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There are two times in the lives of children when parents get REALLY worried about behavior the child exhibits. One is during toddlerhood when for the first time the child wants to do things that could be dangerous like climbing the big slide. The second time is during the teen years when the child wants to do things that could be dangerous like driving. Some parents are able to relax, let the child try out some new things, and hope for the best. Other parents are not able to relax and become hovering “helicopter” parents.

I got an email recently from a father whose fifteen-year-old-son had tried marijuana and hung out with friends involved with occasional drinking and smoking. The father felt experimentation was inevitable but the mother freaked. She checked constantly on his homework and grades and who he chatted with online. She also bought a drug test kit and wants him randomly tested. The father disagreed with his wife and asked me to referee.

Hovering over teens can have two negative consequences: 1) the teen stays away from the house and parents as much as possible and 2) the teen starts to lie and have friends cover up.

To me how the teen functions is a determinant. If the teen is doing well at school, acts responsibly around the house (obeys rules, does chores), talks about a future like college, relates reasonably well with parents (don’t expect too much as all teens in their need to separate stop idolizing their parents and start arguing with them) I would not hover or do drug testing. I would hold my breath and trust my teen.

Parents have a dilemma. Yes, teens need increasing levels of independence and autonomy in order to learn how to make wise choices when they are no longer under the parental roof. But a dumb choice could be fatal. Example: Telling parents, “I’m going to Jason’s house to do homework.” when all along the kid intends to go out drinking and driving around.

The father wanted to let his son make a few dumb choices while he still lived at home and was willing to take the risk something bad could happen. The mother wanted to watch her son so closely nothing bad could happen and didn’t realize this meant he won’t be making choices for himself.

There are three principles parents need to understand about teen trust. 1) TRUST must BE EARNED. Teens earn trust by proving to the parents that they can be trusted to be where they say they will be, come home at the agreed upon time, and always tell parents the truth. Parents start out allowing the teen to prove trustworthiness in baby steps. The first step might be going to a friend’s house or the library after school.

2) TRUST but VERIFY especially at the beginning of the teen years. Drive by the library and make sure your kid is there. Call the friend’s parents to make sure your child is doing homework there. This principle goes hand in hand with the first principle because if you don’t verify, you can’t be sure your teen has earned trust.

3) BROKEN TRUST ALWAYS MEANS SANCTIONS. If you ever find out your teen has lied to you, go back to square one. Will your teens protest? Of course they will but you are legally responsible for their children until they reach 18 so you have no choice.

Will these principles protect your teen from doing dumb things and trying to get away with them? Alas, not completely. Peer pressure is strong, impulsive behavior will occur. But these principles will help.

When a father and mother are very far apart on an issue it is often because parental anxiety levels are higher in one than in the other. But the last thing a teen needs is feuding parents. The best thing for a teen to have is parents totally united on issues like trust and verification, parents easy to communicate with because they LISTEN and SHARE how it was when they were teens, parents who can communicate with each other and be role models for a good relationship. If the parents can’t do this, couples therapy is in order.