You don’t trust him when he’s done nothing to cause you to distrust him. In his mind, it’s a battle for trust; in your mind, its practical reasoning. If you simply end such battles with a “because I say so,” leaving them unattended and unexplained, your teen will begin to behave in ways that demonstrate what’s going on in his head, which is “Why try?”

You can’t let it become a battle for trust. That’s the wrong battle. Chances are, your teen deserves to be trusted, to mess up, and then to be trusted again (perhaps with different boundaries). You want a trusting relationship, which includes your taking the time to talk about your many reasons for saying “no.” You need to let your teen know that it’s not about trust. The “because I said so” approach doesn’t help him understand your very realistic concerns about the bad things that might happen. It also removes the chance for what should be a healthy round of civil argument that will provide clarifying discussion…thus shifting away from his sense of not being trusted.

So avoiding a strained relationship, improving your teen’s self-esteem, and continuing to build mutual trust- with boundaries- means you need to stop doing whatever you might be doing, look your teen in the eye, and explain all the things driving your decision, including your experiences. Explain that you very much trust him in most situations and that you appreciate how hard he has worked to earn your trust. Then, after saying “not today,” offer to be his co-pilot when he drives into the city as a confidence boost…for both of you. Together, you can build up the memories necessary so that soon you’ll trust him to make that drive alone.

Trusting your teen is critical for his or her development. When both of you understand how your memories influence that trust, you can further build that trusting relationship. Never win a battle with “because I said so”; always keep in mind how your huge library of stored memories and experiences influence your decisions, and explain these to your teen in a meaningful way.

Parenting teens provides constant opportunities to display trust while still saying “no.” What examples or comments do you have?

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