Why does my teen lie?
What can I do to increase the likelihood that they will tell me the truth?
Should I punish my teen when they lie to me?
Why do they lie?
When I meet with moms I always start with encouraging them to be curious as to why. There are numerous reasons teens lie. Understanding what causes tweens and teens to lie will help you to deal with the lying issue in a way that will increase the likelihood that your kid will be honest and truthful with you going forward while teaching them some helpful life skills.
Here are a few of the things teens lie about:
If they’ve done their homework or studied for a test, if they forgot or lost something, who they are hanging out with, what their friends are doing, how they’re feeling about something, if they have a crush or love interest, if they are included or excluded with friends, if they’re vaping, drinking or doing drugs or other risky behaviors, to name a few.
Reasons teens lie:
They lie to cover their tracks in order to avoid your disapproval and punishment.
Teens lie because they want their own way – frequently to get out of something they don’t want to do or they don’t want to hear no.
They lie because they are more private and don’t want parents in their business.
They want to protect their parent’s feelings – from being anxious or worried.
They lie because they want to fit in and belong with their peers.
They lie to protect their friends.
They lie as an act of rebellion because they feel angry at their parents – that they are too strict, don’t understand them, or they don’t feel like they have a say so they sneak around and defy their rules and limits.
Understanding where they are developmentally.
When you understand where your teens are in their development you may find that you are less surprised that they lie.
5 Developmental Reasons Tweens and Teens Lie:
1. They are fighting for independence.
At this age, teens are trying to figure out who they are apart from you. They are fighting for independence and as a result, tend to want their way, don’t like to hear no, and are more private and secretive. They also don’t like you in their business and telling them what to do.
2. They want to fit in with their peers.
Adolescence is a time of trying to find their place in the world and wanting to be accepted by their peers. They are still trying to figure out where they fit in which means they might be making decisions that they believe you won’t like. At the same time they are wired to experiment and try on new behaviors while lacking the emotional, social and cognitive maturity (aka brakes and steering) to make wise decisions.
3. Growing up is a learning curve and they don’t want you nagging them.
We want our kids to be responsible and make good decisions. We want them to do their homework, to manage their time wisely, be organized and do what they are asked to do. These are all reasonable requests AND we need to remember that developing these skills and increased responsibility is a learning curve for them. These are all skills that take time to learn and develop.
What this looks like –
They lie to avoid nagging, criticism, or lecturing ie. they say they did their chores when they haven’t.
You ask them if they finished their homework or if they returned their library book only to find out later they were lying when they told you they had (oh my gosh I used to lie about this all the time as a teenager!).
4. They are more private.
With autonomy also comes the desire for privacy. Simply put, they don’t want us in their business. They are pulling away and this is something they need to do in order to become independent responsible adults.
What this looks like –
You ask them about how something is going and rather than opening up and telling you the details, because they want to be more independent, they will say everything is fine or not share the full story.
They don’t want you reading their texts and will lie or leave out details about what is going on with friendship or where they are hanging out.
5. They know you won’t like it.
These tend to be the lies by omission, the things they don’t tell you or when you ask they deny it.
Because of their drive for autonomy and wanting to fit in with their peers. They make choices that they know you won’t like.
What this looks like…
They say things in their text messages that you are shocked to read.
They tell you they are going to a youth group and you find out they are hanging out at their girlfriend’s house (this was one of the lies we caught our son telling).
They may lie because they are doing something that they know you wouldn’t approve of for example vaping, going to a party where they are serving alcohol, smoking pot, or having sex.
What can I do to increase the likelihood that they will tell me the truth?
“We are building confidence in our children to believe they can think for themselves and make their own good choices knowing that when they fail we will be their safe place to land. Feeling safe to express leads to truth!”
-Michelle N. (wise words from a fellow mom in our Moms of Tweens and Teens community)
“It can take a year of consistently shifting the way you approach lying for your teenager to trust you enough to tell the truth,” Joe Broome, MA
Here are 8 proactive things that you can do to increase the likelihood that your teenager will tell you the truth:
While lying can be a part of the developmental process all tweens and teens go through, it’s also important to confront lying in a way that will increase the likelihood that they will tell the truth.
1. Get Curious.
The first step when it comes to lying is to seek to understand why they are lying.
When you understand why, chances are you will be able to be less reactive and talk to them in a way that will build a bridge to them being more likely to tell you the truth in the future.
Important questions to ask yourself –
Why might they be lying?
What might you do to help them so they don’t resort to lying?
2. Stay Calm And Take A “No Shame” Stance.
Don’t be surprised when your tween or teen lies to you. They are not bad kids. They are going to lie at this age for various reasons that I shared above. It’s really difficult not to react right away when you discover your teen lied to you. I remember the first time I found out my oldest drank alcohol. I freaked out. Sadly, my daughter shared years later that she had needed my support to navigate some hard things yet because of my reaction she was afraid to tell me for fear that I would disapprove, shame, or punish her.
When a kid is worried they will be shamed, punished, or criticized for doing something they weren’t supposed to do or something they were supposed to do that they didn’t do, chances are they will lie and continue to lie and possibly even rebel out of frustration, anger, and fear.
While it’s easy to freak out when you find out your kid has been lying, take a time out if you need to and get support from someone before you talk to them. Being calm and non-judgmental is key when confronting your kid around lying.
3. Focus on the relationship and be a safe place.
We all want the magic formula to deal with lying but unfortunately, there is no such thing.
It always gets down to building trust and building a relationship where your tween or teen can open up and talk to you without fear of being judged or criticized.
This requires that we understand that they are in a developmental process, that they are learning and growing and that part of this process is making mistakes and trying on new behaviors.
It also requires that you take the time when they lie or make mistakes, are irresponsible or make poor choices, to keep the relationship first. Rather than being reactive, focus on building trust and being a safe place.
It’s easy to react in frustration, anger, and fear. However, this approach is usually ineffective and actually backfires.
Think about what the goal is in confronting your tween or teen about lying and will it be effective?
The goal in our relationship with our kids is to foster trust, build a stronger relationship with them, and increase the likelihood that your tween or teen will tell the truth and take proactive steps when you do catch them lying to you.
Important questions to ask yourself –
Are you fostering a relationship with them where they feel like they can be honest with you without you freaking out, criticizing, or punishing them?
Are you parenting them more out of a spirit of fear and mistrust or seeking to understand where they are coming from and what they might need?
Do they trust you to not make it about yourself and how it reflects on you? That you want to support them to make good decisions because of your care and concern for them?
Here’s a sample conversation you might want to have.
I want you to have a relationship with me where you can tell me the truth and we can talk about it.
I understand that you are getting older and you’re not always going to want to tell me everything.
Trust and honesty are important. If we lie it’s difficult for me to trust you moving forward. It hurts our relationship and it doesn’t make you feel good either. It’s like a splinter that is always there, that sucks energy and weighs us down and I don’t want that for you or for our relationship.
I want you to come to me and talk to me. If you’re tempted to break a rule, come and talk to me first and let’s talk about how we might work it out.
4. Avoid being punitive and punishing.
When you catch your kid lying to you it’s really easy to say, “I can’t believe you lied to me! You’re grounded!”
However, this immediately shuts down the conversation.
Grounding kids and taking away privileges is a quick and easy way that we can believe will lessen the likelihood that they will lie again. However, while this might appear to work short term, it doesn’t work very well and won’t stop them from lying the next time.
Why tell the truth if your parents are going to punish you? What does this teach them for next time when they don’t turn in that homework assignment – you’re not asking them what they might need.
Punishment doesn’t help them to problem-solve. Punishment cuts off helpful conversations that can support them to make better decisions in the future.
5. Give them an opportunity to talk.
Adolescents can tend to be impulsive (here’s some of the reasons why). They are so in the moment that they don’t connect cause and effect. They want to fit in and belong. All of this is happening all at once. How we can help them is to give them an opportunity to talk. This is how they can make better decisions in the future.
How to do this –
If you are too angry in the moment when you discover they lied, wait and tell them you will talk about it later.
Once you’ve calmed down, give them a chance to share what they were thinking and feeling.
Listen to what they have to say.
Ask them what they might do differently next time.
Avoid being judgmental.
Validate their feelings.
When it comes to lying about homework sometimes they don’t know how to advocate for themselves, ask for help, or they lack the skills to say no to their friends.
Talking to them helps them to make those important connections to grow and develop into a healthy and mature adult
Provide them with the opportunity –
To learn how choices lead to either positive or negative outcomes.
To have a safe outlet to express what they are feeling because they can be confronted with a lot of tough situations.
To learn to pay attention and listen to their gut when they are uncomfortable and don’t want to do something.
To strengthen them to be able to say “no”.
To process what they might do differently next time.
6. Help them to problem solve.
When your kid confides in you that they were drinking or doing something else that scares you, it’s easy to freak out. However this shuts down the conversation.
Instead, ask them what they were feeling and what led them to make that decision.
You can say things like,
“I understand that you were at the party with your friends and you want to fit in and belong and a lot of kids are drinking right now. That’s got to be hard to say ‘no’.”
Then listen to what they have to say.
Then you can validate what they just said,
“I get why this would be hard to stand up against the pressure and to be one of the only ones that isn’t drinking. I’m really glad that you’re talking to me about this. What might you do when this happens?”
You may need to remind them what your rules are around underage drinking. And talk about what they think the consequence might be (For more on how to handle underage drinking.
7. Start letting go of control.
It’s a scary world out there. There is a lot for us parents to worry about. When they enter the tween years this requires that we begin to gradually let out the reins and provide them with more freedom.
This can be difficult for parents because we want to protect our kids. We are fearful that they will make mistakes and the reality is they will. This is how they learn and become more mature and learn to become more independent and responsible.
Kids need to learn to take healthy risks. If we are desperately trying to hold on to the reins for fear of what might happen we increase the likelihood that our kids won’t tell us the truth, will sneak around, and even become rebellious. Remember this is a time when they are wanting more independence. They need to be allowed to have a say and be given more freedom if we want them to be honest with us.
Good questions to ask yourself –
Am I providing them with opportunities to spread their wings or am I parenting out of fear?
Am I being too strict as a result of my fear or am I stepping back and providing them with opportunities to be responsible or experience the natural consequences?
8. Be clear about boundaries and limits.
Let them know that trust = freedom.
All teenagers are going to start doing things that you don’t want them to do. It’s important that you let them know that their choices and behaviors will determine their freedoms.
Have a talk with them –
Share that the more responsible and mature they prove themselves to be, the more freedom you can give them.
Share that you understand that they want more freedom and that there are things that they will want to do that you might not approve of.
Let them know that the more they show you they can be responsible by doing their homework and chores, listening to requests, being home by curfew, respectfully communicating with you, and making wise decisions, the more freedom and trust they will earn.
Let them know that lying to you will cause you to trust them less and impact the amount of freedom they are given. It’s also important for kids to realize that when they lie it also hurts them – it can cause feelings of anxiety and guilt.
Perhaps most of all, let them know that you want to be a trustworthy and safe person for them to come to when they are confronted with these different, difficult situations. That no matter what they do you would never love them any less and that you are both learning together how to navigate the waters of them growing up and becoming an adult.