The teenage years are an entirely different world. When our kids reach adolescence, we will think childhood was a breeze! (If you missed the previous posts, be sure to read Parts One and Two.) If we have established trust with our children when they were young, we are more likely to avoid the all-too-common disconnection that occurs between parents and teenagers when the rubber really hits the pavement.
It is important to note that even if we have a valid reason not to trust our kids, we should not emphasize it too aggressively. We need to address it, but we need to do so carefully. We do not want to instill a sense of failure in our children—they will experience that frequently enough in their interactions with friends, siblings, coaches, and teachers. There is plenty of distrust communicated outside of the home, over which we have little opportunity to influence. It is a part of life, although we all need the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. Allowing our children to re-establish trust on their terms rather than holding their failures against them will nurture their belief in themselves much better and will strengthen their sense of our support rather than our judgement.
The Rewards of Building Trust
I remember an experience I had with my younger son, Max, when he was 15. I typically let my sons decide where they wanted to go on the weekends and kept my fingers crossed that they would make good decisions. It was late one night on a Saturday when at about midnight I got a call from Max saying he was stranded somewhere on the southwest side of town and running out of battery on his cell phone. He has quite a good memory and was able to describe some of the landmarks he recalled which gave me a pretty good idea of where he was, in general. I told him to turn off his phone and turn it back on in 20 minutes. Robin and I jumped into the car and headed west. Twenty minutes later he called, and we found him a convenience store at a well-known intersection.
Max told us that he had left from a friend’s house along with his older brother earlier in the evening believing they would be able to get a ride back home. When it was time to go home the person who had brought him to the party had been drinking and Max did not want to ride with him. His brother wanted to stay longer. True story! He then started hunting for a new ride home. The one he found said he could come back with him but soon that driver was drinking as well. That is when Max called us to see if we could come and get him. He said he would go to a convenience store he remembered seeing on the way to the party as well as the name on the street sign. I asked him why he didn’t just give us the address of the house. He did not want to tell us where the party house was but he was pretty sure he could get back to the convenience store.
Unfortunately Max underestimated how long it would take to walk to the store. We waited in the parking lot of this run-down convenience store with a large neon sign that read “Cheap Beer”. He finally arrived after nearly 30 very anxious minutes. He had left his jacket at the party and was cold and tired when he got in the car, but very grateful we found him. GPS was not a cell phone feature yet so picking that convenient store was smart. I’m guessing he remembered this store because they probably stopped there before going to the party.
This slightly scary, late evening experience with Max was not much fun, but his capability to navigate it was impressive and built additional and significant trust from me. Both my sons have made some poor and occasionally fairly stupid decisions but for the most part they have always tried to provide me with a level of trust in them – primarily because they had trust in me and appreciated how that trust served them directly. They have told me this often.
The above will very likely be one of the many stories in my next writing journey that I am beginning this fall called Treading Water. This book is about my experience as a dad during the teenage years. For most of us there is a different dynamic and exchange we have to discover and adapt in order to continue building our relationships. For many of us parents, the teenage years can be the most challenging period for both the child and the parent. Much of my success in navigating this pretty amazing teenage period came from the original bridge I had built and discussed in my first book, The Dad Connection. For me, teenage life with my boys was a little bit like treading water in a large lake – I was always looking for the next challenge or risk to appear. I remember my Scout lifeguard training. We had to spend hours treading water to build up the unique muscle system that would allow us to stay afloat for long periods of time and be able to help someone if they needed it.
Sincere trust between two persons of any age takes years to build and requires consistency. With our children it begins with a belief initially projected by us, and ideally, will end with an experience shared between both parties. Trust is the force that very often holds all the other pieces of most meaningful relationships together. It does not come easily or quickly for most. It must first be granted generously by the parent to the child and then supported (also by the parent) through each big and each small interaction. Children naturally tend to challenge our trust, looking for limits and or boundaries. We manage this by demonstrating our trust in them often in creative, honest, and innovative ways. We have to look for truly valid and obvious opportunities. Once we really start looking, we will likely find that there will be too many to count.
Counting is not important, however. Doing is.