The first thing a parent should do when their teenager lies about something is simple. Or rather, the first two things a parent should do are simple – and they’re more about you, the parent, than they are about your teenager.
Here they are:
- Don’t be surprised.
- Don’t take it personally.
We should back up and rephrase that: those are the first two things you shouldn’t do when your teenager lies to you.
Because reliable research shows that 95 percent of teens lie to their parents at some point during their teenage years.
That covers our first point, above.
So why shouldn’t you take it personally?
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The six top reasons teens lie are to:
- Avoid getting in trouble
- Avoid embarrassment
- Protect or defend friends
- Cover up emotions
- Make themselves look better
- Establish autonomy
And, according to renowned child psychologist Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., here are the top ten lies teenagers tell:
- “I already did it.”
- “I didn’t do it.”
- “I’ll do it later.”
- “I didn’t know.”
- “I forgot.”
- “I didn’t think you’d mind.”
- “I didn’t know that’s what you meant.”
- “I didn’t think you were serious.”
- “It wasn’t my fault.”
- “It was an accident.”
Notice that in that list, eight out of ten of those lies start with the word “I.” Of the remaining two, one includes the word “my.” And in the three where teens mention someone else – you, the parent – that mention comes after the word “I.”
We’re saying all this so you understand something important.
Getting Angry Probably Won’t Help
That’s right: when you find out your teen lied to you about something, negative emotional input from you is unlikely to improve the situation.
In fact, it’s more likely to cause harm than good.
It’s a genuine catch-22.
Scanning the top six reasons for lying and the top ten lies teens tell listed above, you can easily extrapolate that teens often lie to avoid your anger. Therefore, getting angry has just as good a chance of leading to more lies than it has of leading to fewer lies. That’s the conundrum. You want your kids to be honest. You want them to feel like they can tell you anything. They should feel comfortable owning up to mistakes, revealing things that trouble them, and sharing things they may have done that you might not approve of.
But we all know it’s not as simple as that.
Parenting Styles and Teen Lying
That’s why we want to address the anger issue first.
Emerging research and trends of thought on parenting and teen development show that teens who grow up in households with strict, authoritarian parents learn to lie more frequently and more skillfully than teens who grow up with authoritative parents.
To clarify that vocabulary, an authoritarian approach to parenting is the “My Way or the Highway” approach to rules and discipline. Evidence indicates that authoritarian parents often use anger in response to rule breaking. Authoritarian parents lay down the law and that’s it: kids who disobey risk facing their parents’ wrath, which, in the case of a teen caught telling a lie, can backfire.
Authoritative parents, on the other hand, enact firm rules and enforce consistent outcomes (consequences) in their households. The difference is that authoritative parents invite dialogue, explain the rules to their children, and give them a voice in the rule making process. In the end, the outcome might surprise you:
In authoritative households, kids and teens are more compliant (i.e. follow rules more consistently), and lie less often than kids and teens than in authoritarian households.
Nevertheless, teens from all types of households with all types of parenting styles end up lying to their parents.
What Do You Do About It?
Our first piece of advice is clear: avoid freaking out and getting mad, because most teens lie at some point, and fear of your anger might be one of the reasons they lied in the first place. To resolve what may appear as two conflicting messages in this article so far, consider this: your parenting style affects the amount your teen may or may not lie – so their lying is about you, partially – but they lie to protect themselves, which means, therefore, the lying is mostly about them.
And that point brings us to something that will help you manage things if and when your teen lies to you: the anatomy of lies and lying.
Here’s what we mean by that.
Learning About Honesty
It has to do with developmental stages. When toddlers and preschoolers lie, it’s a positive developmental milestone. It shows they’re aware of what’s happening in someone else’s mind. It shows they have the cognitive ability to inhibit themselves from speaking the truth. It also shows that they have the cognitive capacity to create an alternative to the truth.
Once a toddler or preschooler knows lying is not a positive personality trait, they adopt a black and white attitude toward lying, which they hold on to until about age 11. During this phase, the concept of a lie is entirely fact-based. Research shows that for a school-age child, any statement that’s not factually true is a lie.
For them, intent does not matter – only facts.
If someone tells them something factually untrue, regardless of circumstance, they’re likely to say that person lied to them.
Once they enter pre-adolescence, though, intent starts to matter. An 11- or 12-year-old understands that if someone accidentally says something untrue, it’s not categorically a lie. If a person doesn’t know the whole story, or has the facts wrong, making an untrue statement may be okay, given the circumstances.
For them, it’s a combination of facts and intent that matter.
A pre-adolescent will forgive someone for making an untrue statement if they got the facts wrong and did it innocently. They’re less likely to label a mistake or an accidental false statement as a lie.
Once they enter adolescence, though, things change again. Facts matter, yes. Intent matters, yes. But something else comes into play: social conventions and our default norms and rules of communication. An adolescent – and most adults – take a more liberal approach to labeling statements as outright lies. For instance, when someone gets a new haircut or new jacket, a friend might tell them it looks great when it doesn’t.
For them, it’s a combination of facts, intent, and social norms that matter.
That’s the anatomy of lying. Teenagers understand lies have those three parts:
- A factual element
- An element of intent
- A social element
In fact, most of us understand this idea. But adults have life experience, and years of trial and error behind them when weighing these factors, and deciding whether to tell the truth or not. The elements of intent and social norms are new to teens, and one reason they lie to parents is this:
They’re right smack dab in the middle of trying to figure all that out.
When they lie, that means your job is to help them.
Steps to Take When Your Teen Lies
Understanding the anatomy of lying – i.e. how the concept of lying develops in a person and the social element of lying – will help you when (and if) your teen lies. It helps you understand that part of what’s going on is what we mention above. They’re navigating what they see as a newfound gray area.
You can look at your job at this point as helping them figure all that out.
Here are our suggestions for helping them navigate honesty and telling the truth after they learn that things aren’t quite as simple as when they were toddlers or school age children.
Helping Teens Stay Honest
1. Remind them why honesty is important.
Emphasize the following points:
- Lying degrades relationships. Explain to them that lying hurts relationships by eroding trust. Lying to parents about small things – homework assignments, etc. – means that they may be less likely to trust you when you ask for big things – like the car keys, for instance.
- Lying hurts others. In many cases, being lied to feels like the ultimate betrayal. Ask your teen if they’ve been lied to and how it felt. Reflecting this back to them drives the point home. If they didn’t like being lied to, and it hurt, that can change their calculus with regard to lying in the future.
- Lying makes things complicated. And it also makes things worse. When you lie, you have to remember the lie. Then you often have to tell additional lies to make the original lie seem plausible. Also, when you lie to your parents and teachers and get caught, you get in trouble twice: first, for the thing you covered up, and then for the cover-up itself.
2. Remind them some things are black and white.
With regards to their safety, their health, and their overall well-being, little white lies are not allowed. Little white lies should not be allowed anyway. If their friend is over-the-moon about a new song and they don’t love it, then maybe they can demure offering an opinion. Or they can find something productive to say about it. But they don’t have to lie about it. This is your chance to teach them that honesty is honesty after all, and lying about small things is a slippery slope they don’t want to step onto. As hard as it may be to be honest all the time, honesty is the best policy.
3. Set a good example.
If you want your teen to be honest, then you need to be honest, too. Your kids watch just about every move you make. If you tell fibs and half-truths, they get the message that fibs and half-truths are okay. That increases the likelihood they’ll start telling fibs and half-truths, which sets them on the slippery slope we warn about in (2) above.
When Lies Are Dangerous
In some cases, your teenager might lie to you for reasons that have nothing to do with navigating the developmental or social constructs of honesty. Sometimes they lie to cover up behavior they know is wrong. And sometimes, the behavior they cover up – the behavior they know is wrong – is related to an underlying mental health or substance use disorder.
If your teen lies about drinking, drugs, or illegal activity, then it’s your job to dig deeper and get to the root of the problem.
Drinking and drug use can be an attempt to handle the confusing and overwhelming emotions associated with depression, anxiety, or another mental health disorder. This is a behavior known as self-medicating. Which would mean that though the lie is about [drinking, drugs, etc.] the real root of the lie is something you – or a mental health professional – can help them with.
Illegal activity or risky sexual behavior can be related to low self-esteem and identity issues. Which means that though the lie may be about not getting caught for that behavior, the root of the lie is far deeper. And it’s also something you or a mental health professional can help them with.
If you think your teen is lying to cover up behaviors that may be related to a mental health, behavioral, or substance use disorder, the best thing you can do for them is arrange a full evaluation with a mental health professional. A professional can help you determine whether your teen is simply navigating the concept of honesty or they need support with an underlying mental health disorder.
If your teen needs treatment, then a mental health professional may recommend outpatient, intensive outpatient, or residential treatment. And if they need help with honesty, then a therapist can help you help them with that, too.