Adolescent Lies

When your son or daughter enters mid-adolescence and begins pushing harder for freedom to grow, you may begin to wonder, “Whatever happened to the truth?” He or she seems more prone to lie both by commission (telling a deliberate falsehood) and by omission (not voluntarily disclosing all that parents need to know).

Insisting on the importance of truth, you may want to declare where you stand on this subject. “In the course of growing up, I expect you to try some things I wish you wouldn't. However, if you hide them from me, or if you lie to my face, I will feel hurt and angry. Being told the truth about what you do is more important to me than agreeing with all you do. I intend to hold both of us to honest account with each other so you keep me adequately informed about your actions and I keep you adequately informed about my opinions in response.”

The Risks in Lying

In general, adolescents tend to lie more than children. Why? Lies are usually told for freedom's sake. For many teenagers, particularly during mid-adolescence when freedom feels so important, lying seems to be the easy way out of trouble or into adventure that has been disallowed.

But lying is deceptive: What seems simpler at the moment becomes complicated over time. The “easy way out” turns out to be extremely expensive, particularly for teenagers who have gotten so deep into lying that they have a hard time getting out.

For these young people, it can be helpful for parents to itemize the high cost of lying in order to encourage a return to truth. What to tell the errant teenager? Explain some of the common costs of lying.

  • Liars injure other people's feelings with the lies they tell. Parents who are lied to can feel hurt because lies take advantage of their trust, can feel angry because of being deliberately misled, and can feel frightened because now they don't know what to believe.

  • Liars are punished twice. If the teenager is found out, he or she is punished twice — first for the offense and second for lying about it.

  • Liars have to lead double lives. Liars have to remember what they really did (the truth of what happened) and the lie they told about what they did (the falsehood they created). Because they have two versions of reality to manage, not one, telling lies proves twice as complicated as telling the truth.

  • Liars live in fear of discovery. Concealing the truth, liars have to live in hiding. They start acting fugitively in the family, living in some degree of fear of being found out.

  • Liars become confused by all the lies they tell. Covering up one lie with another, pretty soon liars lose track of all the lies they've told and find it harder and harder to keep their story straight.

  • Liars lower their opinion of themselves. Because they lack the courage to own up to the truth of their actions, liars live a coward's life; each time they run from the truth, they run their self-esteem further down.

  • Liars become isolated. To stay away from questions and to keep from being found out, liars distance themselves from family, increasingly cutting off open communication with those they love.

  • Liars believe their own lies. What begins as lying to others ends up as lying to themselves as liars lose track of what really happened and come to believe some of the untruths they have told.

  • Liars feel hurt from hurting others. Having abused and exploited the trust of those they love, liars end up feeling guilty for the damage they have caused.

  • Liars “make” people angry. Each time they are found out, liars must deal with people who resent being manipulated by lies.

  • Liars lose credibility. The more lies are told and found out, the harder it becomes for people to believe liars when they are actually telling the truth.

  • Liars arouse suspicion. People who have been lied to about one thing begin to wonder if they've been lied to about other things as well.

  • Liars lose intimacy. With each lie they tell, estrangement builds in their relationships because intimacy depends on honesty.

  • Liars are usually relieved when they're found out. Even though they may have to pay their dues for lying by accepting punishment, liars feel better to be out from under all the pressures that dishonesty created.

  • Liars victimize themselves. Although lied-to people feel mistreated, because of all the costs they pay, liars mistreat themselves most of all.

  • Liars learn the lesson of lying. Liars learn that it is far easier to be the person lied to than to be the one who has been telling all the lies.

Given so many costs of lying, why do children, and particularly teenagers in mid-adolescence, lie? Lying is generally done in order to gain illicit freedom, conceal a harmful truth, create a false impression, or avoid getting into trouble.

Teaching Your Teen Not to Lie

Parents need to treat lying seriously. The quality of family life depends on the quality of communication, and lying can erode that quality to devastating effect. There is no trust without truth. There is no intimacy without honesty. There is no safety without sincerity. And there is no such thing as a small lie, because when parents overlook one lie, they only encourage the telling of another.

ALERT!

Tell your lying adolescent: There are many compromises to be made in healthy relationships, but compromising about truth is not one of them. Without honesty, there can be no trust.

So, when your teenager lies, what can you do to help?

  • Explain the high costs of lying so the child understands the risks that go with dishonesty.

  • Declare how it feels to be lied to so the child understands how loving relationships can be emotionally affected by dishonesty.

  • Apply some symbolic reparation for the lie — a task the child must do that he or she would not ordinarily have to do, to work off the offense.

  • When your child has told a lie to someone outside of the family, close the loop of responsibility by making the child get back to the person lied to with a corrected version of the truth.

  • Offer the child who impulsively or automatically lies a second chance to rethink the lie just told and correct it with the truth, no penalty attached.

  • Insist on a full discussion about why the teenager lied, what steps will be taken by the teenager to prevent further lying, and what the teenager may need from the parents in order to make future truth-telling easier to do.

  • Declare that lying in the family will always be treated as a serious offense.

  • Finally, declare that you intend to reinstate trust and the expectation of truth in order to give the child a chance to resume an honest footing with you, and so you do not drive yourselves crazy with distrust.

Keep the Trust

To some parents, this last piece of advice will seem wrong. “Shouldn't my child have to wait to earn back my trust after having lied to me?” No. In a healthy family, people trust each other to tell the truth. It is healthy for a parent to trust a child. It is healthy for a child to be trusted. It is healthy for that child to honor trust with truth.

So, when a child lies, treat that dishonesty as a major rule violation by applying some symbolic consequence (some task to be worked off) and then let the child know that hereafter you will trust in being told the truth. If your child keeps lying, you keep dealing with each incident as a major rule violation, applying some consequence, and afterward you keep reinstating trust. The message is, “In a healthy family, people can expect to trust each other's word, and that is the expectation to which you will be held.”

Following these guidelines for discipline, you can get through your teen's mid-adolescent years with a minimum of pain and a maximum gain. Your child is growing up responsibly, thanks to you.

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