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Parenting Your Teenager: How to Build Trust

``Mom, can I go to the mall with my friend Jenny?''

``No, not after you came home late last night.''

``Well, everyone else gets to.''

``I don't care what everybody else gets to do; you can't.''

``You just don't trust me.''

``You've got to earn it.''

``I have.''

``No, you haven't.''

``Have, too.''

``Have not.''

SLAM! Etc.

If the above conversation sounds familiar, you're probably the parent of a teen-ager.

I especially like the ``everybody else gets to do it'' line. My parents' response was, ``If everyone else stood on their heads in the middle of the street at 3 a.m. in their underwear, would you?'' I probably would have.

I never understood what all that meant, but I do know that raising teen-agers can be an extremely challenging task. I have tremendous respect for the parents of the teens I work with in my practice.

Now don't get me wrong. Most teen-agers are OK people. The vast majority seem to stay out of the juvenile-justice system and eventually become adults.

It's just that most of the teen-agers I've worked with are 16 going on 26 and 16 going on 6, all at the same time.

Some families seem to go through the teen years with little or no struggle. Many others find these years one of the most challenging and, at times, maddening stages of family life.

Parents of teen-agers really try hard to navigate these difficult waters.

Trust or Bust

One of the areas that seems to be most difficult for them has to do with trust. Let's take a closer look at how trust operates in families with teen-agers, how it sometimes gets damaged and how it can be built back.

A few families seem to go along and never have any problems with, or damage done to, the trust between parents and kids. Others can really struggle with this issue.

Families sometimes get stuck because the parents see trust as an either/or situation. The teen lies, breaks curfew, experiments with drugs or does something that's damaging to trust. The parents feel they have lost all trust in their teen.

The problem, the sticking point, is: How do you rebuild trust from nothing? How can kids earn trust back?

The Way Back to Trust

Viewing trust as a matter of degree can help create a way back to a trusting relationship.

The first step is to think of a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the least amount of trust, 10 the most. Let's say the teen has broken curfew by a few hours. Let's say that coming home late reduces the trust level from a 9 down to a 3. That's a gap of 6 trust levels.

Creating a plan to get back to a high trust level will be difficult if you try to go from a 3 to a 9 all at once. It's just too big a leap.

The next step is to talk about and agree on what changes and/or behaviors need to occur to go from a 3 to a 4, then from a 4 to a 5, a 5 to a 6 and so on.

In this way, several positive structures are set up: The parents have a way of monitoring their teen's progress and the teen has something to work toward. In addition, there's a built-in incentive for the teen.

In many families, trust is like a video game at the mall. In the video arcade, the more tokens you have, the more you can play. In much the same way, in families, the more trust you have, the more you can do.

At this stage, many parents will ask, ``How do I know things are really different, that I'm not getting fooled?''

That's an excellent question, and the best answer I can offer is: Simply watch and see if the behavior matches the words.

If it does, you're on the right track.

If the behavior doesn't match the words, then you know someone is trying to pull the wool over your eyes.

Leading parenting expert Jeff Herring is a teen and family therapist, parenting coach, speaker and syndicated parenting and relationship columnist. Jeff invites you to visit ParentingYourTeenager.com for 100's of tips and tools for parenting through the teenage years. You can also subscribe to his free weekly internet newsletter "ParentingYourTeenager."

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