Trusting Your Teen

When I ask my 17-year-old son where he’s going, he says “Out.” And when I ask him what he’s going to do, he says “Drugs.” Some parents would react, but I just laugh, because I know he’s kidding. What does he really mean? He means “Mum, I want you to trust me to make responsible decisions.” He and I believe that trusting your child is one of the most important things you can do to help them come through the teen years into a responsible adult.

I just came back from a weekend away at a conference, and my son had a small party at our home while I was away. He told me that one of the boys’ fathers was very concerned about this, and asked whether I knew about it. My son said “Of course,” and offered that he could call me when I returned. This dad was apparently assuming that teens apart from parents will naturally get into trouble. I know my son, and his son, and I know that they can be trusted. It took me back to when my son was five, and attended an after-school daycare. The daycare lady phoned me in distress in the first week : “He doesn’t wait for the rest of us when we walk from the school to my home. He runs ahead and crosses the street on his own. He’s such a bad boy.” I asked Ben what had happened. “Mum, I’ve known how to cross the street since I was three. She thinks I’m a baby!” I acknowledged his feelings, told him I knew he could trust the street on his own, and suggested that he could stay with the group and help her teach the other children how to cross the street. End of problem.

Throughout childhood our children learn how to cope with an increasingly wider world. Our message to them at each stage, including the teens, needs to be one of trust and confidence. First we need to equip them with the necessary knowledge and training. Next we need to express confidence in their knowledge, their good sense, and their ability to handle things. And finally we need to give them the opportunity to experiment and gain experience on their own. A lot of parents become increasingly restrictive as their children move into their teens. Curfews and grounding seem to be the norm. The message these parenting techniques give to your children is that you can’t trust them, that you believe they are stupid and/or irresponsible.

When you impose rules that imply that a teenager can’t make responsible decisions, or when you react and become angry when your child makes a mistake, you take over the functioning of your child’s own conscience and good sense. The teenage daughter of a friend of mine recently got her belly-button pierced, and sure enough, her mother reacted and became upset. The girl said “Only part of me wanted to do it, and I decided I’d rather fight with you than fight with myself.” In other words, if she’d known her mother wouldn’t react, the girl would have considered both sides of the choice herself, and probably ended up making a better decision. It makes all the difference to a child at any age if his parents are supportive and express confidence in him, then let him try things and make mistakes, which are part of learning. I still remember the day my younger brother came home drunk for the first and only time. Rather than yelling, my parents just laughed. He didn’t need to repeat the mistake.

Parenting effectively at every stage involves (1) nurturing, and (2) letting go. The letting go is just as important as the nurturing. Prepare your child for each new challenge, then let him handle it. My son and I are now preparing for the next stage, young adulthood. One of the ways we do it is by watching “Felicity” together every Sunday evening. My son becomes eloquent about the stupid decisions of some of the very realistic young characters in the show. When he was little, I taught him how to cross the street – and then I let him cross it. He learned to ride the bus, and ride a bicycle – and then did these things on his own because he knew that he knew how. He’s made it through the world of teenage peer pressure, and now he’s preparing for the larger one at university. I know he’ll do fine.

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