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Ask Dr. Meg: How Do I Trust My 15-Year-Old?

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Dr. Meg Meeker

Dear Dr. Meg,

How do I trust my 15-year-old daughter? She keeps breaking my trust over and over again in BIG ways. I don’t seem to be able to trust her. It’s weighing heavy on my heart and I know it’s crushing hers.

Any help you can give would be appreciated.

Thank you!

Paula

Dear Paula,

This is a wonderful question. I’m often asked by parents of teenagers about trust and how it’s established within their relationships. Here are my thoughts on this subject:

When it comes to using the word “trust” with a teenager, I really try to delete that word – and here’s why. A 15-year-old looks like an adult but from an intellectual and cognitive standpoint, (and certainly from an emotional standpoint), they are not an adult. In other words, your daughter can’t understand that if she performs action A today, that it’s going to lead to consequence B in 3 months or a year. That’s pretty abstract thinking for a 15-year-old.

Kids often don’t yet have the ability to understand the concept of trust the way a parent does.

I think that we set ourselves and our kids up for failure when we begin to talk with them about trust. The truth is, we can only “trust” them with the serious limitations that they have – and nobody wants to say to a 15-year-old, “Listen, I really can’t trust you because you can’t think the way I do. It’s not your fault, you just don’t have abstract thinking developed.”

Kids take those kinds of things very personally. So I try to remove the whole conversation about trust.

Now, when you say that she’s violated your trust over and over, what I’m hearing you say is that she disappointed you and she has gone against your rules many times over. And my question to you would be, ‘Why is she doing this? Is she doing this because she is troubled? Because she wants attention? Because she’s rebellious or angry at something?’  When I see kids who are acting out or getting into trouble regularly, i.e. stealing, leaving the home, driving too fast, hanging out with the wrong friends, going from A’s to D’s all of a sudden, or they aren’t following through with healthy behaviors – a lot of times parents mistake this as a child breaking their trust. This really isn’t a trust issue. And my sense is, you’re not dealing with a trust issue with your daughter. My concern, Paula, is that your daughter is crying out for help. And that’s what’s really crushing her and what’s weighing heavy on your heart.

Kids who are acting out or getting into trouble regularly are often really crying out for help.

So here is what I would encourage you to do:

1. I would stop talking to her about trust. Don’t set her up for failure and don’t tell her that you don’t trust her.

2.  I would sit down and have a heart to heart with her. I would say something like this, “Honey, I’m concerned that you’re doing a lot of things that are hurting you. I’ve seen a pattern beginning to emerge in you. You are doing X, you are doing Y, you are doing Z, and I’m concerned about why you’re doing that. Is something bothering you? Do you feel angry, do you feel disappointed – why do you think you could be doing that?”  And then just sit and listen to her. Basically, what you’re trying to do is break through to her heart. You’re trying to figure out why she hurts – because I can guarantee you that she is hurting. You know she’s hurting, and it’s hurting you.

And I believe what’s really bothering you is not the trust issue, not the breaking of the rules, not the getting into trouble – what’s really bothering you is that you know, deep in her heart, that something is very wrong.

So your job and your goal is to tell her, in a gentle, affirming, loving, non-accusatory way that doesn’t put her on the defensive, “Honey, I’m concerned. I want to help you find out what’s bothering you so much. We’re in this together. My job as your mom is to always have your back, to always help you get out of bad situations. To always help you have your needs met. And that’s what I think we need to do over the next few months. If you need help from somebody else in figuring this out, I will find you help.”  And she may well need help. If she’s been getting into trouble repeatedly, she may well need a counselor, to talk with a friend that you know and trust, or maybe talk with her dad if she has a healthy relationship with him, but I do know there is something wrong deep in her heart. It’s not an issue about trust. And here’s something else that I do know, Paula – you can get to the bottom of this. You’re a good, concerned, kind mom. I hear that in your question.

Gently go after her heart. Give yourself time, give yourself grace, let her know that you’re on her side and you’ll win her over.

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