5 Big Mistakes Parents Make When Teens Lie

For the past two weeks we have been exploring teenagers and lying. We have looked at the developmental progression of lying behavior and the complex issues teens face regarding telling the truth all the time. We have also explored the 4 types of lies and how to address lying using the Slow Parenting 5 Attitudes.

Today we are going to expose the 5 biggest mistakes parents make when dealing with teens and lying.  We want this series of articles to stimulate your thinking and give you a context for your teens behavior. We don’t excuse lying and we don’t see all lies as equal either. If nothing else, we hope you will enter into a discussion with your teenager about your thinking and fears about lying. It’s not a simple behavior and its not a simple conversation.

Are you ready to read about the mistakes and honestly look to see which you may need to own?

For those of you familiar with Slow Parenting, this first mistake will be very familiar. We think this is the biggest “parenting” mistake and it applies to lying behavior as well.

1) Taking your teen’s lies personally.

Parents feel so hurt, disappointed, and angry when a teenager lies. Why? Because they are taking it personally. What if the lie has nothing to do with you? What if they are being loyal to a friend or wanting to look good or even trying to avoid a consequence? Those are all things about the teen, not you. And can’t you empathize a little?

Please try to detach from your teen’s choices and address the issues from an emotionally neutral position. You will be far less reactive and better able to hear what your teen is attempting to share.

2) Focusing so much on the lie that you miss the communication and information under the lie.

I have sat in therapy sessions with teenagers who had finally gathered the courage to share an emotionally painful piece of information with a parent, only to have the parent zero in on the one inaccurate or false piece of information the teen shared. Because the teen exaggerated or added details, because the teen shared what they wished they said not what they really said, or because the teen placed blame or “added to” the story for emphasis the parent didn’t hear the information the teen was sharing. It is heartbreaking to watch a teenager shrink after being confronted on how they communicated rather than be thanked for the courage to communicate at all.

Lying is not an effective way to communicate in a long term intimate relationship. That being said, please hear your teenager first, address what was shared, and later go back and tell them how you’d rather they share without the lies or added details. Make it a separate conversation after you’ve listened and responded.

3) Discrediting all your teen’s communication and information because part of it was untrue.

Why does one lie cancel out 100 truths? Do you catch your teen telling every truth and praise him or her? No, you don’t catch every truth even if you catch quite a few. What is your fear about the one lie? Who decided that a lie discredits all other communication. Boy, am I glad no one holds me to that standard! If that’s accurate then I am never to be trusted again (you either, if you’re being honest).

Have you ever insisted that your teen “earn your trust back” after a serious lie or series of lies? Now, have you ever turned that around and allowed your teen to insist that you need to earn his/her trust back when you have been less than forthcoming? No, you probably haven’t. The rules are different for us adults. All we have to do is have a good reason or explanation or a context for our behavior. But for teens we insist that no reason is a good excuse for lying.

That’s a serious double standard folks!

4) Not allowing your teen to argue or negotiate.

Now here is a mistake many parents defend. A teenager arguing or negotiating  is automatically put into the “talking back” or “being disrespectful” category. It’s unacceptable, period.

We disagree with that conclusion.

When a teenager is powerless to present his/her case, disagree with your position, or request a compromise then that teen will lie. Lying is often an indication of feeling powerless or unsafe. If attempting to make a case lands a teen in more trouble, the lies will be starting soon. Nothing is more helpless for a teenager than having no voice in his/her own life.

We are not saying that your teen gets to be rude or abusive or even keep going until you are worn down. You do get to sets boundaries and insist on reasonable communication. This is such a great opportunity to role model what healthy arguing looks like and how to negotiate without power struggles.

5) Entrapment

Entrapment is when a parent knows the teen messed up but the teen doesn’t know the parent knows, so the parent guides the teen into the lie. Then the teen is punished for both the mistake and the lie. How does that help your relationship? I would have a hard time feeling safe with someone who wanted to be right at my expense and humiliation.

We complain and bemoan speed “traps”. We have that moment of fear when the officer asks, “how fast were you going, sir?” Do we tell the truth or look confused and say 10 MPH less than we know we were going just in case it will soften the blow and save us some money? Don’t you think teens face the same dilemma?

Testing your teen’s honesty simply encourages your teenager to be a better liar, to go underground, and to cover all tracks. If you want your teen to be more honest do not use entrapment.

This concludes our series on teens and lying (for now). Please note that even if you make none of these mistakes, slow parent like a pro, and have a fabulous relationship with your teenager you will likely be lied to at times. No one can teach you how to manage your teen’s behavior 100%. Go back and look at the types of lies from the previous blog post and remember all lies are not equal and rarely is lying a black/white issue.

We welcome your comments, concerns, and questions.

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