Teenage rebellion is a good thing. This might be a weird statement to start with, but it’s true. It means they feel safe in your relationship. If your teen is pushing your buttons, breaking rules, and arguing, that’s good. They’re growing, shedding the clothing of their youth and redefining themselves by deconstructing who they had been.
However, while all of this rebellion is natural, unfortunately this often brings with it lying.
Why Your Teen Lies
The first line of defense is understanding the reasons why your teen would lie to you. Knowing this can help give you an edge, and either nip it in the bud, or at least predict the behavior which will give you a bit of extra time to prepare and respond appropriately.
1. Avoiding “Getting in Trouble”.
This is one of the core reasons our children lie to us. It started when they were perhaps as young as 2 or 3 and maintains throughout their lives. Even adults will lie to avoid consequences.
As they get older and decide to break the rules and are caught, their first go-to response will be to lie about it to avoid trouble. These could be elaborate tales backed with facts and half-truths, or short bumbling attempts.
If you’ve had a history of being clear about the rules, boundaries, and consequences, teens are less likely to lie.
2. Preventing Parental Disappointment.
That’s right. Even though they’re in the middle of this rebellious uprising, they’re still afraid of disappointing you, hurting you, or risking that you’ll think of them as a bad child. Dr. Nancy Darling, who has done a lot of research in teens and their lying habits, found that for all of the different ways teens lied (withholding information, outright lies, and half-truths), they did it to protect their parents.
Just as having clear rules and consequences helps deter lying to avoid getting into trouble, having a strong relationship with your children is your best defense against this one. The more afraid they are of losing your respect, or if they suspect your relationship is flimsy and can’t take the blow, the less likely they are to share the bad news.
3. The Peer Centric Shift.
This is a big one. Up until now, your child’s world has been the family. Home, family, bedtime, these were their norm. Friends were an outside asset. Now during adolescence, they shift to an almost entirely peer focused life. Their friends and social standing becomes the most important thing to them, even more so than being honest with their parents.
When this happens, lying to parents is seen as cool, since teens (obviously) know everything, and parents are just lame adults who are out of touch. Unfortunately, this can lead your teen down a dangerous path as they pull farther away. The influence of peer groups on developing adolescents can’t be understated. It’s not limited to one sex or the other. Mixed in with the wrong crowds, and this behavior can escalate into far worse for both boys and girls.
There’s no easy fix for this one other than keeping an eye on who they’re hanging out with and doing your best to help them maintain positive influences in their life.
4. Why Waste Time On the Truth?
When your teen doesn’t feel that anything they say is going to matter anyway, a lie becomes an easy way out of the conversation. It’s a common trope after a teen’s been caught doing something they know they shouldn’t to argue that they didn’t ask permission first because “you would’ve just said no anyway.” This is an example of your teen believing that talking with you about anything is pointless, which leads to misbehavior and lies about it.
Talking with your teen, showing that their thoughts and opinions matter, and giving them a voice in the house is a good way to avoid this becoming an issue.
5. Gain Control.
This one I was particularly guilty of as a teen. Lying in this way creates a barrier between parent and child, a sort of place where only the teen can go. They may not be doing anything dangerous or out of the ordinary, or even against the rules.
My parents were oppressively controlling, so when I would leave for the afternoon and they asked where I was going, I needed that sense of control. I would say the most outlandish things I could think of (robbing a bank and fleeing to Mexico). In truth? Meeting with a friend to go get some Pringles and a Gatorade. Lying, however, created a world where I in control.
Recognize that your teen is attempting to manage their own life. Be a listening ear, but give them the space to take on responsibility for their own problems. They’ll come to you if they need your help, but now is no longer the time to try and force answers out of your teen when there’s no need.
Catching Them in the Act
You’ve done the best you can to provide them with an environment of stability and growth… and they’re still lying to you. It’s going to happen.
We talked about the way, now it’s time to know the how.
One of my favorite TV shows is Lie to Me. It explains the intricacies of the lie: micro expressions, body language, verbiage. Highly recommend it.
However, the main character in that show (and people that actually do that for a living) study for years and years to get as good as they are. There’s no way we can make you an expert in just one article, but there are a few things to look for that’ll definitely give you an edge in telling if your teen is lying or not.
These are some of the more obvious tells of someone lying, but keep in mind that for any of this to be effective, you need to understand how your teen normally behaves when they’re calm, collected, and telling the truth. Go with your instinct, and don’t second-guess yourself if you suspect something’s up.
1. Pause or delay in responses. If you’re asking your teen about something, and they pause for what seems longer than they should, it’s a sign they’re needing to think of an appropriate response. How long is too long? That depends on the question. If someone were to ask you what you were doing on this date five years ago, you likely couldn’t recall in an instant. But if someone asked if you were on trial for murder, chances are your answer would be far more immediate.
2. Body language. There are a lot of small indicators here. Do they move their head a lot before responding? Are they breathing heavily brought on the stress of lying? If your teen is normally a still person, are they fidgeting overly much? How about the opposite? If they normally move fluidly when calm, then stiff, still body posture can be a sign that something is wrong.
3. Too much info. If you ask a simple question (“Where’d you go after school?”) and you’re met with a rush of information, this can be an attempt at convincing you what they’re telling you is true. Likely, they’ve had time to concoct an elaborate tale, and now need to explain it to you in full detail.
4. Aggression. This is the fight-or-flight in effect. They know something is wrong and they’re nervous about it, and if you’re questioning them to the point where they feel they’re going to be caught, that nervous energy will boil up in an attempt to turn the tables onto you. Look for finger pointing and other aggressive language and gestures.
You Caught Them, Now What?
You’ve caught your teen in a lie, an act that will likely become more and more common with time, but now the tough part: how do you respond?
It’s natural as a parent to respond with anger, lectures, and extra harsh punishments, but this may only serve to hammer a wedge ever deeper into your relationship. Instead, remember this:
Your child is trying to solve a problem by lying.
That doesn’t make it okay, but by identifying what that problem is, or what they hope to gain from the lie, we can be better prepared to tackle the issue itself and help them. By tending to the illness and not the symptoms, as it were, we can limit how often this happens, instead of fighting an uphill battle.
Each lie, each situation will be different. You’re now armed with the reasons your child would lie to you, which will help identify potential problem areas. Keep your boundaries and punishments consistent, help your teen feel secure in your relationship, and listen to them when they do talk, and you’ll go a long way in limiting how often the lies occur.