I think everyone, at one point or another, has heard the old joke “how do you know when a teenager is lying?” with the punchline obviously being “when their mouth is moving.” But I wanted to chime in on this issue with a written article because I see more and more families that are deteriorating as a unit because of the power struggle that happens in the wake of dishonesty. For parents, this has become a big issue but it’s also quite complex and I think it’s important to explore it at length in order to find working solutions.
Why do Teens Lie?
Let’s be honest. All of us lie. Yes, all of us. But ‘lie’ is a big word that covers a lot of different lies. The word lie is insufficient in a similar way that love is an insufficient word. There are so many different types of love. I love spring but it’s different from how I love ice cream or a close friend but yet one word, love, is used universally. The word lie is the same thing. Some lies are little white lies intended to preserve feelings or social reciprocity while other lies are deceitful. Intended to manipulate or exploit another. For the most part, I find that most teens that struggle with lying aren’t doing so because they are deceitful but I often find that parents regard their lying as such; an act of deceit. I think we sometimes get into the habit of labeling all lies and all lying as an act of deceit but I don’t believe that this is true for most kids.
In general, I find that teens lie for two main reasons. 1) It’s a response to some kind of fear 2) It’s an act of perceived self-preservation or in other words, a way to stay as safe as possible but in many cases, both of these reasons are true. I want to get some working examples going here because people are usually skeptical at first but I often make the argument that lying is usually something that starts as a symptom before it grows into being its own problem. In a similar way that coughing is a symptom of a person being sick and having crap in their throat and/or lungs, lying is a symptom of fear or some other dysfunction. Here are some examples of fears that can be the driving force behind lying.
- Fear of losing approval from peers or being rejected by peers
- Fear of disappointing others, especially parents
- Fear of failure and the perception that their failures will be seen by others
- Fear that parents will “freak out” on them
- Fear of what others think of them
I believe that these reasons constitute the vast majority of reasons why most teens lie and that their lies are a symptom of these fears or efforts to preserve the self. Perhaps you noticed that none of these reasons include wanting to pull one over on mom and dad. What I’m really getting at here is that their lies are about them and have everything to with them while having to do very little with their parents. Granted, some of their lying is an attempt to avoid negative repercussions from parents. I’ve literally had teenagers tell me that lying objectively brings fewer negative outcomes than telling the truth. In short, teens sometimes learn that being honest and telling the truth brings more pain and therefore, honesty and truthfulness becomes the more painful thing to do.
I often make the argument that modern parents are too punitive. Meaning that they resort to punishments to quickly and easily, even when it is not appropriate or effective. As a result, teens are untrusting and resentful. They rebel and they avoid parental involvement in general. I think that the main reason parents are so punitive is because they haven’t learned any other methods; they have one tool in the tool box. There are a lot more tools, there are a lot more ways and better ways to solve problems.
Part of my family program puts an emphasis on mutual respect. This is an important element when working with teens. In essence, this is how I describe to others that I’m less likely to get anywhere with teenagers when I expect behavior from them that I don’t do myself. Teens hate hypocrisy and they can laser focus on it. If I want them to be truthful and honest, then I need to be truthful and honest first. If I want them to be respectful then I need to treat them with respect. If I expect them to be willing to change, then I need to be willing to change first. You get the picture. This is how bridges are built and I would strongly urge parents out there to avoid the kind of thinking that double standards are okay because they are the parent and they are entitled to do whatever they want. This is the fastest and easiest way to lose the game with your teens.
Solving the Problem
It’s my mission to give families positive alternatives. I see suicidal teens on a frequent basis and the teens that get better support through their families are the ones that I worry about the least. Teens who have parents that engage in the overall solution, find better tools and make their own changes are the parents that gain the love and respect from their teenagers. I believe the solution to our teen suicide epidemic is stronger and more resilient families and it is my mission to teach the right tools and methods to effectively solve problems.
The bottom line with lying is that many, if not most teens will stop lying when being truthful and honest brings more reward than pain and vice versa. They usually lie because, frankly, it works. When I say it works, I mean that it helps them avoid more pain and gain more rewards. So perhaps ask yourself if the culture in your family is one in which truth and honesty are not reinforced enough and in which lying is most likely to bring about favorable outcomes. There are a lot of things that parents can to do help change this culture. Focusing on the positives and ignoring the negatives. Incentivizing truth and honesty. Not being emotionally reactive, in other words, don’t freak out. These are a few examples but one of my favorite and most used methods has to do with putting teens in charge of solving their own problems. When this is done well, it’s extremely effective and I love watching kids take accountability and feel empowered.
I have specific problem solving methods that I walk families through. I often ask parents to make specific changes. Do this not that. I keep it simple, straightforward and concrete. A dedicated family can make major positive changes in a very short amount of time. Each family is different and unique. They a different set of dynamics and issues and each family presents as their own unique case. Like I said before, families that engage in the process together see much faster results.
But what I really want to steer parents away from being punitive while also steering them towards the idea if they want teens to be more honest and truthful, they should seek to create environments in which teens find honesty and truthfulness to be the best practice. Ask yourself, do you create an emotionally unsafe home? Is the primary emotion in your parenting worry and fear? As a parent, it’s your job to set the tone of the family and be the leader when changes are needed.
Lying is just one symptom and problem that we see in teen behavior these days. There are many problems and issues and parenting is hard. If you would like some help with more effective problem solving in your home, give me a call.