As parents, we want the best for our kids. And we constantly want to show them that we care. Yet from our kids' perspectives, our constant care can often come off as nagging or controlling. Of course, we don't want to seem like controlling parents; we just want to be able to trust our kids to do what is best for them.
Most parents and kids alike are familiar with the How do you expect us to trust you again? conversation. And 99% of the time, it's us parents doing the talking, and our captive audience is somewhere around 16 years old.
But, what if we flipped the question? What if we took a quiet moment to ponder the scarier possibility that our kids might not ... trust us? Ouch. It's difficult, but consider this: our children's trust in us is not automatic. In fact, some (though, not all) of our challenges with teens are due to mutual, long-term trust issues. As parents, it's important to examine our relationships with our children and observe ways that we, unknowingly, erode their trust in us.
We know that fundamental child-to-parent trust occurs by meeting our children's basic needs as infants. However, as they grow, the trust dynamic changes along with our relationship, and we can lose what was so easily established during their infancy.
The purpose of this exercise is not to suppose that all of our children's "questionable" behavior is our fault. Instead, it's simply an opportunity for reflection about how we cultivate trust at every age. Which of our behaviors nourish the trust we first established when our children were babies? How can we avoid certain trust-corrosive behaviors? Undoubtedly, there is overlap for each age appropriate suggestion, but this is a guide based on my experience and observations.
When your child is little: speak with simplicity, and avoid sarcasm.
If we listen to family conversations, they often sound like TV sitcoms: the flippant remark, the comeback, the punch line. This way of communicating with a child produces a sad outcome-a winner and a loser, within what is supposed to be a close alliance between mother and child. Young children are simple. They are literal. So our speech should be simple and literal, in order to connect with our children where they are.
To that end, small children are ill-equipped to deal with sarcasm. They don't have the tools or capacity to decode hidden meanings. When a child is stuck in a word game they don't know how to play, they feel powerless. This powerlessness breeds a long-term lack of trust. Clear, gentle, firm, communication fosters trust.
Tender language that expresses truth without mixed signals allows your child to engage verbally, and with certainty. This feeds and encourages their desire to continue communicating with adults, a key vehicle for building trust.
When your child is approaching adolescence: look for ways to say "yes."
In other words, try to give them a sense of which of their behaviors are to be affirmed, rather than put down. It can be convenient to rely on criticism and discipline to try and give your kids a sense of what's right and wrong. But let's think from their perspective for a second. On the cusp of teen years, kids yearn for independence. This can often put parents on the defensive, causing us to fear their need for separation.
So before you react with a fear-based objection, consider finding a way to say "yes." Often, with a little open discussion and negotiation, you and your children can acquire what you both need to make healthy, independence possible. Children trust parents who are not afraid of their inherent needs, and who discern ways to say "yes" in a constructive, open fashion.
For example, a request to go to the movies alone with friends can be handled with an instinctive, "No, you are too young." Or, alternatively, you can answer with a calm conversation: ask which movie, tell them how to contact you and discreetly arrange for a parent to be nearby. If your children perceive that you look for ways to nurture their independence constructively, they are far less likely to pursue their burgeoning need for independence behind your back.
When your child is emerging into adulthood: see yourself in them.
The minute we see our teenager's heart as something foreign, we lose their trust. I have always marveled at the fact that my teens and I share the same heart, they just express theirs with a raw urgency that I have well-learned how to shield and temper as an adult.
But on a deeper level, we have the very same human desire for happiness, love, purposefulness and truth. Our conversations that go to this level are far more beautiful and rewarding than conversations that stay on the level of semantics and behavior. Children trust parents who stay connected with them at the level of heart. Notice how disarming it is to a teenager when you say, "I often feel the same way." or "Yes, I find myself wanting more from life, as well."
See how their defenses fall when they know they are not alone in their need, and can receive healthy direction from our experience as humans, not just as superiors. Teenagers trust parents who cultivate a oneness of heart.
As your child grows, nurture their trust, first through transparent, simple communication. Foster an alliance through working together to prepare them for the world at large. And finally, recognize that you both have the same heart. These go a long way in creating a trust-centered relationship.
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