All Teenagers Lie… Often!

Tips on Teens #014

The topic of this article will either offer you a great sense of relief or a surprising smack in the face of stunned surprise. Relief because it validates that your teen is not the only cheatin’ liar in the adolescent world. However, if you are still feeling that stinging sensation on your cheek, it may be because your teen is very good at lying to you.

How can you say that about my little “Pookie?” My teenager is a good boy! And I’ll have you know that he’s an honor student and we’ve always taught him that honesty is the best policy.

Being a “good kid” and an honors student does not preclude Pookie or any other teenager from lying. These attributes are not mutually exclusive. Conversely, being a teenager and lying often go hand-in-hand.

Teaching your kid the virtue of honesty is a wonderful thing to pass on. However, like most other learned skills, teens will struggle with practicing how and when to tell a lie.

What do you mean “… practicing how and when to tell a lie?”

Telling a lie does not necessarily make one a liar. We all lie from time to time. For example, most of you reading this article have called in sick to work when you weren’t really sick; lied to friends about some sort of little emergency to get out of inconvenient dinner plans; or perhaps fibbed about the extent of freeway traffic to cover up for sleeping in too late and keeping others waiting. Some people refer to these as white-lies. We use these not to hurt others but instead they are usually spoken to protect the feelings of those who we lie to. Lies cover up for our mistakes and help us avoid responsibility, because sometimes it’s just more convenient than telling the truth.

As an adult hopefully you have a fairly good grasp of when it is appropriate to tell the occasional fib so no one gets hurt. You have this skill because you have practiced it your entire life and now you know how to wield this power safely. Your teenager on the other hand, is not as deft at telling the harmless lie. It is very difficult for her to delineate between what is and is not appropriate because she hasn’t had enough practice.

But my child should never lie to me… ever!

Technically, you’re probably right. By the same token however, you should never lie to your mother-in-law by saying how much you just love her Beef-Liver and Velveeta Cheese Casserole Slathered with a Miracle-Whip Frosting. But you do lie because telling her the truth is just too painful and embarrassing to have to deal with.

When your teen lies to you (and he will), it is generally not done with the intention of hurting you. More than likely, he is trying to protect you from getting your feelings hurt. After all, if your feelings get hurt, you will most likely say, “NO!” That “NO!” will promptly be followed with an intolerable lecture, mindless yelling and perhaps a reduction of privileges that he does not want to have to deal with. If he can get away with his lie, it’s a win-win situation in his mind. Not only is he happy because he gets to do what he wants without getting in trouble, but you’re happy because you don’t know about his personal leap into individuality.

Are you saying that lying about breaking rules and taking unnecessary risks contribute to her attempt to find her own “individuality?”

Yes. They may not be advisable, healthy or safe ways to do it but they are a part of her struggle to find an identity. Remember, your teen’s primary developmental task is to explore and discover an identity throughout her adolescence. In so doing, your teenager will try very hard to impose her independence onto the world… that starts with you.

That means that she is not always going to agree with what she thinks are your outdated and stupid rules. She’s going to want to test her boundaries and see if she really can go onto websites that you don’t like and get away with it, or go to the mall with the cool kids instead of studying at her friend’s house like she told you.

These little (some not so little) tests are her attempts to figure out how she fits in the world around her.

So what am I supposed to do… turn a blind eye to dishonesty?

No, you shouldn’t ignore your teen’s lies; that could very well embolden him to keep doing it. Check out the following tips and see if they can work for you:

  • Don’t let your teen catch you lying to him. Teens spot hypocrisy in their parents a mile away and it often strengthens their resolve to follow your bad examples. That includes your harmless little well-intentioned untruths.
  • Be aware of how you react to your kid when she opens up to you and shares her crazy ideas that scare you. The more shocked and outraged you are, the more likely she is to not tell you the truth when it matters.
  • If your kid is lying to cover up something he did wrong, deal with each issue separately. For example, if he lied about sleeping over at a friend’s house, calmly and dispassionately enforce the consequences for being somewhere that he was not allowed. Then address the lying as a separate matter.
  • Make your kids think… they hate that. If you catch Pookie in a lie, put the responsibility of coming up with what should be done about it back on him. Calmly tell Pookie that all privileges are on hold until he can think of what’s best to do. Sometimes, he may get so flummoxed that he won’t know what to do but give you a sincere apology… and maybe that’s all you ever needed to hear.

But it’s so hard to keep my composure when I ask how his night was watching movies at his friend’s house (where he told me he’d go), when in actuality I know he went to a party and got drunk! How am I supposed to handle that?

Be mindful of accidentally setting your kid up to lie to you. You may think that you’re giving him the opportunity to step up and tell you the truth, but in reality you are just enabling him to get into more trouble and unnecessarily harm your relationship with him.

If you know that your teen lied to you about being at his friend’s house, don’t lure him into the trap of lying to you again. He already knows that he wasn’t allowed to do what he did, so he’s got to maintain the lie if he has any chance of getting away with it. Your question implies ignorance (which is dishonest on your part) and if he continues the charade, everyone is happy in his mind. Of course, that won’t be the case. Now you’re three times as angry because:

  1. He lied to you about where he was going.
  2. He went somewhere he wasn’t supposed to go and did things he wasn’t supposed to do.
  3. When given the opportunity to come clean he lied to you again.

Instead, demonstrate your own integrity and honesty by calmly informing him that you know what he did. Invite him to talk to you about his experience and get his feedback on how to handle this situation. In time, he may learn that he can trust you because he will know that no matter what kind of knucklehead choice he makes, you’re not going to bash him for it. After all, wouldn’t you rather that he tell you straight up about the party even if you don’t approve or would you rather that he try to hide it from you?

So there’s no miracle cure that makes them stop lying to me?

Thankfully there isn’t. Your kid needs you to set these boundaries to test herself against. Without these tests of wills with you, your teen would never have a safe place to practice and fail in learning how to live in the world. After all, when she grows up and has a family of her own, you want your child to know how to effectively lie to her mother-in-law about how she really appreciates her decorating advice.

(updated article from February 2008)

Remember that adolescence is a temporary mental disorder and it will pass within a few years.

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