Of the many battles to contend with when raising teens, lying can be the most frustrating and debilitating for parents. Thoughts swirl in your head, Why do teenagers lie? Will my teenager always be a liar? Where did my teenager learn this dishonest habit? You might also wonder how to stop your teenager from lying, while feeling deeply frustrated that your teenager continues to lie even though you know they’re not telling you the truth.
These feelings are totally normal, but not necessarily helpful when it comes to changing your teenager’s behavior. As difficult as it may seem in the moment, when your teenager lies, it’s a great opportunity for relationship development and for teaching teenagers about integrity.
Why Do Teenagers Lie?
So, why do teenagers lie? Interestingly, teen lying is part of the normal developmental process. At this stage in their lives, teenagers are looking to individuate themselves from you in order to forge a new, adult identity. Sometimes, this process manifests itself through lying, especially when teenagers perceive that their actions are out of step with their parents’ ideals and morals. Specifically, teenagers lie when:
- They don’t want to get into trouble;
- You are upset with them;
- They feel like your perception of them has changed; or
- They may be externalizing a deeper, more internal emotional battle
Since there are so many answers to the question Why do teens lie, I encourage parents to get curious instead of furious. Lying can feel like a personal attack against all that you have taught your teenager. But, the fact of the matter is this: your teenager is human and sometimes humans make mistakes in their attempts to move forward in life.
When you take the time to understand why your child is lying, or what they are trying to accomplish by lying, you can begin to create a path that guides them to make better decisions. Specifically, you will be teaching your teenager to become aware of his or her internal needs and how to externally express those needs to get them met—without having to drum up false stories.
Dealing With A Lying Teenager
Here are a few strategies to help your teenager move past lying. In my work with families, I’ve guided parents to do the following when confronted with teenagers and lying:
1. Create a safe space. Before teenagers will tell the truth, they have to know that their voice will be heard and that they will be supported in their attempts to make decisions on their own. Having the space to explore doing things in their own way helps teenagers learn that they don’t have to lie to solve problems, get what they need, or gain more independence.
2. Ask for the truth. No matter how many times you’ve talked about lying in the past, when a new instance of lying arises, it’s time for a refresher course. Explain to your teen what honesty means to you and share with him the reasons why you’d like to know the full story. Also, you can offer alternative ways to convey the truth, such as sending you a text or writing a letter.
3. Show awareness. As you are attempting to get the truth, let your teenager know that you know you are not getting the full story. But do this is a non-judgmental way. For example, you could point out physical observations that you’ve noticed in the past when your teen is not telling the truth, such as talking faster, slower, etc. This works on two levels: it lets your teenager know that you’re aware of who she is, which enhances your relationship, and it lets her know that you are still waiting for the full story.
Teen Lying Is Part of Normal Development
4. Discuss solutions. This step comes in once your teen has told you the full story and is no longer lying when asked about it. So, you may have to go though steps 1 to 3 a few times before you move onto this step. Once at this step, I encourage you to begin to discuss how your teen can get his needs met next time without lying. Again, give your teenager that safe space to work through issues instead of lying about them. You and your teenager can also work together to come up with consequences for lying the next time.
5. No shame, no insults. I also encourage you to develop a “no shame, no insult” rule about lying in your home. When a teenager worries that he will be insulted, severely punished, or shamed for lying, he will be more likely to continue lying — or, worse develop other dishonest behaviors — to avoid that negative attention. Again, remaining calm and non-judgmental in the face of teen lying is important.
While it may be frustrating to know that your teenager is lying, it’s important to take it in stride. Modeling empathy for your teenager will illustrate that you understand the fear of punishment and embarrassment of getting caught. It’s not about the lie, but what your teenager learns about lying (including how you respond to it) that will continue — or stop — the behavior.