No one likes being lied to. But when it is a loved one who lies to us it always worst. From frustration to rejection, confusion to curiosity, the sense that your teenager is lying to you can evoke a whole range of responses. Recently I have had a number of conversations about teenagers and lying, mostly from parents wanting to know what to do about it.
So what do you do when you think your teenager is lying to you?
In trying to answer the question there are two equally important aspects to consider. WHY teenagers lie and WHAT parents can do about it.
To respond effectively to your teenager’s lying it is vital to understand why it is they are lying to you in the first place.
So this post is focused solely on explaining why teenagers tell lies. The next post will be dedicated to how parents should deal with lying from teenagers.
Please note that this post is merely seeking to explain the reasons teenagers lie. By providing an explanation I am not condoning the actions. The fact is teenagers lie, and do so for a number of reasons. My preference is that there be as little lying as possible, both from teenagers and adults
Avoid Getting in Trouble
From the time they can talk kids are developing the ability and skill to lie, and the most basic reason for lying is to avoid getting into trouble. Fear of punishment is the most basic driver for lying for people of any age.
If your teenager knows they have done something wrong and they want to avoid the consequences one option for them it so to lie. Sometimes this will be a calculated and elaborate process, other times they will be put on the spot and lie in an instant.
While common to all ages, lying to avoid getting into trouble will vary between individuals. For teenagers the most significant variable is the quality of the relationship and type of discipline they experience with their parents. If they have a good relationship with their parents and discipline is measured and fair they are less likely to lie. If however the relationship with their parents is poor and there is a history of unfair or overly harsh punishment the likelihood of lying increases.
There has been a trend in recent years for parents to set fewer rules and be more permissive. The thinking being by having fewer rules there is less reason for kids to lie. Unfortunately this does not result in teenagers lying less, instead it causes teens to think the absence of rules means parents don’t care.
Dr Nancy Darling of Penn State University found that teens tell an outright lie about 25% of the time, avoiding the topic 25% of the time, and simply withholding relevant details the 50% the time. What is surprising from her research was the reason teenagers gave for lying.
Rather than to avoid getting trouble, the reasons teens gave for lying was because they believed they were protecting their parents. They either didn’t want their parents to be concerned or they wanted to avoid disappointing them.
Even though it may not feel like it, most teenagers value their parent’s opinion and their approval. Not wanting to let parents down can be a bigger motivation to lie than avoiding punishment. Lets face it, punishment is over once you have done your time, but losing your parents respect or trust can take a lot longer to get back.
This is why it is important to treat lying as a relationship issue not a behavioral problem that will be fixed through discipline.
One of the most significant shifts that occur during adolescence is the move from a family centric world to a peer centric world (read more about peers here). It is hard to overstate the importance of peer groups to a teenager. Their social standing amongst peers is the most valuable and treasured asset they possess.
The value of maintaining, or not risking, standing amongst peers will sometimes be considered higher than telling the truth to parents. The pull from friends to maintain appearances or participate in shared experiences can be greater than the pull of having integrity with parents.
Most teenagers understand the risks associated with lying to parents, but they make the choice to do so because the risk posed to their peer relationships by not lying is greater.
The act of lying to parents is not only a means of protecting a teen’s social standing, it can also be a means of promoting it.
Lying to parents in this case becomes an act of bravado. Having the courage and cunning to deceive and manipulate parents is a way to earn respect and admiration from others.
The kudos that comes from being able to deceive parents stems from the anti-authority, “us vs them” mentality associated with adolescence. Getting away with lying to parents, or any adult authority figure, is cool because it achieves the dual satisfactions of portraying adults as gullible and teenagers as clever.
An example of the image enhancing aspect of lying can be found on Twitter. To find out what lies teenagers are telling their parents and then bragging about look up #LiesIveTold MyParents on Twitter (you don’t need a Twitter account, just click on the link.)
Teenagers will lie when they don’t believe parents will give them a fair hearing or respect their point of view.
If teenagers go and do something they know will be displeasing to their parents they do so not to cause offense but because they believe there is no point discussing it as they will be ignored. The reason they then lie about doing it is basically the same reason they did it in the first place; they think what they did was reasonable and believe their parents won’t listen to them.
Feeling like parents don’t listen or try to understand is a common reason for teenage acts of deception and lying. Establishing and nurturing healthy communication patterns with your teenagers will keep the incidences of lying to a minimum.
Lies help teenagers create a social space that is entirely theirs. It is a space where they are completely in control. Having a sense of control is important for teenagers developing a sense of autonomy.
Most often adolescents exercise this control by not telling parents everything that is going on; they don’t lie they just don’t volunteer information. Think about all the things your teenager sees and hears in a typical school day. Amongst the schoolwork, trivial conversations and schoolyard activity your teen will commonly witness cheating, slander, bullying, vandalism, intimidation, name-calling, stealing and a host of other such events. They have learnt from a young age no one likes a tattle-tale or dobber.
Teens need to feel they are able to handle life by themselves. Telling parents or other adults about what the issues they deal with is an admission they are unable to manage life by themselves.
This need for control moves from withholding the truth to the telling of lies when adults try to coerce information from teenagers. It is easy to keep a secret when no one asks about it, but what do you do when you are directly confronted with a request for information? Often the solution is to lie.
So there you have some of the common reasons teenagers tell lies, in the next post find out what parents can do about it.