I hate lying. It’s disrespectful, infuriating, and hurtful.
But it happens. Every teenager lies at some point, even though they are certainly old enough to know it’s wrong. It’s important to deal with teenage lying and manipulation for the sake of your relationship and to help keep them safe. If your teenager is lying about their wherabouts, and there’s an accident or natural disaster, you would have a very hard time finding them.
When dealing with a lying teenager, it’s important to consider your goals as a parent or caregiver. If you don’t already know, you probably want to get to the truth. Why are they lying? What else they are lying about and who else is in on the lie? Do you know what kind of resolution you hope to achieve in dealing with the lie? These tips will help you and your teen move towards a more honest relationship.
Below I’ll go over in more detail the following 5 tips on how to deal with a teenager that lies. To be honest with you, I wouldn’t say they are all intuitive. Maybe that’s just me though, because being lied to is a huge personal trigger.
Why Teenagers Lie
If we’re honest about it, we all tell lies. We parents and caregivers do it too.
“If you cross your eyes, they’ll get stuck like that.”
“The tooth fairy must’ve had the night off.”
“I’m allergic to whining.”
I made that last one up myself (but it worked… for a while).
Some people even lie to try to get their kids to stop lying. As a reader of Parents magazine confessed, ”I tell my son that when he lies a red dot appears on his forehead that only his parents can see. It only goes away when he tells the truth!”
While our white lies may seem trivial and laughable really, they are still lies. When we think we’re being helpful to someone else by hiding our true feelings, it’s lying. Our kids catch on to our lying patterns and follow our examples.
“I don’t mind.”
“No, you’re not imposing.”
But it’s not so trivial or funny when we are on the other end of a lie.
Teens lie for the same reasons we do.
To be polite, to avoid conflict, to save face, and more. Sometimes they like to exaggerate a little to get attention or make a point. Maybe they’re insecure or afraid of what will happen if the truth gets out. Maybe they want privacy.
Whatever the reason, lying hurts. It destroys trust, creates hostility, and cultivates suspicion. It needs to be dealt with. Here’s our recommendations for how to deal with a teenager that lies.
Five effective tips for dealing with a lying teenager.
Tip # 1 – Stay calm.
Lying is usually based in fear.
If you become threatening, it’ll just reinforce their desire to hide. Intimidation will likely result in their redoubling their efforts to lie better next time.
Dr. Nancy Darling, professor and chair of the psychology department at Oberlin College, has researched teens and honesty for 20 years. In this Great Schools article, Dr. Darling says the key to honesty is, “rule-making plus warmth.” She continues, “They need to respect you and believe you will be warm, accepting, and non-punitive.”
It’s absolutely justifiable to be angry and hurt. But consider what is more important to you. Is it to express your anger or to get to the real issues behind the lying and figure out how to fix them?
Tip # 2 – Find out what they’re protecting.
One of the top reasons why kids and young adults lies is to protect themselves or someone else. Maybe they are embarrassed or afraid they’ll be rejected. They could be protecting someone else or be afraid of getting into trouble.
For kids who’ve faced trauma, like those in foster care have, lying may have become an instinctual defense mechanism. Most often, children have been literally taught to lie. When you’ve been lied to by people in authority – it creates a sense of mutual distrust. They lose faith in the position they represent.
In “How to End Lying: The Cliff Notes Version,” child behavior expert, Bryan Post says,
“The lies will not stop until the fear subsides.”
Tip # 3 – Consider external influences.
Maybe someone has instructed them to lie. Perhaps, they’ve picked it up – copying the behavior they see in someone else. Maybe they need to filter the kinds of peers they are spending time with.
Is their environment one that welcomes honest, even ugly honesty?
According to author, educator, mental health advocate, Darius Cikanavicius, “Adults prank or confuse children, or make up stories and justifications. Or lie to them for emotional and social comfort because it’s too painful to talk about certain things. Sometimes children see adults lie to others to get what they want, so they learn to do the same.”
- Childhood Trauma: How We Learn to Lie, Hide, and Be Inauthentic”
Be a good example. Be open and honest, even when it’s uncomfortable. Keeping a calm, non-judgmental atmosphere welcomes honesty and openness.
Tip # 4 – Help them to connect with the truth.
The other main cause of lying is wishful thinking. The kid wishes something were true so much so that they actually may start to believe it. They may not even realize they’re lying.
It may also be that the child is stuck in the developmental stage where fantasy & fact are hard to distinguish. While most kids grow out of this around 5 years of age, kids who have faced trauma, such as those who have been in foster care, may still be stuck there.
Place your focus as helping a kid learn how to say things more accurately.
Help them acknowledge their wishes for the best, while also being truthful.
In her blog post, Not Lies: Wishes and Dreams, Donna Bryant Goertz, founder of Austin Montessori School in Austin, Texas, recommends avoiding direct accusations, confrontational questioning, and angry cornering.
Instead she recommends that while “children are still reaching for attachment to the truth” to re-frame what we say in a way that helps a child differentiate between what we wish was true and what actually happened. An example she provides is, “I wish I could say the cat opened the door herself and got away, but what really happened was I was careless and let her get out.”
Tip # 5 – Reinforce the relationship.
It’s up to you, as the adult, to lead the way in building a strong and meaningful connection with their teen.
Talk with your teen about how much you value them and how important trust is to your relationship.
“The recipe for honesty,” according to the aforementioned Great Schools article, “turns out to be cultivating warm, strong relationships with teens so they respect your rules and value your advice.
Research suggests that teens lie less when they have this kind of relationship with their parents, in part because they don’t feel like they need to, and in part because they don’t want to risk losing their parents’ trust.”
Some Final Thoughts on Dealing with a Lying Teenager
Be patient, but don’t be afraid to get help, if needed.
Professional Child Counselor Arleta James of Adoption and Attachment Therapy Partners says honesty is a developmental process and a progression. It takes time.
Is compulsive lying a sign of mental illness? Not necessarily, but Arleta James also warns, “lying that continues month after month is a sign of a developmental delay or a trauma-related issue. Ongoing crazy whoppers can swallow the happy, peaceful atmosphere of the family! Don’t wait! Instead, lessen your intake of these tall tales by seeking professional help.”
You can find trauma-informed, adoption-competent professionals at the Association for the Treatment and Training in the Attachment of Children (www.attach.org).
For a corresponding Christian perspective on integrity, visit my other blog at https://www.gentlechristianparenting.com/2019/01/11/integrity-revealed/
One purpose of this blog is to help parents of teens navigate the challenges of preparing their children to be successful independent adults. The mission of Finally Family Homes is to provide the same kind of support for those teens who don’t have a family or home to help them transition into adulthood.
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