When Teens Lie: What Can You Do?

Teens can lie for many reasons. If you've caught one of your children doing it, find out what you can do to address this situation.
When Teens Lie: What Can You Do?

Last update: 06 January, 2022

Teens lie on a daily basis. As a matter of fact, when a child starts to lie, it represents a milestone in their development. That’s because it signifies an advance in their cognitive development and the formation of their theory of mind. Indeed, the fact that they can lie means that they’re able to work mentally with an imaginary reality. This is a skill that requires advanced cognitive ability.

In adolescence, lying can become a problem when it becomes a frequent or a preferred coping strategy. This pattern is no less frequent in adolescents than in children or adults. In fact, it’s the opposite as adolescents are more prone to lie, especially to their parents.

In 2004, Arnett et al. conducted an investigation in this respect. They discovered that adolescents frequently lie to their parents. Furthermore, that they use lies as a way of affirming their right to autonomy. The researchers also found that teens told more lies as compared to a sample of young adults.

In 2013, Levine et al. conducted another study. They discovered that adolescents were found to lie more frequently than college students or adults. On average, they reported telling 4.10 lies in the past 24 hours. This was 75 percent more than university students and 150 percent more than adults.

The ways in which teens lie

People can lie in at least two ways:

  • By default. This is to intentionally not share information.
  • By commission. This consists of giving a different account of what really happened. These kinds of lies are not only about facts. For example, the liar may pretend that they think that one option is correct. However, in reality, they believe that it’s another.

People frequently use another strategy. This is avoidance. They try not to meet certain people so they don’t have to lie to them.

Teenage daughter lying to her mother

What motivates teens to lie?

One of the reasons adolescents lie to their parents is because they try to assert dominance and autonomy in their decision-making. We should remember that adolescence is a stage of development in which autonomy is important. This is defined by Erikson (as cited in Papalia, 2017) as a ‘coherent conception of the self, composed of goals, values, and beliefs with which the person establishes a solid commitment’ (p.357).

Lies in adolescents often occur due to excessive parental control. Arnett et al. (2004) found in their research, that the more control parents exercised, the more likely adolescents were to lie. This can lead to the perpetuation of the lie-control cycle. That’s because parents, realizing that their children are lying to them, tend to be even more controlling.

Teens also lie out of fear or shame, to obtain something, to protect someone, or not to face the consequences of the truth (Martins and Carvalho, 2019). They may do this to cover up emotions or feelings that they don’t want to share with their parents. Indeed, when there are many problems at home, adolescents have a tendency to avoid telling the truth.

Psychologist Kate Aubrey proposes five reasons for teenage lies:

  • To avoid problems.
  • In order not to disappoint their parents.
  • Due to social pressure. For example, so they don’t miss a party or an activity with their friends.
  • Bad communication. If an adolescent feels that they won’t be understood, heard, or respected, they avoid communicating.
  • For control. This is important for the development of their autonomy.

What to do about teen lies?

Chris Hudson is a youth specialist and parenting coach. He proposes eight ways to confront and reduce teenage lies:

1. Connected relationships

A connected relationship requires good communication. It means being receptive to hearing certain truths.

Sometimes, teens lie because they know their parents don’t want to hear the truth. Therefore, for certain confidences to be shared, there needs to be a climate of trust.

2. Model of honesty

One of the main ways people learn is by observation, and teens are no exception. Teach them by example. Be honest. Then, they’ll realize that you’re a model of honesty and not simply a person who ‘preaches’.

After all, how can you tell your teenager not to tell lies if you do it yourself consistently?

3. Negotiate

Learn to negotiate boundaries with the adolescent. When they’re forbidden to do something or their freedom is restricted, they’ll usually try to regain it by acting in the opposite way. However, by negotiating, the adolescent reduces their perception of being controlled and they increase their sense of autonomy by being a participant in decision-making.

4. Avoid interrogations, stimulate conversations

If your child has lied to you, try to have a peaceful conversation with them. Even if you’re really angry, try to calm down before talking to them. Because, if you’re angry, you’ll be less likely to listen to your child and to understand the reasons why they lied. Remember to communicate assertively and be clear about what you want to teach them and how you’ll do it.

5. Don’t cheat

As teenage lies are extremely common, if you discover the truth, avoid waiting for an opportunity to catch the adolescent ‘red-handed.’ Remember, hiding the truth is a way of lying. Therefore, you’d be doing precisely what you don’t want your child to do.

6. Use punishment in a proportionate and intelligent way

The way in which you respond to the behavior of your adolescent will determine much of their future behavior. If you impose a disproportionate punishment, you’ll simply sow fear in them.

When you discipline, try to keep in mind what you want to teach and find the right ways to do it. . Communicate assertively and listen to what your child has to say.

Mother talking to her teenage son

7. Don’t label them

Don’t label your teen as a liar. That’s because, if you do, they may continue behaving in the same way, confirming that ‘label’.

The way you name and label people shape the way you behave around them. If you label your child as a liar, they’re more likely to end up behaving like one.

8. Pay attention

Be on the lookout for your child’s lies and discuss their motivations with them. That’ll help you understand a little about how they relate to certain situations and what makes them lie. Once you identify why they do it, invite your child to reflect on new ways of dealing with situations and the importance of honesty. In fact, don’t focus so much on the lie, but on the reasons behind it.

Lies in adolescents are extremely common and multi-causal. To deal with them, and with the difficulties caused at the family level, one of the main strategies is to make a change in the relationship with the young person. You need to generate spaces for assertive dialogues that allow the understanding of the dynamics and the reasons why they resort to telling lies.

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