How to develop a trusting relationship with your teenager

By Stacey Steinbaum, LCSW, MSW, CCTP, Clinical Therapist |
You may believe your teenager is open and honest with you because you have made an effort over the years to bond and develop a trusting relationship with your teen. However, the teenage years can be a game changer. It is common for teenagers to pull away and begin a private life. In some families this will go unnoticed, while in others parents say it is very obvious that their teenager is pulling away. As a therapist for more than 15 years, I know that it is common for teenagers to be rebellious and defiant. The combination of autonomy and immaturity can lead to risky teenage behaviors. Many teens have already begun experimenting with drugs or alcohol and have engaged in sexual activity. Since teens fear that their parents will overreact, they often do not share these behaviors as they fear consequences.

It is time to improve your parenting approach in order to build a more trusting relationship with your teenager.

My favorite term when working with parents is positive parenting. Positive parenting is an approach that focuses on encouragement and support rather that reprimands or punishment in response to a child’s misbehavior. This technique is important when interacting with teenagers as it helps create a safe space for them to be honest with their parents. This opens up doors instead of closing them because your teen fears consequences. If teenagers feel safe in discussing their problems with you, you can then help guide them during tough times. Let me share some tips to help you bond with your teen, bridge the gap and have a stronger relationship.

Step 1. Begin to implement positive parenting. During a relaxed moment with your teen, say, “Since you are a teenager, I expect that you will make choices that I don’t agree with. However, if you are honest and you share these choices and thoughts with me, I won’t overact and there won’t be any consequences.” Parents, I know this goes against everything you were originally taught about parenting. Poor choices equal consequences. But this is the only way to create a safe space for teenagers to share with you. When they share with you, you have then created a platform to guide and protect them.

Step 2. Bond and connect with your teen. Ask them which shows they are watching on Netflix, begin to take interest and start watching a show with them. Maybe even say Tuesday can be our special night to watch our show together. Also, you can bond with your teen by watching them play their favorite video game, go to their baseball practice or take interest in their music or art work. Whatever they are interested in make an effort to share that interest.

Step 3. See if you can spend time in their room with them two evenings a week. At first you can just interact on your cellphone while they enjoy being on their cellphone or gaming. They shouldn’t feel as if you are coming into their room to stop their activity. You are just providing company to each other. The best time to do this is in the evening, when they are getting ready for bed.

Step 4. After an appropriate period of time of bonding with your teenager begin to ask your child questions about friendships. For example, “How is Johnny? I haven’t seen him in a while.” “What has Gina been up to?” Begin to gradually ask your child how they are doing and feeling. Allow them to vent to you or slowly open up about their feelings or concerns. Provide them with a safe space to share without judgment. Listen and be non-reactive. Say things such as “I’m here for you. I didn’t realize you were feeling this way.” Or “I’m glad you shared that with me.” Before you leave their room say, “Thanks for sharing with me, I feel closer to you. Good night, I love you.” What you are doing is developing a safe space for your child. They will begin to see you as comfort and support and if you continue to create this bond they will share more and feel more connected to you. Now that you have built more trust you can begin to talk about the long-term consequences of risky behaviors.

Step 5. Keeping their trust is important, don’t share their private discussions with others. Teenagers thrive off of privacy and will instantly stop sharing with you if you violate it.

Step 6. Begin spending more quality time with your teen. You can see a movie together, go out to Starbucks, and do something exciting like a Miami Heat or Dolphin game. Fun interactions together help strengthen bonds. Allow your teen to invite their friends to come along. Encourage a pool day at your house or offer to order pizza and have an at-home movie night. Even suggest they bring their friend on a family outing or family dinner. Knowing your teen’s friends is very important.

In summary:

• Just listen, don’t react.
• Empathize with their feelings.
• Give support so they can learn.
• Connect before you correct.

Parenting can feel overwhelming and stressful. Don’t over-think and let the relationship happen organically. If there is love, a platform to share, and a strengthening connection you are doing your best to develop a healthier relationship. Don’t let a few bumps in the road stop this process. It will take time, but continue to practice my Six Steps and a more trusting relationship will develop between you and your teenager. After you master these skills, you might like to read my next blog entry on teenage suicide prevention.


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