Tips on Building Trust With Your Teen
A funny thing happens during pre-adolescence.
This isn’t true for all kids, but for most.
One day they’re all talk.
Chitter-chatter about this, that, and the other thing. From the moment you pick them up from school or they get home from the bus stop to the moment they go to bed. They talk about their friends, their hobbies, the things they love, the things they don’t love, what happened at recess, what the teacher did during math, what that kid did during lunch, and how excited they are about what’s coming up in their lives.
Then, the next day – radio silence.
You get one-word answers.
How was school?
Eh, it was like school.
How are your friends?
How was practice?
Is there still a game Friday?
Oh yeah – no.
And you’re confused and at a loss because you know your teen still knows how to talk. You hear them on the phone, chitter-chattering with friends the way they used to chitter-chatter at you. YOU see them with friends. They’re animated and engaged in discussion. They “OMG” and “MOOD” and “YAAAASSS” their way through conversations.
They still talk – just not to you.
Teens Change: It’s Part of the Journey
Don’t worry: it’s typical teen behavior, and it’s actually good for them. It’s a process called differentiation, which is an important part of their development. To read more about differentiation, please read this article in the blog section of our website:
Understanding Adolescent Development
In developmental terms, it’s a positive sign that your teen tries to work things out for themselves and doesn’t turn to you for help with every issue they have or problem they face. They need to learn to do that in order to become adults. That’s part of what growing up is all about. On the other hand, they will face things during adolescence they simply don’t have the experience to handle. That’s where you come in. That’s why you want them to come to you for advice: you know things that can help them face challenges with a minimum of difficulty. Sure, they need to learn for themselves, but having a shortcut or two from you along the way won’t hurt – and will probably help.
This article will help you reconnect with your teen, rebuild trust, if you had it and lost it, or build real communication trust for the first time, if you and your child have never communicated very well. Whatever your situation, it’s not too late to establish – or re-establish – clear lines of communication with your teenager.
When you rebuild this part of your relationship, it will help both of you. For you, learning to communicate with your teen now can created a template for your relationship moving forward. And for them, learning how to talk to you – from their new perspective as an adolescent – can give them a sense of safety, stability, and comfort that smooths out the rough edges of adolescence, and give them those shortcuts that can make life easier.
Teens and Trust: Make the Time to Listen
One thing we want you to understand is that it may take time to build or rebuild trust. It may take time, and it may take more than one attempt. Your teen may shut down your initial overtures to talk, and that’s okay. When that happens, don’t take it personally. Assess the situation and try again. Keep trying until it works. Be patient, be compassionate, and be understanding. During adolescence, the hormones in their brain often overwhelm their decision-making processes: the part of their brain responsible for impulse and emotion is fully developed and more powerful than their prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for rational thought and logical decision-making, and continues developing until well into their 20s.
Therefore, we encourage you to be patient with their raging hormones and their less-than-stellar decisions. They’re two sides of the same coin. They can take steps to do better, but it’s really not their fault: that’s where you come in, and that’s where you can help.
To do that, consider these five tips.
Five Tips for Building Trust With Your Teen
1. Learn to Listen
Research shows two things will increase the likelihood of a teenager to speak freely, openly and honestly to anyone, not just their parent:
- They need to feel independent
- They need to feel connected
These two things are part of typical, healthy adolescent development. When your teen differentiates – meaning the form an identity separate and distinct from their parents or what their parents think or say their identity should be – they need to make decisions themselves and feel like they’re part of a group that understands them. That’s why they want more freedom, and that’s why they spend more time with their friends: this drive and this behavior are both psychologically appropriate and emotionally necessary for their journey from childhood to adulthood.
However, those two critical needs can be met at home as well as with friends out in the world. The secret is what’s called active listening. One simple way to think of active listening is that it’s listening to learn, rather than listening to respond. When you listen to learn, the goal is not to have an answer ready or critique what’s being said: that’s for debates or brainstorming sessions at work. Active listening is not about you, it’s about the speaker.
Here several quick tips to help you listen actively, if it’s a new concept, or as an active listening refresher:
- Make eye contact as much as possible. Don’t look around, glance at your phone, or let your attention wander. Focus on your teen as they speak.
- Create an open, receptive environment, starting with what they notice first: the nature of your expression. Remember, your child has been reading your face their entire life. They know when you’re paying attention and when you’re not. They know when you’re engaged and when you’re not. That’s why you should pay attention and stay engaged.
- Use positive, encouraging language, when appropriate, such as “Interesting…” or “I didn’t know that…” and “I’m impressed that you know so much about this.”
- Use empathetic, compassionate language when appropriate, such as “I’m sorry that happened to you,” or “I know that felt bad,” or “That sounds really hard.”
Help Them Along
- Encourage them continue. Say things like “Tell me more,” or “Then what happened,” or “What does [insert name of friend] think about all this?”
- This is worth repeating: don’t look around, glance at your phone, or let your attention wander – give them your full, undivided attention.
Remember, your child has been reading you – your face, your expressions, your mannerisms, how say things – for their entire life. You’re how they learned to communicate. That means they know when you’re paying attention and when you’re not. Your teen knows when you’re engaged and when you’re not. They know when you’re faking it and when it’s genuine. They know all the subtleties of tone in your voice and the words you choose. That’s why you should pay attention, stay engaged, and be sincere, because otherwise, they’ll figure it out, which will decrease the likelihood they’ll come to you for advice.
2. Learn to Talk
You obviously already know how to talk.
What you need to do now is re-learn how to talk to your teen.
Understand that what we’re about to advise occurs within the context of the parent-child relationship meaning you’re still the boss and your parental authority remains one hundred percent intact.
With that said – drop the authority figure act. You are the authority figure, and your teen knows that: you don’t have to play a role or pretend to be stern, wise, or anything. Your teen knows that side of you – and if communication right now needs help, then consider setting that part of your personality aside, temporarily, and be yourself.
Open up to your child and talk to them about how you see and feel things. Talk about the present: share stories about things at work, things with friends, or things you see going on in the world around you. Some social and political topics can get tricky, but that’s not all there is to talk about in the world. Music, movies, TV shows – start anywhere and talk about how you feel. And with regards to social and political topics, they can be a point of connection and a place to establish common ground – but if you know you disagree, perhaps start with topics that are almost sure to reflect shared experience to bring you together, rather than foreground your possible differences. The most important thing here, though, is nt the topic itself, it’s the fact that you share of yourself in a way you’ve never done before.
One more thing on how to share. Avoid beginning anecdotes with “When I was your age I used to…” and instead, try starting anecdotes like this: “I was 15, and my friends and I were at the movies…” That may not seem like a big deal, but it does make a difference. One creates distance, and one establishes commonality: try it, and see how your teen reacts.
3. Walk the Walk
If you want your teen to trust you can come to you for advice, one thing you need to do is behave in a consistent, reliable, and trustworthy manner. We remind you above that your teen knows you inside out, because it’s true: they’ve been watching you for years.
In addition to the individual quirks and mannerisms that you only display at home, they also see how you carry yourself in the world. They watch how you interact with your spouse, whether they’re their parent or not, and their siblings, if they have any. That’s not all: they hear you on the phone, see how you treat people in the world, and watch how you behave with your friends. They hear what you mutter under your breath when you end a phone call. They see it when you go out of your way to help friends and strangers.
All this adds up to the calculation they make when they either need advice or want to disclose something that’s sensitive: they need to know they’ll be safe in the act of disclosing and that they can trust you with the information going forward.
Your teen is more likely to trust you and ask your advice if you keep your word to them.
What this really means is that you do what you say you’re going to do when you’re going to do it: you model trustworthiness.
You have to show up for the big events, of course, like recitals, games, awards ceremonies, and things like that, but it’s even more important to keep your word on the little things. Those little things might be anything, and they may seem small to you, but they’re a big deal to your kid. We don’t have a list of the important little things. Here’s the rule of thumb: if you say to your teen “I can help you with that on Thursday after school” then be there Thursday after school ready to help.
The little things, over time, add up to the one thing you want in this situation: their trust.
4. Encourage Independence
We know, we know: parents worry about their teens making poor decisions when they’re out in the world. We know because many of us are parents, ourselves. And right now we guarantee one of us is worrying – let’s rephrase that as in a state or proactive concern – about our teenager or teenagers. However, when we allow them the freedom to make their own choices – and their own mistakes – they learn, and grow, and thank us for the responsibility we allowed them to have. It’s important to protect your child, but holding on to control over the minute details of their life with white knuckles will backfire.
Teens need to feel independent in their thoughts, their actions, and their personal space.
If you clamp down on those, the most likely outcome is frustration for you and resentment from them, neither of which is helpful. That’s why we advise you to give them the opportunity to be responsible and independent. If they mistakes on their own, then it’s likely they’ll come to you and ask for advice about how to avoid the same mistake the next time – and that’s exactly what you want.
5. Unconditional Love and Support
Your teen needs to know you’re on their team, in good times and in bad. When they succeed at something, be their biggest cheerleader. When they fail at something, be their biggest cheerleader. In any and all things they do in life, be their biggest cheerleader. We’re not saying support poor decisions. We’re saying be there for them if and when they make poor decisions, the same way you’re there for them if and when they make good decisions. They need to know you’re there for them. You can do that by telling them, but there’s something here that parents of teens often miss: you also need to be there for them in person. .
What do we mean by that?
We mean that while you may not need to actually pick them up from school and make them their afternoon snack, your presence at home is still required for them to feel safe, stable, and protected. Think about that: you don’t need to be all up in their business all the time – that’s oppressive. But you do need to know there business, and be there to help if they need your help. That’s not oppressive at all – that’s you giving your teen what they need to learn, grow, and thrive – under your watchful eye.
Building Resilience: Tools for Life
We’ll end this article with a quote from the child and teen experts at the Harvard Center for the Developing Child. Several years ago, they published an article called “The Science of Resilience: Why Some Children Can Thrive Despite Adversity.”
The authors point out several factors that help children and teens develop the resiliency they need to lead fulfilling adult lives. They need to learn to tolerate stress, they need to learn how to manage their emotions, and they need to develop a sense of mastery over their life circumstances. However, with regards to developing psychological and emotional resilience, there’s one thing that supersedes all others.
Here’s how the experts at Harvard describe the one thing children and teens need:
“A growing body of evidence points to one common answer: Every child who winds up doing well has had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult.”
It’s likely that for your child – who’s now a teen – you’re already that adult. You can strengthen, deepen, and enhance that protective relationship by using the five tips we list above to improve your communication skills, which can improve your relationship, and, ultimately, improve not only their life, but yours, too.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA. He writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.