The 6 Best Ways to Build Trust in Your Teenager

Mom and Son trust

By Samurai Mom

Trusting your teen may feel a bit like flying blind. We frame it for our teens like this: trust is the faith that a person will do the right thing when nobody’s watching.

What are the best ways to build lasting trust with your teen?  Trust is a two-way street, built mostly through communication. Once earned, it can slowly gain strength, erode or – in extreme cases – dissolve at an instant. To grow this critical cornerstone of your relationship, the best ways to build lasting trust are to:

  • Set clear expectations
  • Maintain a feedback loop of communication
  • Model trust for teens – actions speak louder than words
  • Be consistent
  • Give Incremental freedoms – let go – mistakes will happen
  • Build-in room for forgiveness

Why Flying Blind is is a Good Image for this Changing Dynamic

In this analogy, your teen’s newfound independence is the fog through which you must travel. Gone are the days of your eagle-eyed observation of the ground and horizon. Monitoring your kids’ playdates, meals and clean underwear are long past, yet you’re still the parent-pilot with those hard-earned flight skills.

But as your teen struggles to establish independence, you must depend more on your instruments, signals, feedback and corrections to fly the plane.

Hopefully, you’ve built a relationship with your teen in which you can trust the instrumentation.  If you’re still working on this area – and most of us are – read on for tips to strengthen the bond of trust:   

Set Solid Expectations

A young man hanging out in the tennis courts sitting on his skateboard.

Clearly communicate what trust looks and sounds like in your family. You are earning the trust of your teen as well as learning to trust your teen.

Ask them what trust means to them. Ask them for examples of what might build trust and what might break it – their answers may surprise you.

As a teacher creating a strong classroom climate, I grew to expect that students may struggle with defining an abstract concept like trust. In other words, don’t assume they know what trust looks like, feels like and sounds like in your family.

Trust between you and your teen is created by maintaining a level of clarity that the behaviors of each other match the agreed-upon expectations.  Remember the old catchphrase, “Say what you’ll do and do what you say?” It’s just like that.

Here’s an example:

Dad says, “I’m concerned about this party on Friday. Will you agree to never get into a car when the driver has been drinking? You can call me and I will come get you, no questions asked.”    

Son says, “Uh, wait, and you’re even not going to ask me if I’ve been drinking?”

Dad says, “You already know that I don’t want you drinking until you’re of age. But this conversation is to set an expectation that you’ll make the decision to call for a ride instead of getting into a car with a drunk driver. You call me, I’ll come get you and will not ask questions. Okay?”

The expectation has been set, and both the father and son need to do what they’ve agreed upon. If they do, the level of trust between them rises incrementally. If both of them follows through, their bond strengthens. Trust-building is a daily habit.

Nurture the Feedback Loop

Setting and clearly communicating expectations up front is nearly half the battle. But your teen also needs frequent feedback about how they’re doing and reminders about why it’s important that they follow through. Be consistent with rules. Avoid changing them and upping the bar on the fly.  See also: How to Communicate with My Teen

Model Trustworthiness – Actions speak louder than words

All teens have a built-in hypocrisy detector. If they see you acting dishonestly, evading responsibility or breaking someone’s trust in you, that carries a powerful message that you don’t value trust. And they are watching us parents all the time, even when they appear oblivious.

Be Consistent with Consequences and Rewards

I am personally guilty of reactive rule- or expectation-changing on the fly and it’s not pretty – or effective.

In our house, it might go something like this:

Son: Can I have _____________?

Mom: Please straighten up your room and put your laundry into the washer first.

Son: [Reluctantly] Okay.

Mom: [Realizing too late in this exchange that it’s close to dinner time. Calls up the stairs to son]  And don’t forget to set the table for dinner!

Son: [Angrily, yelling down the stairs] But you said I could __________________ if I got these chores done!!

It seems a minor thing, right?

In the mind of the mom [in this case, me], it seems a small adjustment in the planjust do one more chore to set us on the path to dinner and you’ve got your reward.

In the mind of my son, I’ve just pulled the rug out from under him, and who knows how many OTHER chores lies between him and what he wants to do.

I’ve just decreased his trust in me to be consistent. You may think that the mother and son are working through a minor skirmish in this example, but trust between a parent and teen is developed or leveled through dozens of exchanges like this one. It’s cumulative.

So next time I’ll set the standard expectation of what needs to be done in the evenings before dinner and before I extend any privileges like video games. I’ll also get my act together and I won’t add any new chores to the mix.

A teen’s understanding of the advantages of a trusting relationship can be a powerful motivator.

girl sitting on ground with black Converse sneakersExplain the benefits of trust and the consequences of trust lost with concrete examples like these:

  • What does it mean to them if they lose your trust that they’ll be responsible drivers? They lose privileges to the car for a period of time.
  • What happens if they miss curfew? They lose the privilege of going out with friends another night or they may have an earlier curfew.  See also: How Late Should I Let My Teen Stay Out?: Setting a Curfew
  • What happens if they’re home on time for curfew consistently? Your trust in them will increase so that an extended curfew for a special occasion will seem like a reasonable request.
  • What if they stay up to 2 AM responding to friends on SnapChat on a school night? They wake up exhausted and lose access to SnapChat and perhaps to the device itself.  See also: How to Manage My Teen’s Online Access: Setting a Media Curfew

The more closely connected, concrete and immediate the effects of the loss-gain trust cycle, the more invested they’ll be.

Give Incremental Freedoms

We would never expect a baby to progress from standing to running a mile overnight. It takes years to build the skills and strength to make it possible. Earning trust for a teen is like that – it takes time and emotional maturity for a teen to “get it”, and your kid will make mistakes along the way.

Teens can be impulsive. They may not see the connection between a decision and the resulting consequence.

Yet, trust seems to be one of those intangibles that may be awarded by parents overnight, like on a certain birthday when a teen gets a license and access to a car, for example. Without enough practice in earning trust, making good decisions and getting the feedback for those decisions, a teen is more at risk for irresponsible behavior.

Give your teens a chance to maintain and grow your trust in a certain area before you raise the stakes. In the case of learning to manage a first car and new driver’s license, you can restrict the use of the car in ways that extend the typical state protections of new drivers.

Time and experience help a teen regulate the heady new freedom of getting their first license. You can give them the go-ahead to drive themselves to a regular extracurricular activity, for example. There and back, with no stops in between. Then, include a stop at a local store. As teens build confidence and reliability, layer on more trust.

The Path to Forgiveness – How to Rebuild Broken Trust

Teen on beach in winter, wearing coat.As you let go of the reins bit by bit with all those small freedoms, prepare yourself that your teen will mess up, in small ways and bigger ways. Try to develop a ready response to their mistakes and use it as a teaching moment.

If the mistake was a major one, such as drinking alcohol or skipping school, you may be feeling betrayed. After all, isn’t a breach of trust a sign that your teen has no respect for you? Not necessarily. Before you jump to that conclusion, consider that the section of the teen brain which handles emotional regulation and planning, the frontal cortex,  will not be complete until age 25.

In “Executive Function & Self-Regulation” researchers at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard describe it this way:

“Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.”

This means that in the process of gaining your trust,  kids are also working to overcome the challenge of these two biological stages. Adolescents are hard-wired to establish independence from parents and they may not foresee the effects of their actions.

Making mistakes in unproductive or harmful ways may be part of that process, but those mistakes can also bring powerful natural consequences that will guide your teen to make a better decision in the future.

Always give them a way back to you. While the path to rebuilding trust may be long, you always need to leave the path to redemption open.

Involve them in building back the trust. Brainstorm concrete ways that they can repair the damage to your relationship. If they get stuck, help them out with a few suggestions. However, the most powerful lessons come from a teen’s own best efforts in restoring what was lost.

See also:

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77 Ways to Give Experience Gifts to Your Teen

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