Trust is an extremely important part of any relationship, so it is no surprise when parents get frustrated that they can’t trust their teenager. As an Outward Bound Intercept Instructor, I’ve worked with many families who struggle to build trust with their teen, and many students who have no interest in building trust with their families. A lot of pressure is put on teenagers to build trust with their parents, however trust is a two-way street. Parents often forget that it is just as important for them to build trust with their teenager as it is for their teenager to build trust with them.
In our Outward Bound Intercept program, we use a trauma informed care model to create an environment in which teenagers feel safe and comfortable building trust with adults. Within this model, we talk about the ABCS of safety: Authenticity, Boundaries, Consistency, and Structure. Although this is a model used for Instructors to build trust with students, it is also very helpful in creating a space where you and your child can build trust with each other.
For this purpose, authenticity means being the same person everyday in every situation. At Outward Bound we tell new Instructors to wake up on day two the same way they will wake up on day 19. Authenticity may be the most important aspect to your teenager. Even though teenagers are discovering who they are, which can cause them to be moody, fake, or testy, they can spot inauthenticity from a mile away. During this period of discovery, it is hard to trust someone who is constantly handling situations with different attitudes. This is not to say that you need to be calm, cool and collected in every argument. The most effective form of authenticity is when you can tell your teenager how and why you are behaving the way you are.
For example, I had a co-Instructor give a very firm talk to our entire crew, leaving the students quieter than usual. Later in the evening, my co-Instructor explained to the students that he spoke a certain way to them to try to put a more serious tone on their unsafe behavior. He told them that the structured consequences were not working, so he was trying something else. From this moment on, every student trusted that my co-Instructor would have a reason if he did not seem himself, which in turn established a good rapport.
Many teenagers are hesitant about building trust with you until you build trust with them, and being authentic is key in starting to build this trust with your teenager.
This is the tricky one. It’s up to you as a parent to decide what your boundaries are. Regardless, once you set them, you need to hold them. If teenagers don’t know what their boundaries are, they have no way to hold themselves accountable for their own actions.
Boundaries can take many forms. You can set a boundary for how your teenager speaks to you, how they interact with their siblings, how clean their room needs to be, what time they need to be home after school, etc. It’s important to know that defiant teens can push against these boundaries, especially if they haven’t had many boundaries in the past. Holding firm with your boundaries is an extremely important step in building trust with your teen. They will never admit it, but teenagers feel safer and more cared for when adults hold boundaries for them. It is one of the best ways to show your teen that you care.
When building trust with your teenager, consistency may be the component he/she notices the most. Consistency can be thought of in two ways: matching your word with your actions and being a united front with your spouse. It is easy to lose trust with your teen when you say one thing and do another.
For example, if you tell your teenager that if he doesn’t do the dishes he’ll lose his TV watching privileges, and then forget to enforce that consequence, the more likely he won’t believe you next time. Not only will he continue the behavior you are trying to help him change, but you’re also at risk of losing trust.
The other important part of consistency is being on the same page as your spouse. Has your teenager ever asked your spouse the same thing he/she asked you ten minutes ago in hopes of another answer? It is extremely important for teenagers to know that the people raising them are a united front. Not only does this build trust, but it also helps your teen feel safe in their environment because they know the adults in their life talk about and agree on what is important.
Structure in the home may sound intimidating to create, but think of it as the way you can stay authentic while upholding boundaries and being consistent. This is where both you and your teen can build trust with each other. Structure can look different depending on the household, but the way I’ve seen it work best for families is in creating a system of gaining and losing privileges. It can be presented in a chore chart, a list of expectations and responsibilities, a jar that gets filled every time a responsibility is upheld, or many other ways. Regardless of the setup, there are a few things that are very important when creating structure for your home:
- Get the whole family involved in creating your system of gaining and losing privileges. Everyone needs to know what their personal responsibilities and expectations are. When your teenager is involved in making a list of privileges they want to earn or keep, they will be more likely to follow through with their responsibilities.
- Write your system down and display it in a place where everyone can see. This will help prevent your teenager (and yourself) from making excuses about failing to uphold a responsibility or enforce a consequence.
- Revisit your system at least once a month to assess what’s working and what needs to change. Maybe your teenager starts to thrive within the system and can take on more responsibility. Or maybe you have talked about consequences that are too hard to uphold and you need to adjust to make them more feasible. Revisiting your system will help you tailor it to your family’s needs and help everyone stay on the same page, effectively eliminating confusion and excuses.
Being a teenager is hard, so it is no wonder why many defiant teens resist building trust with the adults around them. If you are struggling to help your teenager build trust with you, try incorporating the ABCS of safety into your household. This will help create an environment in which your teenager feels safe and accepted for who they are, and in turn open the door to building trust within your family.
For more information on Intercept expeditions, go HERE. Call 866.467.7651 to speak with an Admissions Advisor who can answer questions, provide more information, and suggest upcoming Intercept expeditions for at-risk youth. For additional insight into the Intercept experience, read more here.
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About the Author
Allison is a California native with a shark obsession. After graduating college in Los Angeles with a degree in English, she moved to Central Florida to instruct for the North Carolina Outward Bound School’s at risk program. Allison is a lead instructor for Intercept courses and Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice’s prevention program called FINS (Families in Need of Services). While not paddling Florida’s central rivers with at risk teenagers, Allison surfs with the sharks that inhabit Florida’s oceans, drinks coffee out of enormous mugs, writes low grade poetry, and watches lots of political dramas.