Intimacy and its partner- trust can be twisted into a coercive challenge of “What!? You don’t trust me?” Consider these principles in the sometimes Machiavellian world of the teenager. The implication by the teenager is that one SHOULD trust him or her, and that one is somehow being INSULTING not to trust the teenager. The offended accusing teenager then holds power over the adult who dares-to-not-trust… the untrustworthy teenager! But… but… that teen ain’t trustworthy!
As with the developmental sequence for growth and change, healthy relationships are based on trust. Between the parent or adult and a child or teenager- or between any two people, intimacy and trust predict positive interactions. The individual as a teenager or adult often is in search of relationship health and fulfillment. It may also be a relationship with an inner child, a false sense of self, a demanding idealized self-image, or other internalized intrapsychic relationship. Monogamy, life-long commitment, and a depth of intimacy often characterize intent of the romantic relationship. The couple is one of many intimate relationships. Other potentially intimate relationships may involve a hierarchical relationship such as student to teacher, child or teen to parent, player to coach, mentee to mentor, and supervisee to supervisor. On the other hand, other potentially intimate relationships may be egalitarian such as friends, co-workers, teammates, siblings, and of course, couples in many modern American mainstream cultures.
The family itself is an intimate relationship among parents and children with hierarchical qualities. Intimacy is both a process and an outcome. The “What!? You don’t trust me?” game presumes the outcome without the process. The process to establish intimacy and trust involves particular interpersonal dynamics. Intimacy can be seen as an interpersonal process that involves communication of personal feelings and information to another person who responds warmly and sympathetically. According to this model, the development of intimacy begins with disclosure of emotional or personal information by one of the members in the relationship. Revealing emotional and private information about oneself communicates trust, liking for the other person, and commitment to increased intimacy in the relationship. Emotional self-disclosures also reveal centrally important aspects of the self, allowing the other person to verify and validate these self-views. As a result, emotional disclosures are more strongly associated with relationship development and intimacy than are factual or behavioral disclosures. The “What!? You don’t trust me?” game implies a kind of converse is also true- that one must both trust and self-disclose whether or not the other person is worthy of being trusted with intimate disclosures. The key issue out of this potential trap is whether or not the other person (teenager for example) has a history of honestly self-disclosing or occasionally to frequently lie.
Disclosure + Response = Relationship
Self-disclosure affects the relationship depending in part on the other person’s response. So, how do you as the parent or adult respond to some sensational (and perhaps, scary) revelation- that is, of course if revelation is truthful? The relationship is enhanced when there are mutual behaviors that communicate understanding (a clear perception of the speaker’s core self), validation (respect and acceptance), and caring (affection and liking of the speaker). The nature and quality of the adult response (“What!?” “Oh my god!” “Noooo!” “The hell you are!”) may be more important than the self-disclosure to building intimacy. This is another game of sorts- “Can I shock you?” or “Will you be understanding or rejecting of my truth?” Whether parent or adult and teenager has or is familiar with a hierarchical relationship or an egalitarian relationship, the condition of the relationship and quality of intimacy inevitably shade interactions. Each individual- parent/adult or teenager, has his or her personal history and brings strengths and weaknesses, aptitude and inhibitions, ease and discomfort with intimacy and relationships. These are both the result of such interactions and games and the consequence of them.
Communication and interactions come from the existing relationship and the level of intimacy with between or among all actors. Dynamics may be very challenging if trust and intimacy already is a core problem between or among family members or in the relationship or community. The test or game is conducted with minimal expectation that the adult will respond well or appropriately. Any inability to form an intimate relationship with each other in the family may be duplicated with an inability to bond with anyone else. Individuals with a secure global attachment style generally feel comfortable with closeness and interdependence in relationships. They believe they are worthy of love and see others as trustworthy and dependable. Even as they test or game others, they are hopeful that others will be worthy of intimacy and trust. Those with a preoccupied global attachment style are mistrusting that close others will meet their emotional needs. Preoccupied individuals including teenagers crave intimacy but simultaneously fear rejection. People with a dismissing-avoidant global attachment style, in contrast, are not comfortable with intimacy and interdependence in relationships and believe that others are generally not trustworthy or dependable. And then there are teenagers who have a fearful-avoidant global attachment style. They believe that they are unworthy of love and fear abandonment, and thus find it hard to trust and depend on relationship partners. They see both themselves and most other people negatively. They will anticipate a poor response to the game or test. They are also unlikely to give the other the benefit of a doubt.
Pattern of Honesty
Sometimes, the “What!? You don’t trust me?” challenge is reactive, implicit or overt, and other times, overtly manipulative. Adults and parents need to look at their children’s patterns of behavior over time. If the youth has not shown a pattern of deception and avoidance of responsibility, then the question “What!? You don’t trust me?” is less a manipulative game, but more a genuine expression of surprise of being doubted when there has not been reasons for such doubt. In this circumstance, the parent or adult should examine how much of his or her reaction of doubt comes from the actual scenario around the child’s behavior or words. Or does it come from his or her anxiety or fears of something bad happening? For example, with hyper-vigilant and hyper-sensitive fears about alcohol and drug availability and dangers to youth, a parent or adult can input anxiety into otherwise benign actions or words. If parental or adult anxiety overwhelm the knowledge and experience of his or her child’s values, personality, and behaviors over many years to create lack of trust, then the parent or adult HAS essentially betrayed the youth. The question is more “Don’t you know me? How could you think that of me?” Opening up the conversation, including presenting transparently ones anxiety with the youth would be a good way to deal with doubts. The background of honesty and openness along with the many experiences of sensitive nurturing interactions with a habitually truthful child and parent or adult predicts this process being available.
What NOT To Do
And then there is the frequent or habitual lying youth! Frequent or habitual does not however mean the youth always lies. Eventually a child or teenager who lies frequently will occasionally be doubted when he or she is telling the truth. As a therapist, this happens often in sessions where the mom or dad doubts or distrusts whatever the young person is claiming: having done homework, not sneaking out, not taking the $20 bill from the kitchen table, etc. The young person is duly outraged at being falsely accused (“of a crime he did not commit” as the title voice ominously states over from the old television series “The Fugitive”… a cultural reference from 1963-1967!). As he or she acts insulted for his/her word and integrity being impugned, I ask, “Wait a second! How many times did you lie or cheat and your parent never knew? How many times did you BS him/her and got away with it? Huh?” This usually stops the runaway train of self-righteous outrage and elicits a silent look. “How often? How many times?” Eventually, with or without more prompting, the kid usually admits to “a bunch of times!” Then I’ll challenge, “And here you go acting all hurt and outraged for being doubted for a one time you didn’t pull some crap!”
Once the game has been identified and exposed, then the logic of adult or parental doubt is asserted. It may be as direct as asking, “Given how many times you have lied or deceived me (or your parent), how can you expect us to tell the difference between another lie or the truth… this time? Since you’re so good and have so much practice… and have pulled off lies and deceptions so often, it really doesn’t make sense for you to expect me (or your parent) to be able to tell the difference. You ARE really good at fooling us!” As a parent or other important adult role, it is often best to acknowledge to the youth that one is not good enough… astute enough… analytical enough to recognize whether he or she is telling the truth. As such, it does make much more sense to NOT trust the youth with the pattern of lies and deceptions. It makes way more sense, as sad as it may be and as hurtful as it may be for everyone to not trust the youth. The adult(s) can acknowledge that it is really screwed up to be speaking the truth and be doubted or distrusted.
Caught in the Game… Trapped!
“What!? You don’t trust me?” expressed angrily and self-righteously can cause the adult to feel guilt for NOT trusting. He or she wants very much to trust the youth, but reality, history, and experience says trust is foolish. Implicit with this game challenge is that the youth would be horribly psychically wounded if this important adult (parent, teacher, coach, therapist, etc.) does not trust him or her. Caught in this manipulative game, the adult
- may back down challenging the veracity of the youth’s statements or the quality or intent of his or her behavior,
- forgo setting and following through on appropriate boundaries and discipline,
- acquiesce to unhealthy and/or unproductive behavior or choices- that is, let the kid get away with lying,
- become paralyzed as a leader, mentor, guide… as a parent, teacher, or other important adult role.
Some adults instinctively sense that this stinks! They sense the self-righteous which places them in the morally deficient position- the betrayer to the youth’s need for benevolent adult guidance. Yet they also sense that this is a blatant manipulation to avoid responsibility. They recognize that they are being played! The moral accusation and the manipulation can elicit a reciprocal self-righteous enraged response. As the parent or adult snaps and angrily yells at the youth, another test or game has been triggered. Once the parent or adult gets activated, then the youth can assert to him or herself (and later to peers and others) that his or her parent always loses control and yells at him or her. It’s the “You lose credibility if you lose your temper” game. Or, the “You lose if you get mad, I win!” game. While the youth may not enjoy being yelled at or having the parent or adult be angry at him or her, since the youth cannot otherwise have control it is a pyrrhic victory.
Expecting, Identifying, Accepting… and Sad
Unfortunately, in reality a youth who successfully plays this game- that is, also a parent or adult who gets played by this game results in a deep loss for everyone. The youth does not learn how to lead an honorable life, does not acquire productive ways to gain real control, and becomes satisfied with symbolic victories at the cost of relationship harm. The parent or adult fails in his or her leadership responsibilities to discipline and guide the youth towards positive life values and strategies. And the community (home, school, job, team, etc.) becomes dysfunctional in achieving their goals. The best response to the “What!? You don’t trust me?” game starts with recognizing the youth’s pattern of dealing with problems. That means not only the nature of problems: tardiness, losing things, forgetting, sloppy work, stealing, etc. but also the pattern of how he or she responds to being confronted about the problems. If the youth has a pattern- a history of lying, deceiving, omitting information, or otherwise not be honest, then the parent or adult SHOULD NOT BE SURPRISED that the youth will almost certainly stay true to being untruthful!
It is stunning sometimes to hear parents and adults with significant experience and history with particular youth lying to them seem surprised that he or she has lied to them… AGAIN! While positive parents and adults are always hopeful that a youth will or can change, they must also know that such a youth will not change just because… just because you love him or her… just because he or she has so much potential… just because you know he or she is inherently a good person… just because! Remember, lying works! It works for the youth to get away with things. It works to avoid getting into trouble. It works well enough and often enough. And with the “What!? You don’t trust me?” game working to manipulate and paralyze adult reactions, or getting adults to lose their temper, lying works well enough. Therefore, it is up to parents and adults to make it not work well enough. Once parents and adults expect their little sweethearts can and will lie (based on prior experience), they are much less likely to be surprised. They become more likely to identify the lying and accept that it is or has become a habitual response of their child. With this acceptance comes sadness that can be used to mitigate or avoid the shame/guilt of distrusting ones child and the outrage reaction to the self-righteous manipulation. Acceptance and sadness can be expressed in the following manner.
“I’m sad that I don’t know if you’re telling the truth or not. I’m sure it’s sad for you too that you may be telling the truth and I don’t trust you. It’s really sad that for a bunch of reasons, you’ve lied to or deceived me so many times before. That includes a bunch times, you got away with it and I never found out that you had lied. And then there’s the times, I eventually found out that you had lied and I had believed you. I am upset… am a little angry, certainly been really angry before, but mostly I’m sad. I hear you and I don’t know whether you’re telling the truth or not. I can’t trust you because of all the previous times. You can tell me know that you will always tell me the truth from now on. But I don’t trust you to believe you as much as I want that to be true. That’s really really sad. Parents should be able to believe whatever their kids tell them. And you don’t know that whatever you say- not matter how honest or sincere… you won’t know whether I will believe you or not. That’s really really sad. Kids should know that whatever they say, their parents will listen and trust them.”
Sadness rather than shame or anger is the emotional expression of the parent or adult. Anger or shaming of the youth is hopefully reduced or eliminated. The self-righteousness and manipulation of the game is avoided. The parent or adult essentially invites the youth to be sad as well. Then the parent or adult can say,
“I would like that relationship where I can trust what you say, and you can trust that I will believe you. That will take many many times of you telling me the truth… and us… perhaps, especially me being able to dealing with the truth in some productive way. You’ll still be the kid and I’ll still be the parent (or adult in my role). I would like to get there. Hope you will too. Whatever you tell me now, I’ll won’t trust yet… I have to see if you will can be consistent enough… or maybe initially, better enough to have hope and keep at it.”
It may take many interactions or tries to change the pattern. There are so many variables that bring a parent-youth (adult-youth) dynamic to this point of distrust, lying, and gaming. And there are many variables to deal with to change the pattern, including the parent or adult being able to deal with the truth he or she does not want to hear. Those variables are too individualized to address in an article or blog. However, the first step remains to expect, identify, and accept the pattern… and the game, before one can start to change it or to change the game outcome. And that’s the truth! Don’t you trust me?