On Trust (and what it means about innocence and knowledge)

This morning I was thinking about trust.  About who has it, and who doesn’t.  And what that means about innocence and knowledge.

Because I occasionally find myself in front of a group of young teenagers talking about this most intimate topic, promising I won’t tell their parents what they say, teenagers often confide in me or at least speak openly in front of me, in ways they say they do not usually do with adults.  Here are some of the things I hear:

I hear that their parents don’t trust them.  I hear that their teachers don’t trust them.  I hear that this pains them deeply.

But I also hear that they do not trust their parents.  I hear that they do not trust their teachers.  And I hear that they assume this is just the way of the world with adults.  (“Well, except you,” they are sometimes kind enough to note with a nod towards me.)

The long and short of this massive distrust and general pain that teenagers hold in their relationships with many adults in their lives is that they are unwilling to talk about sexual matters with them.  This can result in the adults in their lives thinking they are far more innocent and unknowing than they actually are.

Sometimes, early on in our conversations, a young person will say something, and another will punch him or her in the shoulder and, nodding towards me say, “That’s SO inappropriate!  You can’t say that!”  The indication clearly being, they can’t say that in front of an adult.  I smile and say as quickly as I can, “There is nothing inappropriate here.”  They stare at me, “Really??”  And often promptly try and shock the socks off me.  This is where I really get to the meat of what they know about sex and what they have questions about.

These kids are not innocent.  But nor do they really have knowledge.  Rather, they are in is this world of pigeon-sex-speak that preteen and teenagers use.  Words are tossed around in a terribly cavalier way – cunt, prostitute, pimp, dick – without any real knowledge of what they mean (but they make adults rise their eyebrows!) and giggles are plentiful.  Few adults are invited into this world where teenagers use their extensive sexual vocabularies – and even fewer are asked to take part in deciphering the jumbled-nonsense-code that sexual words have become.

But why not?  Why don’t teenagers invite adults, who they otherwise like and engage with, into their world of sexual (mis-)understanding?  Why do parents and teachers, who otherwise feel that they know and understand a teenager’s level of development, massively mis-judge their sexual knowledge and/or experience?

Well, it’s tied up in social stigma, intergenerational conflict, and teenagers wanting their parents and teachers to think the best possible of them.  All this means that teenagers are inclined to lie about their knowledge level, make themselves seem more innocent than they actually are.

Not long ago, I was giving a class to a group of young people.  They were all engaged and on-topic and had something to share, both in terms of offering their prior knowledge to the group and asking questions to clarify their prior misunderstandings.  Afterwards, I was talking with a parent whose child had been in that class.  The parent said how pleased they were that their child had been there.  Their child had given them a blow-by-blow of the class that was quite accurate, except that the child indicated that all of the information presented was new – nothing they had known before.  I was pretty stunned, as the parent continued to thank me for presenting this new information to their child in a warm, engaging way for the first time.  Based on the young person’s input during class, they were relatively knowledgeable in a slang-based, nervous kind of way.  This parent is one who is often in deep conversation with her child, and feels she knows her child well.

So here’s the problem for parents and teachers: It is incredibly hard to know when a young person does not trust you with their complete sexual knowledge and experience.  But just because a youth has not talked about a specific aspect of sexuality (or even stated their ignorance of it), does not by itself lend credence to the young person’s actual lack of knowledge.

To combat this problem work to see that the pre-teenagers and teenagers in your life have no reason not to trust you about sexuality – bring up the topic in conversation, be forthright, and spend a lot of your time listening closely to what your teenager has to say.  Building that trust is the first step towards a truly open conversation where you’ll get the best possible understanding of the young person’s places of innocence and knowledge.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. Karen, this is quite possibly the best post you have ever made. I remember so vividly trying to appear innocent to adults when I wasn’t, it’s interesting that teenagers are still doing this today even though our society is more open about sexual issues than it was even ten years ago.

    Why don’t teenagers and adults trust each other, I wonder, and what can be done to facilitate communication? Teenagers NEED to talk about sex with adults they trust. Are teenagers afraid, as I was, that the adults in their lives will abandon them once the lack of innocence is out of the bag? What is it that we adults are afraid of?

  2. Thanks, Alice! This is actually one of those I had tucked away in my drafts and forgot about for a couple of months. Glad I finally dug it out of the recesses.

    Yes, I think teenagers are afraid that adults will in one way or another abandon them – either because the adults suddenly realize the teenager is adult enough to lead their own life or because the adults think the teenager is “bad” or “wrong” or “promiscuous” or whatever.

    Becoming an adult is really hard in our society – there is little to no support or process that can lead either parents or teenagers through the process of letting go or stepping up to responsibility.

  3. Hi Karen. Thanks for posting this topic. I know in our OWL class that building trust is something that we are constantly working on. One of the first question we got in the question box was, “why do adults have to teach this class?”, as if we were going to analyze and judge each of them. We were very quick to inform them of the confidentiality agreement and how this was their outlet to ask whatever they wanted to without judgement. So far, I am proud to say that we have received many great questions that indicate that they trust us to answer them honestly and not let them leak outside the classroom.

    I was also a bit taken aback during our first class when I asked the group about what their concerns were about the class. I posed the idea that maybe they would be embarrassed to not know something. One brave teen replied with just the opposite. That they might know something that maybe they shouldn’t. I guess I was a bit naive in this regard, assuming that they didn’t have as much information as they already did. That really helped me to gauge where they really are. I have been very proud of them in their willingness to volunteer their understanding and ask questions to help clarify their understanding.

  4. […] other day, my friend Jairy left this comment on my post On Trust: I was also a bit taken aback during our first class when I asked the group about what their […]

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