Are you ever completely baffled by your kids? Like you have no understanding of why they’re acting in a certain way? The one that always gets me is lying. I catch him lying, he knows he’s lying, he knows I know he’s lying…and he lies anyway. And keeps doing it. What is that? As annoying, confusing and even hurtful as being lied to is, it’s actually part of their normal development. In fact, some researchers think a child’s first lie is a positive milestone in mental growth. That’s not to say we want to encourage it, but you should expect to run into it along the parenting road—not just with little kids, but with teens too as they are maturing (oh so slowly sometimes).
Why They Lie
Research conducted by Dr. Nancy Darling of Penn State University found that over 96% of teenagers lie. They lie about a myriad of things. Some are understandable, others not so much. My pet peeve was homework. This was a huge point of contention with my son. He’d say he did it but the teacher lost it, or he did it and didn’t turn it in, or his dog ate it. (And no, we did not have a dog back then! )
According to research, the most frequent lies told are about drinking, drugs, whether a party is being supervised and if they have ridden with a drunk teen. Those are obviously critically important lies, but kids also lie about what they spend their allowance on, whether they are dating or not, even what they had for lunch. I mean hello? Why would you do that?
Avoiding a lecture or fear of punishment is the most basic reason. If your teenager knows they have done something wrong and they want to avoid the consequences, one easy option is to lie.
At times this will be calculated and elaborate, other times it will just be instinct and they’ll lie in an instant. Sometimes they even think they are protecting you—though it may not feel like it, most teenagers still value their parent’s opinion and want their approval. Not wanting to let parents down can be another motivation to lie.
It’s important as we navigate this road to remember that our kid’s job is to detach. Teens are trying to carve space for themselves, to separate from you and figure out their own identity. Their journey to freedom sometimes propels them to lie. If they feel what they are doing is out of sync with your values or morals, lying may be their first reaction. It’s an easy thing to do to avoid disappointing you. However, what seems simpler at that moment proves more problematic over time. The “easy way out” turns out to be extremely expensive, particularly for teenagers who have gotten so deeply into lying that they feel trapped in a world of dishonesty, a world of their own fabrication. They don’t understand that whether it’s an outright lie or an omission, it erodes trust. And as our trust in them erodes, so does their freedom. It’s really hard to give them room to grow and become more independent when they won’t be honest or just don’t want to face you.
But other times it’s not about you at all. During the teen years, kids shift from being family-focused to friend focused. While sometimes painful for us, it’s super important to them. Your kid may exaggerate her achievements, make stuff up and generally present herself as a person who, as far as you know, doesn’t even exist! Why? It’s not just friendships they care about, it’s their social status too. Given a choice, their “social status” (for lack of a better word) becomes more important than telling the truth. Having the courage and smarts to deceive or manipulate us can earn them respect and boost them up with their group. It’s that anti-authority, us-versus-them mentality; clever teenagers, gullible adults.
Just when you think you’ve got it down and you’re basically feeling like the enemy, you might realize that kids also lie for the opposite reason. Sometimes a lie is a cry for attention—even affection. It may be unconscious, but that doesn’t make it less true. That’s when they may steal a candy bar and eat it in front of you, or even lie about something bad happening. They do it to get a reaction, to get affection or to somehow build themselves up. They push to find the boundaries. The boundaries they hate are also the ones they need to feel cared for. So the question is what do you do when you realize your kid is lying to you, and she’s doing it more and more often?
The first thing to do is take a breath—maybe several. Go for a walk if you have to. Obviously, losing your temper is just a fact of parenting—I can’t tell you how many times my head has spun around like something out of The Exorcist. But that doesn’t usually end well for any of us. So try to hold on and express your thoughts, and the importance of honesty, calmly. Kids get more secretive, defensive and stubborn when we interrogate them.
Instead, try connecting. Sounds counter-intuitive when you’re boiling mad I know, but the safer you make her feel in talking to you, the less she will feel compelled to lie.
To avoid questions and to keep from being found out, liars distance themselves from those they lied to. They become isolated from family and even friends they have deliberately misled. Liars cut off closeness to those they care about and love. We want our kids to trust us, to come to us if they are ever in trouble; not to feel alone and out of control. Really encourage honesty no matter what, and praise it when it happens. Tell her a story of a time you lied and it backfired, or remind her of a time it backfired on her. Or share a positive story of something good that came out of being honest, even when it was hard.
Sometimes I try to think of conversations as negotiations. You are both trying to get something from the other—can you find a place to meet in the middle? Negotiating rules and boundaries is one of the most effective ways to reduce both conflict and dishonesty. One of the reasons teenagers lie is because they think we won’t listen to them. If he believes the rules are unfair and there is no room to negotiate or make exceptions, then in his mind dishonesty is the only choice. But when we give them a bit more freedom they often step up their game. So when your teen wants a later curfew or an exception to some rule, listen to him. Try to understand what is important for them in this instance. What is at stake? Then think about what is at stake for you and see if you can find a compromise. Obviously, we can’t always do that, but if there is never any room for negotiation then they believe there’s no point asking, so they won’t. They will just resort to lying.
If, on the other hand, he isn’t asking for anything and isn’t lying to keep out of trouble, dig a little deeper to find out what’s going on. Try saying, “I notice that you lied but I don’t get it. For instance when I asked if you ate your lunch and you said yes. But it’s right here in your backpack. It’s not like I’d be mad if you’d told the truth. So why didn’t you?”
It takes a lot of energy, attention, and effort to keep lying all the time. It’s nerve-wracking and stressful to worry about getting caught—or to remember what you told to whom. I think it just heightens all the pressure and stresses the kids are going through. Chances are good that while they may be embarrassed or angry at being caught, they will also be relieved.
Now you probably won’t hear that from them. And you won’t get a great answer to why they lied about something so inconsequential—in fact I’d often get a shrug and maybe a grunt. But if you can acknowledge the lie without lecturing, you’re telling your child that being dishonest won’t get them what they want; that personal integrity matters. They’ll also realize that while you know they lied you’re not making a huge deal of it. Maybe the next time they’re tempted to lie like that, they won’t bother.
The other thing key thing I find helps me is listening. Really listening—even to the silence.
Silence often means something’s churning in there. See if you can find out what it is. Notice what the lie is about. Can you extrapolate anything from that? If your teen is going through a rough patch with friends, or grades or even with your spouse, take a little time out to understand her thoughts and feelings. My kids share the most at night when they are tired and going to bed. Figure out when your kids are most open and try chatting then.
One last thing. Sometimes our teen’s degree of honesty may reflect on our ability to communicate openly. Or may at least reflect what they think we are open to hearing. It sounds great to have totally open and honest communication with our teens, but be sure you are ready. Really ready.
What if your teenager wants to tell you that he drinks at parties? What if he asks to have a party while you are home? Or your daughter wants to go on birth control and you find condoms in your son’s room? If we can’t handle having those upfront, honest and difficult conversations, we also can’t expect our teens to be honest in return. It just doesn’t work that way. Sounds simple; but it’s not easy.
Dana Baker is a writer, a not-so-perfect mom of two and a Parent and Teen Coach. Founder of Parenting In Real Life, Dana knows first hand the challenges of raising a child with anxiety as well as ADHD and some depression. She understands the ups, the downs and the downright uglies and offers a reality check and a dose of good humor in her advice from the trenches. Dana has been featured in RealityMoms, Grown & Flown, Parent.com, Thrive Global, and ADDitude. You can find more about Dana on Parenting in Real Life.