How Can a Parent Trust a 15-Year-Old Daughter?

Abstract thinking isn't well-developed in teens yet ... plus there are other considerations for this concerned mom

I’ve watched parents raise children for 30 years (and raised four of my own), so I know how challenging it can be.

Here, I share a question that came to me as a pediatrician, as well as my answer to this parent. I hope that this will be helpful for other parents who may be experiencing the same issue.

Dear Dr. Meg,
How do I trust my 15-year-old daughter again? She keeps breaking my trust over and over again in BIG ways.

I don’t seem to be able to trust her. It’s weighing heavy on my heart and I know it’s crushing hers.

Any help you can give would be appreciated.

Thank you!

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Dear Paula,
This is a wonderful question. I’m often asked by parents of teenagers about trust and how it’s established within their relationships. Here are my thoughts on this subject.

When it comes to using the word “trust” with a teenager, I really try to delete that word — here’s why. A 15-year-old looks like an adult, but from an intellectual and cognitive standpoint (and certainly from an emotional standpoint), they are not adults. In other words, your daughter can’t understand that if she performs action A today, that it’s going to lead to consequence B in three months or a year. That’s pretty abstract thinking for a 15-year-old.

Related: When Your Eight-Year-Old Wants Pierced Ears and a Bikini

I think that we set ourselves and our kids up for failure when we begin to talk with them about trust. The truth is, we can only “trust” them with the serious limitations that they have — and nobody wants to say to a 15-year-old, “Listen, I really can’t trust you because you can’t think the way I do. It’s not your fault, you just don’t have abstract thinking developed.”

Kids take those kinds of things very personally. So I try to remove the whole conversation about trust.

Now, when you say that she’s violated your trust over and over, what I’m hearing you say is that she disappointed you and she has gone against your rules many times over. And my question to you would be, “Why is she doing this? Is she doing this because she is troubled? Because she wants attention? Because she’s rebellious or angry at something?”

When I see kids who are acting out or getting into trouble regularly, i.e. stealing, leaving the home, driving too fast, hanging out with the wrong friends, going from As to Ds all of a sudden, or they aren’t following through with healthy behaviors — a lot of times parents mistake this as a child breaking their trust. This really isn’t a trust issue.

And my sense is, you’re not dealing with a trust issue with your daughter. My concern, Paula, is that your daughter is crying out for help. And that’s what’s really crushing her and what’s weighing heavy on your heart.

Related: How to Connect with Your Teen Whether You Want to or Not

So here is what I would encourage you to do:

1.) I would stop talking to her about trust. Don’t set her up for failure and don’t tell her that you don’t trust her.

2.) I would sit down and have a heart to heart with her. I would say something like this: “Honey, I’m concerned that you’re doing a lot of things that are hurting you. I’ve seen a pattern beginning to emerge in you. You are doing X, you are doing Y, you are doing Z, and I’m concerned about why you’re doing that. Is something bothering you? Do you feel angry, do you feel disappointed — why do you think you could be doing that?”

You’re trying to break through to her heart, to figure out why she hurts.

And then just sit and listen to her. Basically, what you’re trying to do is break through to her heart. You’re trying to figure out why she hurts, because I can guarantee you that she is hurting. You know she’s hurting, and it’s hurting you.

And I believe what’s really bothering you is not the trust issue, not the breaking of the rules, not the getting into trouble — what’s really bothering you is that you know, deep in her heart, that something is very wrong.

So your job and your goal is tell her, in a gentle, affirming, loving, non-accusatory way that doesn’t put her on the defensive: “Honey, I’m concerned. I want to help you find out what’s bothering you so much. We’re in this together. My job as your mom is to always have your back, to always help you get out of bad situations. To always help you have your needs met. And that’s what I think we need to do over the next few months. If you need help from somebody else in figuring this out, I will find you help.”

And she may well need help. If she’s been getting into trouble repeatedly, she may well need a counselor, to talk with a friend that you know and trust, or maybe talk with her dad if she has a healthy relationship with him, but I do know there is something wrong deep in her heart. It’s not an issue about trust.

Related: The Urgent Talk to Have with Your Teen

Here’s something else that I do know, Paula: You can get to the bottom of this. You’re a good, concerned, kind mom. I hear that in your question.

Gently go after her heart. Give yourself time, give yourself grace, let her know that you’re on her side and you’ll win her over.

Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for more than 30 years. She is the author of the best-selling book “Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters,” as well as a number of digital parenting resources and online courses, including The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids.

meet the author

Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for more than 30 years. She is the author of the book “Hero: Being the Strong Father Your Children Need” (Regnery Publishing), along with a number of digital parenting resources and online courses, including The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids.

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