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Opinion & Essays - Jan, 2001 Issue #77 

Why do so many teens not trust adults?

By Lon Woodbury IECA, CEP

It seems to be all too common that adolescents do not trust adults. This is especially obvious among the new students enrolled in emotional growth schools and programs. These students, whether depressed, angry, or manipulative, come to the schools unreceptive to, and very suspicious of, everybody. Some of them developed a lack of trust as a result of specific dynamics in their families, but it goes beyond that. 

It’s true that some of them may have been abused or neglected by their parents or other trusted adults. Or, dad and mom perhaps worked so many hours that they never created family time. Yes, dad and mom might have had such a bitter divorce that the wounds are still carried by the child years later. 

Yet, there are additional reasons for the general lack of trust of adults that is experienced by students in Emotional Growth and Therapeutic schools and programs. Why do many students come to these schools with radical fringe political ideas, sometimes proposing violent solutions as the only answer? Why are they totally turned off by what they perceive as adult society? 

We have to remember the children are watching! Adolescents tend to be very idealistic, though not necessarily realistic, and are very closely scrutinizing the adult society they will soon be joining. What do they see? 

One of their observations is the way we as adults conduct ourselves in civic discourse. The politics of demonization was developed into an art form during the 20th century. Political operatives have long known that voters tend to vote against rather than for a politician or legislation. Using this to their advantage, politicians at various times have conducted successful campaigns demonizing business, capitalism, socialists, environmentalists, polluters, pro-life advocates, pro-choice advocates, fathers, mothers, families, drug users, smokers, liberals, conservatives, Republicans, Democrats, etc. etc. etc. Honest differences of opinion are too often discounted; instead politicians attack the motives and integrity of the group being criticized. To the unsophisticated observer, which characterizes many adolescents, general public discourse conveys the message that you can’t trust anyone. I’m convinced these students are among those that interpret the message to be: Trust No-one!!! 

Another factor that contributes to adolescents’ lack of trust of adults is what some critics term “psychobabble.” Listening to conversations and public discussion can give the impression that virtually everyone is suffering from some serious mental disease. One observer totaled up the claims made by a wide variety of special interest groups advocating for victims of various mental health diseases. He concluded that according to those advocates, at least 70% of the American population is supposedly suffering from some debilitating mental/emotional disease. It would be reasonable to expect our children to ask, ‘how can we trust an adult society in which the vast majority is suffering from some sort of incapacitating mental disease?’ Why should adolescents listen to, or respect any adult who apparently has more problems than they do? 

These explanations are some of the ones offered by society to explain the reasons why some adolescents have decided they can’t trust adults. Many more reasons are also presented, for example, huge schools provide a setting almost designed to foster a separate independent youth sub-culture; the music and film industry cater to fear and anger, and within that industry, the common theme is one where teens are heroes pitted against stupid adults. It might just be entertainment, but the children are listening. 

Trust is fragile. Of course, a family’s behavior can erode an adolescent’s trust. Nevertheless, it’s not healthy to further promote this lack of trust by condoning political habits that aim for some advantage by demonizing others, and it’s not healthy to throw diagnoses around loosely in a way that becomes simple labeling. Nor is it healthy to glorify adolescents as a subculture that is something separate and radically different from adult society. This is a way for our culture to foster alienation, rather that to prepare our children to become mature adults. 

To support our children in learning to act like the mature adults we hope they will grow to become, we should not reward politicians by listening to their demonizing attacks, nor label people with loosely defined diagnoses, nor should we reward agents of alienation. We can start helping our adolescents to develop appropriate trust in adults by demonstrating our own appropriate trust in other adults. We do so when we assume that divergent opinions are honest differences in attitudes and assumptions, and when we use diagnoses in the narrow and precise way in which they were developed. When we provide a more positive balance to what has typically been portrayed as “reality,” perhaps fewer adolescents will be so scared at the prospect of becoming one of us.


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