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CAN I TRUST MY TEEN?

The subject of how parents can tell whether their teens are telling the truth came up recently. Everybody looked to me for an answer. Darned if I know!

I jokingly said that with my own children I vacillated between the John Ashcroft approach (ground ‘em and hold ‘em incommunicado forever or until they are adults whichever comes first) and the ACLU approach (teens have constitutional rights, too).

But seriously, parents have a dilemma. They understand that 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 Andy’s house to do homework” when all along the kid intends to go out drinking and driving around.

I can come up with three principles that parents should use in dealing with the issue of teen trust.

1) TRUST MUST BE EARNED. Parents should not “give” their teen trust automatically when the teen turns 13 or passes a driving test.

This is the way it works: 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. If you can verify that the teen actually did what the teen promised, the next step might be going somewhere early in the evening.

Your job as a parent is to ensure that your teen means it when he says, “I’m going to spend the night at Tom’s house, we have a science project to do together.” It’s pretty obvious that no teen will ever say, “I’m going out with a bunch of guys, one of them has a fake ID and we’re going to get some beer and then drive all over town.” But a trustworthy teen will not lie to you and say Tom’s house when he means a beer bust. This brings me to the second principle,

2) TRUST BUT VERIFY. 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. Be sure your teen knows that evidence of broken trust means he or she will have to start all over again to earn that all important trust.

Will your teens protest? Of course they will. Quietly point out parents are legally responsible for their children until they reach 18. 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.

If you have a pre-teener have a family meeting to discuss these three principles in advance. And stand by your guns, no matter how many times you hear those dreaded words, “But everybody’s going!”

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