Let’s cut to the chase.
It’s almost one hundred percent certain your teenager has lied or will lie to you about something at some point during their teen years. A prerequisite for learning anything of value from this article is admitting that fact to yourself. And yes: it’s not without a sense of irony that the first important point we offer about teen lying is that you should not lie to yourself about it.
Because teen lying happens.
Think back to your teen years. Part of being a teen was creating an entire life of your own, separate and distinct from your parents. It was an exciting and exhilarating time. You formed personal opinions on social issues, political issues, what kind of music you liked, what kind of people you liked, what kind of person you wanted to be, and the kind of people you wanted to hang out with.
You may not have lied to your parents at all while you were a teenager, but you should know that if you never lied to your parents, you were in the minority.
What Teens Lie About and Why
Teens might lie about: who they’re hanging out with, what they were doing and where they were when they were hanging out with whomever they were hanging out with, how they feel, whether or not they have a love interest, studying for tests, finishing homework, things their friends do, how they spend their allowance, whether or not they’ve tried or regularly use alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes, whether they’ve ever been in a car driven by a friend who’d been drinking – you get the idea. If it happens in their life, there’s a chance they might lie to you about it. That’s not to say they will, but research shows there’s a chance they’ll fudge the truth about all of the above.
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Adolescent lying is different than lying during the toddler and preschool years.
Toddler/preschool lying is a positive milestone: it shows (1) they’re aware of what’s happening in someone else’s mind, (2) they have the cognitive capacity to inhibit themselves from stating the truth, and (3) they have the capacity to concoct a plausible (to them) alternative to the truth. Positive as it may be, toddlers and preschoolers almost always lie to avoid getting in trouble. Adolescent lying, however, is not a positive milestone. It may be an indicator that they’re meeting other positive developmental milestones, such as emotional and psychological differentiation from parents, independence, loyalty to friends, and moral/ethical reasoning, but the lying itself is not a positive characteristic. It’s something parents need to address, resolve, and move past in order to help their teens grow into responsible, accountable adults.
The first step in working through the teen lying phase – if it’s happening – is to understand why teenagers lie. We identified six main reasons teens lie to their parents. They lie to:
- Avoid Getting in Trouble. It’s just like when they were toddlers or preschoolers. Teens may lie simply to avoid the consequences of breaking rules.
- Avoid Embarrassment. Teens may make up stories when they’ve done something they think makes them look foolish, uncool, or dumb.
- Protect or Defend Friends. If a friend is in serious trouble with their parents, the school, or authorities, teenagers may come to their defense with alibis, stories, versions of what happened, or outright denials to help their friend get out of a jam.
- Cover Up Emotions. A teen may not be totally forthcoming about how they feel about things. They may be uncomfortable with their emotions, embarrassed by them, or afraid feeling a certain way may make them look immature or uncool.
- Make Themselves Look Better. Teenagers may embellish or exaggerate things they’ve done or things they’re capable of doing to gain social capital. This is more complex than it appears: the capital they seek may be from a positive crowd – i.e. “I aced that test without studying” – or from a less-than-positive-crowd – i.e. “I smoked so much weed last night I saw my lava lamp levitate.”
- Establish Autonomy. There are times teens may lie for no good reason other than to keep part of their lives to themselves, unencumbered and uninfluenced by the input of parents or teachers. This is complex, too: developing autonomy is a good thing, but lying to reinforce the autonomy is not the most productive approach.
Now that we’ve reminded you what teens might lie about and why they might do it, it’s time to understand what steps you need to take, how to take them, and how seriously you need to take the very real phenomenon of teen lying.
How to Handle Teen Lying
We need to get this out of the way before offering our practical suggestions: resist the urge to trap your teen in a lie. You’re not law enforcement. You’re a parent. Sure, you’re the enforcer of your family rules, but catching someone in a lie inherently involves some level of dishonesty on the part of the person doing the catching. You have to feign ignorance, elicit a false answer from your teen, then admit you knew the truth all along.
That’s dishonest, no matter your intentions.
And dishonesty is the thing you’re trying to prevent, so engaging in dishonest behavior to discourage dishonest behavior is – pulling no punches – hypocritical. Teens can smell hypocrisy a mile away. And if they find out they’re the target of an elaborate sting operation on your part, the likelihood of them wanting to be honest in the future will dwindle to a number close to, but not indistinguishable from, zero.
That said, here are five tips to help you handle teen lying:
- Stay Calm. Flying off the handle, raising your voice, angry lecturing, and freaking out will not help. Having a discussion in a reasonable tone will help. You want your teen to trust you. Creating a highly-charged emotional atmosphere is likely to backfire. Your teen will want to retreat and do anything they can to end the conversation as quickly as possible.
- Keep Perspective. Whatever you do, don’t take it personally. When your teen lies, it’s not an attack on you. When (if you did) you lied to your parents during adolescence, you were probably not doing it to hurt them. Teen lying is, in most cases, more about them than it is about you.
- Re-emphasize the Importance of Honesty. We bet you already had the honesty conversation a hundred times when your teen was a toddler or at preschool age. That’s one reason it’s so frustrating now: you thought you had it handled. This time, though, the conversation is different. You can take the time to emphasize the following facts about lying:
- It can hurt other people. Ask them to see things from your side for a moment. Or from the side of someone else they’ve lied to. It feels like a betrayal, and it makes the person lied to less likely to trust the person lying.
- It puts them in double-jeopardy. Explain that when they lie, they’re doubling their exposure to consequences. They can get in trouble twice. Once for the thing they did they’re trying to cover up, and once for the lies they tell in covering it up.
- It complicates things. Explain that when they lie, they have to keep track of the lies in order to keep from getting caught. Just one lie can lead to many more lies. Not only do they become hard to keep up with, but they also can cause anxiety. A person who lies a lot lives in constant fear of being exposed, and that just can’t be fun.
- Remind them, especially early in the teen years, that lies lead to a lack of trust on your part. If they’re lying about small things when they’re thirteen, they reduce their chances of being trusted with big things – like driving the car, going to parties, etc. – when they’re sixteen or seventeen.
- Model Honesty. Your teenager sees and hears way more than you think they do. If they see and hear you telling white lies all the time, then that increases the chances they’ll tell them all the time, too. Lying can snowball: being comfortable with the little lies may – but not always – lead to being comfortable telling big lies. Next time you’re on the phone about to tell someone, “Sorry, I’d love to help, but I can’t, I’m busy right now,” when your kid is right there on the couch next to you and can see you are not busy, do the right thing: be honest. Your kid will take notice.
- Understand It’s a Process. If your teen has gotten into the habit of lying, it may take some time to get them back on the honesty track. Be patient, be loving, and be calm. It may not happen overnight, because the behavior probably didn’t spring from whole cloth overnight. Establish reasonable outcomes for lying, proportional to the lies. Take away screen time, move up curfew, or restrict the use of your car. Whatever you do, allow your teen time to adjust.
An Atmosphere of Trust and Communication
The foundation of an open and honest relationship with your teen starts in the early years. Teens who understand the reasons behind the rules in their household are less likely to break them. Parents who take an authoritative, rather than authoritarian, approach to discipline create a family where teenagers are not afraid to speak the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. They understand there are outcomes to unwanted behaviors, but they also understand those outcomes are matched to the behavior. They’re based on logic, and come from your desire to teach and guide, rather than punish and blame. Your teen will talk to you. They may admit they’ve lied, especially if they feel like you’ll listen, hear, and respond with love and understanding. Even if they know at the end of the conversation, they’re going to be grounded for a month.
Final Thoughts: What to Do When Lying is Serious
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention one last point. Most often teen lying is harmless, but there are times when teen lying is not harmless. If a teen is lying to cover up behavior that’s dangerous or illegal, that’s an entirely different story. It’s time to take it seriously. It’s still not time to freak out. We never recommend that. But it is time to let your teen know you absolutely will not let it slide.
An atmosphere of trust and communication is still crucial. But lying to cover up drinking, using drugs, or illegal activity may be an indicator of an underlying problem. If you think your teen is lying for those reasons – or if your teen repeatedly makes up untruths or wildly embellishes facts with no apparent guilt, remorse, or indication they know it’s wrong – then it’s time to consider enlisting professional help in the form of a fully licensed and credentialed psychiatrist or therapist.
If your teen is lying to cover up risky or other red-flag behavior, you can use this helpful Psychiatrist Finder maintained by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.