September 3

How to Trust Your Teenager Going to a Party

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It has happened to a lot of parents. You refuse permission for your 15-year old son to go to a friend’s party, and their response is, “You don’t trust me!”

Many times we counter with “Yes I do” and try to patch things up. Sometimes we reverse our decision and allow them to go.

What is really going on in this conversation? What does it have to do with trusting or not trusting? To understand that, we need a bit of background.

Trust is an emotion – That means that it is an energy that moves us. And what trust moves us to do is interact freely with other people. If we trust someone, we let our guard down and feel safe to do things with them.

Trust is an assessment – The reason I might trust someone and you don’t is that trust is our evaluation of the other person or their actions. We assess trust by considering the other person’s sincerity (do they mean what they say), competence (do they have the skills) and reliability (what is our history with them?”)

Trust isn’t all or nothing – We trust on a continuum, meaning there are levels of trust. So when your son says you don’t trust him, he is making it black and white. That isn’t how trust occurs. We also trust in domains. For instance, I might trust my 12-year-old to make pancakes but not drive the car. These are different competencies, so I need to assess trust in each.

Trust isn’t a character judgment – When we don’t trust someone, we aren’t saying they are a bad person. We are just saying it feels too risky to interact with them. We are also not saying we dislike them.

Trust is not the problem – Sometimes our children will pair “you don’t trust me” with “you hate me” or “you want to ruin my life”. Actually, trust exists to keep us, or others we care about, safe.

So, back to your son’s accusation.

  • Do you believe he is sincere that he will really go to the event and the event is what he says it is?
  • Do you believe he is competent to take care of himself and make sound decisions at the party?
  • What is his history in similar circumstances or when he’s made similar promises?

The answer to those questions can clarify the degree to which you trust him for this event. There is another area of trust to consider as well, which is how much you trust his friend and/or friend’s parents. If you want to know, ask yourself the same questions. If his friend said there would be no alcohol, is he being transparent? Saying what he really believes? When he says his parents will be there, is that really the plan? Is the friend competent to plan and manage a party of 15-year olds? And what about your experience of history with him? What you are doing is trying to determine the risk you are taking (to you and your son) if you allow him to go.

In the end, your son may be correct; perhaps you don’t trust him (or his friend) at the level necessary to risk him going. Again, this is not a character judgment but an assessment of risk. When we can see trust in this way and teach these ideas to our children, it radically changes the conversations we can have. They still will be disappointed if you don’t allow them to do certain things but this way of understanding trust puts a foundation under the decision and allows them to see how you got to “yes” or “no”.

When you develop your skills in this way, you are increasing your emotional literacy and emotional competence. As you do, your children will learn as well, and it can set the foundation for a lifelong skill navigating emotions.


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