Your 16-year-old-wants to go out very late at night and you automatically say no. But should you learn to trust your teen and let them go?
It’s a difficult dilemma. As children get older, they need their independence, but starting to let them go can leave parents terrified their child will take unnecessary risks.
Lorraine Thomas, chief executive of The Parent Coaching Academy, says: “It’s really tough when you’re in the middle of it. As parents, we need to look at how we talk about ‘trust’ – sometimes our teenagers get the message that we don’t trust them, when we’re trying to say that we want them to stay safe and we trust them, but we’re not sure about everyone else.
“You have to take a deep breath and let them go, and let them know that you’re there if something does go wrong. The teenage brain is preparing them for when they’re going to leave home, and it’s encouraging them to risk-take. It’s the stage where you hope you’ve done everything you can, but even if you have, there will be times when something might happen.”
Here is her expert advice on learning to trust your teen.
Make sure the adults are on the same page Parents will quite often have different ideas about what their teenager should be allowed to do, so get together and sort out what you think in advance, Thomas says.
“Sit down with your teenager and have a little chat, not putting them in the spotlight or making it heavy,” says Thomas, “just so everyone has a chance to say what they think, and it’s not the teenager thinking, ‘All my friends can do it, you just don’t trust me’. Be very clear about why you have certain boundaries in place. Ask them what they can do to make you know they’re keeping safe, because that’s the important thing to you.”
It is, of course, important to have boundaries for teenagers. But if those boundaries are broken, don’t just pile in with punishments, advises Thomas.
“Make sure boundaries are taken notice of,” she says, “but do it with a gentle hand. The first time there’s a problem, sit down and try to understand what happened, and reinforce the reason for the boundary. Reinforce the fact that if it keeps happening, you’ll have to do something.”
Don’t make sanctions too tough Make sure that if there’s a sanction, it’s not too heavy-handed. Ask them what they think is an appropriate sanction, and get their input, Thomas stresses. “There’s no one-shoe-fits-all. Sanctions only ever work in the short-term, but if you keep doing the same thing and threatening them with it, it won’t make any difference, ” she warns.
Remember teenagers learn from their mistakes You don’t want things to go wrong for your teen – but how will they ever learn if everything always goes right? “Those times when your teenager might get drunk or does get into a bit of trouble are also really good learning opportunities,” Thomas points out.
Instead of just losing your rag if your teen breaks your trust, try to find out why it happened. “When things do go awry, remember it’s most important to love them – even though sometimes they make it hard to do so – and remember the behaviour is only the tip of the iceberg,” says Thomas. “Tune into the emotion that’s driving the behaviour. Sometimes parents come down heavy, but we need to get teenagers to open up, and share ideas.”
Keep in touch with other parents If you’re friendly with parents of other teenagers in your teen’s social group, it’s a good idea to keep in touch with them too, suggests Thomas, so you’re sure your teen isn’t the only one to have to be home for 10.30pm.
Acknowledge the positives Thomas says: “It’s really important to praise behaviour where they’ve really demonstrated they can be trusted – not just about going out with friends, but when they’ve been really honest with you or raised an issue that they thought might lead to them getting into trouble. Thank them for telling you.”
You’re not going to be there when they’ve gone away to university or got a job and left home. “This is a challenging but important time,” says Thomas. “Let them know they’ve got that independence, that you trust them, that communication channels are open, but if things do go wrong, you’re there to support them, not judge them.”