All teens lie, and that is because all people lie. We often do it in the service of sparing the feelings of others, but sometimes we lie for selfish reasons, such as making ourselves look good in the eyes of others. Teens are no different. As with many other adolescent behaviors that can be frustrating to parents, such as arguing, teens do not necessarily lie more—they just get better at it!
Many teens leave out information, rather than explicitly lie, as they become increasingly protective of their privacy and learn what will upset parents and cause conflict. Just as in all other relationships, where we all feel the need to present our best selves, to avoid conflict and protect privacy, the occasional lie can be either ignored or briefly addressed, and there is usually no cause for concern.
However, some teens may engage in lying on a more constant basis, which can damage familial relations. It’s important to try to understand and correct the underlying issues that can lead to lying, as lying is often a symptom of a larger problem. Such underlying issues can include jealousy, frustration, anger, and concern about letting a parent down. Reasons for lying can also be more practical, such as to gain attention, escape punishment, or impress others.
The teenage years are a time when children push for independence and separation from parents, which may include a drop in both spending time with parents and in sharing thoughts and feelings with them. Teens tend to prefer to spend more time with their friends, and in doing so, may engage in activities that they feel they have to hide from parents, especially if they feel that their parents may see those behaviors as risky or inappropriate.
Due to development in their brains, teens are able to think about abstract issues, such as morality and responsibility, and in musing upon such concepts, they may begin to believe that their parents’ conceptions of these ideas are quite different from their own, which leads to questioning of parental authority. Also due to developments in the brain, teens become much better at anticipating what others will be thinking, and as a result, are better able to come up with a response, or in some cases, a plausible lie.
Some ideas for dealing with teenagers who lie include:
- Take a moment to calm down and think about what option suits the individual situation, as well as what you would like your child to learn. For example, if your child is lying to get attention, you may want to teach her that she will not get this attention by ignoring the lie. If you hear your child lying to her friends, you may want to address it directly, such as saying, “When I hear you telling lies to your friends, it makes me worry that you’ll feel embarrassed when they find out what you said isn’t true. Have you thought about what you’ll do then?” If your child is lying to you to get out of being punished, show him that not only are the consequences more severe for lying than for the original misdeed but that he is breaking down your trust in him.
- Help your child think about why lying is wrong while fostering thinking skills, such as perspective taking, and empathy for others, by asking questions such as, “Why do you think I am upset that you lied to me?” “How you feel when you are lied to?” and “How could your lie have hurt someone?”
- Discussions about the concepts of honesty and trust need to be ongoing throughout adolescence. Say to your child, “When you lie, I can’t trust you to be on your own, and I am responsible for keeping you safe. I can’t do that if I don’t have all of the information that I need.” Talk about the importance of honesty and trust in other relationships, not just on your own.
- Enforce clear limits and rules, but keep them reasonable so that you are not set up unrealistic expectations. Be willing to negotiate on matters that are important to your teen so that he knows you are extending your trust to him. You do not necessarily have to alter the rules after a discussion with your teen, but listen to his argument with an open mind.
- Give your teen the benefit of the doubt. Do not set up an adversarial relationship where you are constantly trying to catch your child in a lie. Unless you have reasons to be concerned, such as major changes in school performance or social life, or evidence of lying to cover up dangerous behaviors, accept what your child says at face value until you have reason to be suspicious or worried.
- Try to understand the underlying issues behind why your teen is lying, and address those issues. Start by thinking about when the lying started, what seems to trigger lying, what your teen tends to lie about and to whom.
- Make it safe, to tell the truth in your house. Constantly let your child know that there is nothing that she could do that would make you stop loving her and that it is never too late to ask for your help with a problem. If your teen comes clean about a misbehavior, calmly and respectfully make it clear that you are unhappy with the behavior, but appreciate the truth. Do not let the original behavior go without consequences, but consider lessening them slightly for telling the truth.
- With their newly developed thinking skills and their attention to social details, teens are experts at picking up on hypocrisy, especially in the adults that are trying to enforce rules with them. Do not expect your teen to refrain from lying if you cannot do so, including those little white lies. Try to be honest as much as you can, and when you are not, be willing to discuss the situation with your teen.
If your teen seems to be engaging in a consistent pattern of lying, especially about situations that might place him in danger, enlist the help of a mental health professional.