Molly and I get asked about teenagers and lying more than any other topic. In workshops the parents will listen patiently, take notes, and then we inevitably hear “yes, all this makes sense but how do I get my teen to stop lying?”
Webster defines the verb of lying as:
1) to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive,
2) to create a false or misleading impression.
So today I will put on my therapist/parenting expert hat and see if I can shed some light on lying. We’ll look first at how lying changes through the developmental stages.
We will also explore why teens lie. Next week we will continue this conversation and address the various types of lies and the best way to respond when your teen lies.
Are you ready?
First let’s look at how lying changes with a child’s development. Most pre-school age children lie indiscriminately. You may have just watched her throw her vegetables into the trash, called her on it, and heard the reply, “no Mommy, I didn’t throw my food away.” “But I saw you do it, just now.” “Huh, I don’t know how that happened,” replies your three year old while staring down at the food in the trash.
It gets a little more interesting and complex by elementary school age. Children are now lying with some discrimination to avoid punishment but also to avoid judgement and disapproval by both peers and adults.
This is also the age when lying to protect another person’s feelings starts. The child learns to lie in an effort to be polite or kind.
Then we hit the teen years and it gets very complex. By now children have learned that there may be socially acceptable times to lie (white lies), they know that it’s preferable to lie if you’re being polite, and that adults have lots of loop holes for lying (you aren’t lying if you omit the information or just “stretch the truth” a bit and it doesn’t hurt anyone).
Now couple all our adult “rules” for lying with where the teen is developmentally and socially and it’s amazing they ever tell the truth.
Teens still do not want to disappoint their peers or important adults, so some of the lies are to protect others from negative feelings. They also don’t want to suffer the consequences of some of their choices so they lie to “soften the blow” or possibly avoid punishment.
No different than an adult who gets pulled over and lies about their speed when the police officer asks. Quite a few teens and adults will lie to avoid punishment.
And yet the reasons can be even more emotionally complex at this time of life. A teenager may lie to guard his or her new found privacy, to get support or sympathy, to elevate his or her sense of power and status socially, to deflect teasing, or as a coping mechanism to vent frustration.
Many teens embellish, brag, manipulate the events or facts of a story, or mislead the listener because they aren’t getting the sympathy, concern, or response they feel they deserve. It’s a way of saying “listen to me, this matters to me, you aren’t treating this seriously!”
Remember the second definition from Webster – to create a false or misleading impression. Teenagers are trying on various impressions throughout this developmental stage. It’s appropriate for your teen to shift and change often.
Sometimes the lies are part of that process as well. And there is even another reason to lie that many parents overlook. We taught them to!
Research shows that even more than lying, the number one thing parents complain about with pre-school and school age children is tattle telling. Children consistently get redirected and corrected for telling on another child by parents, teachers, and other adults.
Then when they are teenagers we expect them to suddenly know when to tell on their peers for dangerous behavior and when not to. “Do not tell me your brother just kicked you but do tell me your brother is smoking pot in his room after we go to bed.”
It’s very confusing to teens that they are expected to tattle tell on peers after they have been redirected away from that since they were two.
So they lie by omission or simply lie to protect the other person, because you taught them to.
Ponder all of the above information for a moment, please. Adolescence is a complicated social development stage. Teens lie for many reasons. They may be communicating their pain and hurt feelings by embellishing a story.
They may be asking for more of your attention. They may be compensating for feelings of inadequacy. It may be a strategy for keeping strong feelings at bay. And if you the parent are primarily focused on the lying behavior because of your own fears, then you are missing the boat.