Why Do Teens Lie?
Does your teen lie? Maybe. Probably. More than likely. Research suggests that on at least one important matter last year, you were not told the truth by your teen. (In this small study, 82 percent of teens admitted to lying to their parents in the previous year.) But the bigger question, the one that troubles us in that white-hot moment of anger is: what are we going to do about it?
Teen behavior is confounding, because while almost all teens said they valued honesty, nearly as many reported lying to their parents about significant matters. And many social scientists believe that respondents under-report their own undesirable behavior.
Like adults, teens aspire to be better than they are. Yet in reality they have many reasons to lie.
Teens lie for the obvious reasons, like to get out of trouble or to do something forbidden. But they also lie because they feel that the behavior they are engaging in is harmless, the rules they are given are arbitrary or unfair, or that the adults around them cannot understand the circumstances in which they are operating. They lie to protect each other’s feelings or to protect friends or siblings.
But teens lie for another important reason. Teens lie for privacy, they lie not just because they will be punished for what they are doing but because they simply do not want us, their parents, to know. Teens lie to preserve or establish their autonomy. It is their way of saying, “My social life is my own.” “What I do with my body is my own.” “How I spend my time is my own.”
Feeling trusted seems to inspire kids to behave in ways that will maintain parental trust. Good kids are trusted. The more they’re trusted, the more they try to live up to that trust, and the more trustworthy they become, say some studies.
The research further shows that being willing to battle with your teen, having a climate in your home where teens feel that they can disagree with individual rules, though not with your authority to make those rules, is a parent’s best chance for discovering the truth. Adolescents’ belier that their parents have the right to set rules both increases the likelihood that they will agree with them, but also increases the likelihood that they will share information with their parents even when they disagree.
Not all lies are the same, and before we act, we need to take a hard look at why they lied. Were they trying to protect someone’s feelings or their own privacy? Or, were they avoiding blame and responsibility for their own misbehavior?
When their untruths are about their privacy or someone else’s, it can be a starting point for important family discussions and no real punishment may be necessary. Yet, when their lying is to evade our clearly articulated rules, to sidestep taking responsibility for their actions or involves cheating, it is important to show how serious we believe this infraction to be.
The lesson to teach is that had they chosen honesty, we might have been able to discuss their misdeeds and although confrontation might have ensued so would have, perhaps, understanding. They should know that disagreement, sometimes even loud and heated, is acceptable in our homes.
Our teens should never doubt our disappointment in the lying. The best message to convey is that the infraction might have been overlooked or a milder punishment put into place had they not lied. The message they should hear? “Had you just missed curfew, I might have been lenient, understanding or even forgiving. But that time you are going to spend grounded at home? That’s for lying.”