When You Say, “You Can’t Trust Me”, thoughts on strengthening adult relationships with teens

This memory is from the summer I turned 15, after my freshman year of high school.

I ran track at the time, and drew a connection between clearing my head and running alone outside.

One night my parents asked me if I wanted to come out to dinner with them, and I declined because I was on my way out for a run.

I ended up running about five miles, and as I passed the home of a family whose children I babysat regularly, I crossed paths with them getting out of their car and waving at me to stop and visit.

Ultimately, they invited me for dinner, I called to get permission, and they drove me home after.

Later that night when I got home, I walked into an ambush.

As I listened and tried to respectfully receive my mother’s frustration and questioning, it was all that I could manage to hold eye contact and agree with her. As most teens learn, there are many times where silence is the most appropriate response when talking to adults, especially when a reaction they have to you catches you off-guard.

I listened, and I obliged, and I took the mental notes of what she wanted me to do differently next time.

And still as the conversation ended and I stood to walk away she retorted, “you know, you’re telling me exactly what I want to hear, but all that’s written across your face is I don’t give a fuck what you have to say.”

This second memory is from later that Fall once I’d begun my sophomore year.

I stood at the front door peering through the glass as I turned my key in the lock, seeing an exchanged look over hushed tones as my parents were discussing something. That look always means something is brewing or something has happened, and in either instance there is a conversation about to happen involving you.

Minutes after I walked into my bedroom, I heard footsteps ascend my staircase. My mom sat down on a beanbag chair across from where I was sitting, and waited for me to meet her gaze.

She initiated an opportunity for me to volunteer anything I’d like to share, and after seeing my confused face, continued with some version of ‘your friend approached a trusted adult who approached me, and we’re all concerned about you’. The part of the conversation I remember the best is this one resounding quote: “People who engage in risky activity generally have an underlying cause, and I think it’d be in your best interest if we investigate this further.”

It didn’t matter that the friend in question had had a huge falling out with me the year before, or that what they’d shared about me was a lie. It also didn’t matter that I was put in a position to react to information rather than provide information neutrally, and only one of us had information in advance. In that moment, I stepped into a situation where I was the least credible voice, and where further control was lost or retained by managing what else to say or share.

The net outcome of this conversation was a sentiment of broken trust, and a requirement to attend weekly therapy. A requirement that by accepting was meant to highlight that I could be more trusted than if I’d refused. A requirement that I learned later I was expected to refuse.

Over that next month every adult whom I had trusted was said to have had a conversation with my mom about me, sharing things that I’d confided or observations they’d independently drawn concerning me. And in that moment, loyalty to a relationship with my mom was elevated to a relationship with me, neither separate, and neither having integrity not measured through the other. Effectively being of different calibers, and different expectations of how to demonstrate and maintain trust.

I share these two memories to highlight a few points, but also to couch this blog in how vividly those sequences remain for me still. Betrayal its own domino sequence over a very short time period, and the wounds left both future and past tense. Future in altering my boundaries with sharing information with anyone, and past by usurping unknown risks into only the known ones. The known risks including privacy, credibility, confidentiality, independence, everything else feeling less significant than those.

Recently I’ve spent a lot of time with teenagers and had to navigate how to respond to their lines of questions about my life or about my own experiences in high school. Questions about what types of rules were set for me, and what my opinions of those rules are. Questions about what age I feel is too young or old enough to engage in certain risks. Questions about friends I had or people I dated or times where I learned something the hard way. Mostly, questions about my credibility and perspective, and a little bit, what I’m revealing about myself by how I answer or if I answer something that’s been asked.

I try to be conscientious in viewing questions not in isolation of each other, but rather by the direction they’re leading our conversation towards.

Before I respond I likely offer a few disclaimers based on how much or little information I have to go on from their related experiences.

Recently I was talking with two high school students about parent strictness, and specifically consequences for breaking rules set by parents or caregivers or administrators.

I started to say from a place of logic that my most consistent piece of advice is to keep in mind an understanding of what is most important to someone. In response I was asked, “but what if everything is important to them?”

Eight words later my point was bludgeoned and countered, proving that the logic I was using compared to the rationale of any other adult couldn’t be viewed as necessarily similar in practice, and that dissimilarity in setting rules speaks to how arbitrary they feel when applied to your behavior. Framed as a question, how can I factor in your expectations if I don’t relate to your judgment of my decision making? I laugh a little as I type here, because I still struggle to relate to rules as a concept in the ways we use them, especially in my memories of what I got in trouble for and if my behavior changed.

And yet, you don’t have the option as a teenager to discount rules that when you break will come with consequences that often aren’t relayed to you in advance. Discretion is the rule of law more than consistency or transparency, and that discretion is based on a lot of undisclosed factors and emotions.

When it comes to supporting young people, advice must feel and be practical and responsive to evolving situations and relationship dynamics, otherwise it negates relevant power dynamics at play.

That means that the work of changing teenagers’ experiences of adults relates primarily to self-work we must orient ourselves to as adults. In the spirit of offering a starting point, I offer two self-checklists. The first, questions to ask yourself when creating expectations, or determining consequences that follow when expectations aren’t met. The second, a list of common ways that adults discourage teenagers from speaking honestly about their personal experiences by how they respond in the moment/aftermath. By this I mean, does our track record show that we respect their vulnerability?

Checklist 1 — Questions to ask when discussing expectations:

1. Can I apply a consistent logic to how I set rules?

2. Can I simplify and prioritize so that some leniency is incorporated into my expectations?

3. Can I engage this conversation with the assumption that good judgment can be practiced even if it isn’t aligned with my judgment?

4. Can I offer more choices than abstinence? (not only in reference to sex)

5. Am I prepared to be disappointed?

6. Can I set and adhere to limits in how I intrude on a young person’s privacy or confidentiality?

7. Can I recognize and encourage resourcefulness and candidness?

Checklist 2 — Responses to Teens that Discourage Honesty with Adults

1. Altering their Experience

Offering an adjusted understanding of a teen’s first-person experience.

2. Forgetting their Experience

Failing to incorporate information that has been shared with us from youth in how we perceive their needs, reactions, and related relationship dynamics.

3. Countering their Experience

Rejecting a young person’s perception of their own experience, insisting they’re perception is less valid than our own.

4. Sharing their experience without their permission

This is consistently where I see teens’ project distrust towards other adults, and especially therapy. Be transparent about what is private and what is not upfront with teens and others involved.

5. Making their experience about you

Having a reaction that centers your own emotions or insecurities, or projects yourself as a ‘normal center’.

6. Punishing a way of coping

Fixating on a behavior without understanding its function, while increasing barriers to using it.

7. Labels and Humor

Tone and language choices reveal passive judgments, and often biases and passive aggression.

8. Weeding out their support system

Fixating on a person or a group of people, and associating choices or risks with their presence, and thus problem solving by limiting contact with them.

9. Cutting out escapes

Creating situations that can’t be paused, delayed, stopped or left easily.

10. Subtle Communication

There is no “subtle” communication, there is only direct and indirect sharing of reactions, expectations, and related associations. Narrate what you’re thinking and expressing.

11. Inadvertently Fostering Transactional Relationships

Once relationships feel transactional, it’s difficult to go back. Ne weary of making privileges connected with quality time quotas.

What I can attest as an adult from my own teenage years is that no experience of getting in trouble ever changed or lessoned the risks I took, but the betrayal I felt from adults breaking my trust led me to shut them out of my experiences. And for me, that is the worst-case scenario, and perhaps also the most dangerous one. Fear as an adult on behalf of children and youth has so many valid sources, but unless teenagers trust us with their truths, we will always be guessing about what is true for them. And a guess does not create responsive skills or tools. A guess doesn’t include us in shaping future or current decision making. A guess does not tell the difference between everything being fine and everything remaining secret. A guess is a hope with no evidence to disprove its involved assumptions, and no reason to confirm if you’re a teenager. Afterall, silence is too often the reaction that costs you the least in consequences, and gives you most predictably a direct follow up. The kind of follow up that you can trust in.

Writer. Thinker. Facilitator. Advocate. Invested in accountability for power based violence, creative initiatives, and meaningful, nuanced dialoguing.