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The A to Z's of Teenagers: T Is for Trust

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Trust is big.

Trust is so big that I think it is bigger, grander, harder and more important than love.

Love happens. And then, later, maybe you have to work on it (or you don’t). But trust? Trust is work ... deep, deep work from the get-go. Trust is not a magical, maternal, hormonal, pheromonal cloud that suddenly, gloriously envelopes you. It is a rational act. One earns trust. And it’s hard, sweaty work.

You know the cliché that you have to love yourself before you can truly love someone else? That may well be true. But I fervently believe it is doubly, triply true that you have to trust yourself before you can trust someone else. Like, for example, your teenager.

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Trust, I think, is a ladder with many rungs. On the first rung are the explicit, straightforward ways we must learn to trust our kids if we want them to grow into responsible and independent adults.

I trust you will do what you say you will do.

I trust you will not do anything harmful to yourself or others.

These are the big (but very basic) ideas. The specifics might be: I trust you’ll do your homework or I trust you’re not bullying anyone or I trust you won’t lie to me about where you were last night or I trust you’ll come home by curfew or I trust you won’t drink and drive.

That first rung of the ladder is the hardest for us to allow our teens to climb. It’s their first unaided step. For them to take it, we have to let go. We have to trust both them and ourselves. We have to trust that we’ve prepared them for this. We have to trust our instincts and our parenting skills, trust that we’ve made expectations clear, that we’ve set the bar realistically high, that we’ve modeled what we expect. Our kids are only as trustworthy as we give them the tools to be. We have to trust in our own abilities.

And that’s hard. It means trusting parental influence when we know we don’t run the show and haven’t for years and years. It means trusting our influence when we know that our kids spend more time away from us than with us; more time at school, with friends, enmeshed in social media, picking up powerful messages from music and movies and video games. We can’t be blind to this. That would be delusional. But neither can we let it scare us to the point of not trusting—of not allowing a step up to that first rung.

And we can’t be all-or-nothing about this first rung business, either. Remember when you were trusted to take that first step? Did you step with confidence and grace? With alacrity? Were you self-assured? I thought not. Me neither. I stumbled. I fell. I paid the consequences. I got another chance.

How do you get to a place where you trust your teen and he or she trusts you?

And so I was able to move up the ladder of trust. I was able to show—in time—that I could make good decisions (most of the time), that I could be counted on, that I was honest (most of the time). I earned that trust. I’m working hard to give my children a chance to do the same.

And now, a word from the teenage daughter:

I don’t trust many people. First of all, they have to be able to really listen to you—and in high school that doesn’t happen too often. I mean, conversations happen, and information is exchanged, but people aren’t listening. I think being a good listener is very hard. I think most adults don’t know how to listen, either.

Let’s say you find someone who does listen. Great. So you trust them with a piece of information, a story, a fear or some little part of you. My experience in high school is that this is not a good idea. Too often I’ve seen that people use that information to get attention for themselves or to create drama and excitement in a moment of boredom. I know this sounds harsh. And I know that some kids find true blue friends they can trust with anything. (Or think they do...) But most of us don’t.

I do trust my family. They listen, and you can count on them to care. They give feedback and are supportive. And you pretty much know that they’re not going to blab about you to everyone. Also, part of trust, I think, is being able to count on someone, knowing they have your back. You know that, whatever you told them, they’d still be there for you. That’s family.

So, how do you make that happen in your family? How do you get to a place where you trust your teen and he or she trusts you? Well, you don’t know if you can trust them if you don’t give them a chance. Of course you talk to them and you lay down rules and expectations, but at some point it’s a leap of faith. Like the very first party I went to where I drove myself. My parents trusted me not to drink, and they trusted me to come back by curfew. When I did, that laid the foundation for more trust.

RELATED: The A to Z's of Teenagers: L Is for Luck

I think the best way to have your teen trust you is to show how trustworthy you actually are. When you show yourself to be supportive and nonjudgmental that really helps. “Being there” for your teen—a big part of trust—doesn’t always mean actually physically being there. Lots of moms work. My mom works. It means being available when they need you. For my mom and me, it’s all about texting. Also, here’s a hint: When a parents share a very personal part of themselves—maybe not a deep dark secret or something too weird for a teen to handle, maybe just something really embarrassing that happened to you when you were a teen—that can increase the trust level.

If you don’t have this kind of relationship with your teen now, it’s not too late to start. Trust is the basis for a healthy mother-daughter relationship.

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