Why teenagers lie – and what to do about it.
Posted by: Sue Atkins
I have been working with parents who were beside themselves to discover that their teenage daughter has been consistently lying to them, to her friends and to her teachers.
There are are two aspects to this article as it’s not just about lying – as it’s also about a teenager coming to terms with her sexuality and exploring her place in the world.
When young people enter their teenage years parents often wonder: “Whatever happened to the truth – where did my innocent little girl/ boy go?” Not that their little child was always honest, ( remember ‘I didn’t do it – he did!’ ) but their teenager seems more prone to lie by leaving out the complete truth or by deliberately bending the truth or blatantly lying.
Why do children and teenagers and people lie?
I also work with many women going through a divorce and they often ask me ‘ Why did he tell me so many lies?’
Most people lie usually because they want to protect themselves, or don’t want to take responsibility for what they have done. Some lie so they don’t get into trouble, or not to hurt you, while some lie for freedom’s sake – to escape punishment for misbehaviour that’s not acceptable. Others lie to explore what’s been forbidden as they are exploring their own values, rules and beliefs separate from yours.
To many teenagers, lying seems to be the easy way to get out of trouble or to get to do some thing that’s been already denied to them or forbidden.
The trouble with lying is that it gets very complex quickly as the lies mount up. The liar gets trapped into a world of fabrication.
Here are some possibly different ways to look at lying that may help you based on “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” by Dr Carl Pickhardt
1) LIARS INJURE THOSE THEY LOVE. Parents who are lied to can feel hurt because lies take advantage of your trust, you may feel betrayed, foolish and angry because of being deliberately misled, and you can feel frightened because now you don’t know what to believe and so you feel out of control. Liars themselves can feel guilty about the damage they do to loved ones.
2) LIARS ARE DOUBLE PUNISHED. Lying is a gamble. If the teenager is not found out, then there is no punishment; but if the teenager is found out, he or she is often punished twice – first for the offense, and second for lying about it. Liars double up the consequences for getting caught.
3) LIARS COMPLICATE THEIR LIVES. Liars have to remember two versions of reality: what they actually did (the truth of what happened) and the lie they told about what they did (the false story they created.) Keeping this distinction clear proves twice as complicated as telling the truth. Liars have to manage double lives.
4) LIARS LIVE IN FEAR. By hiding the truth, liars have to live in hiding and in constant fear of being found out. They wonder and worry whether the deception they’ve created will stay or come crashing down around them if they are caught. Liars live in fear of being found out.
5) LIARS FEEL OUT OF CONTROL. Covering up one lie with another, pretty soon liars lose track of all the lies they’ve told. They find it harder and harder to keep their story straight. Liars can’t remember all the lies they’ve told. They become stressed.
6) LIARS HURT THEMSELVES. Because they lack the courage to own up to the truth of their actions, liars live a coward’s life. Each time they deny the truth, they don’t dare to be honest. Liars lower their own self esteem & self respect. It becomes a web of deception that they don’t know how to get out of.
7) LIARS ARE LONELY PEOPLE. To avoid questions and to keep from being found out, liars distance themselves from those to whom the lies were told. They become isolated from family and friends they have deliberately misled. Liars cut off closeness to those they care about and love.
8) LIARS BECOME CONFUSED. Lying to others can become confusing when liars start believing the lies they’ve told. The more often they tell the lie, the more likely they are to believe it. Liars start by deceiving others, but they end by fooling themselves.
9) LIARS OUTSMART THEMSELVES. A lie is a trick to get others to believe what really isn’t so. It assumes others are gullible, stupid or naive. But most lies don’t hold up. They don’t last. They are discovered. Liars are not as clever as they like to think.
10) LIARS LIVE WITH ANGER. Each time they are found out, liars must deal with people who dislike being manipulated by lies and resent the liar. Liars live with a lot of angry people.
11) LIARS ARE HARD TO BELIEVE. The more lies are found out, the less easy it becomes for liars to be believed when they are actually telling the truth. Liars lose credibility.
12) LIARS ARE STRESSED. It takes a lot of energy, attention, and effort to keep up a false impression all the time. It’s nerve-wracking and extremely tiring to keep so many false stories straight. Liars live under a lot of pressure.
13) LIARS DREAM OF GETTING CAUGHT. After paying their dues for lying by accepting consequences, liars often welcome discovery because now they can get back on an honest footing with people. They can stop living in hiding and can lead a simpler life based on truth. Liars are relieved to be found out.
14) LIARS LEARN THE LESSON OF LYING. Liars discover that it is far easier to be the person lied to than to be the one who has been telling all the lies. Liars learn that though it can be hard to tell the truth, it makes life even harder when they lie.
15) LIARS ARE ASHAMED, FRIGHTENED OR CONFUSED. Some teenagers are terrified of your reaction to ‘coming out’ and create a completely different persona as they explore who they are and what their sexual preferences are. They may make up a completely different world to their reality as they ‘try on’ different experiences of the world until they feel comfortable with who they are. Add hormones and wildly swinging emotions, huge ‘crushes’ on others and their fear of your reaction while they are trying to understand themselves and you can see why escaping and telling lies may appear easier than handling your reaction to the truth.
But love is bigger than lies. Love is bigger than your child’s sexuality.
Love is all encompassing, unconditional and not about you – it’s about loving your child completely and getting to the root of why they feel that they have to lie.
Then it’s about building back trust, acceptance and the bridges that have been damaged between you.
I recently watched a really moving programme on former advertising agency owner Madonna Badger who tragically lost her two parents and three beautiful young daughters in a Christmas Day house fire in 2011 and it put into perspective what being a parent is all about how what tragic loss can do to a family.
Sometimes we need to step back and take a bigger picture look at our own journeys as parents, to help us understand what we are going through.
One question I ask the parents that I work with is: ‘ Will this matter 10 years from now?’ as this helps parents detach from the intense moment and see the bigger picture to our parenting which is about love and connection, understanding and our child’s happiness.
However whatever your teenager’s reason for lying, you need to treat the lying seriously.
The quality of family life depends as much as anything on the quality of your communication and lying can erode that quality to devastating effect.
I have worked with other parents whose child lies about drug abuse to conceal what is really going on, or a teenager can begin to lie to hide their sexuality – often teenagers are worried about how to tell you that they are gay. There are many reasons a child begins to lie and your job as a parent is to dig below the surface and find out why – free from finger pointing, recriminations and judgement.
‘However, there is no trust without truth. There is no intimacy without honesty. There is no safety without sincerity. And there is no such thing as a small lie because when parents overlook one lie they only encourage the telling of another.’ Carl E Pickhardt Ph.D.
So, when your teenager lies, what can you do?
Find a good time when you all can sit down over a meal to discuss the issue. Make sure you are in a calm, confident place. Plan what you want to say by writing your thoughts down on paper – it gives you clarity, direction and confidence and it also stops you getting too emotional. Turn off all your mobile phones. Make sure you won’t be interrupted.
1. Explain the high costs of lying so your teenager understands the risks that go with dishonesty, and how the liar ends up mistreating and dishonouring them most of all.
2. Explain calmly and clearly how it feels to be lied to so your teen understands the emotional impact of being lied to. Use this technique ‘When you …… I feel …… Because…..’
3. Ask them to take responsibility for building back trust – ‘How do you think we can build back the bridges of trust again – what needs to happen?’
4. Insist on a full and frank discussion about the lying – why it happened, what different choices your teen could have made instead so that lying doesn’t happen again, and what they are going to do to prevent further lying in the future. But also step up and take responsibility for your part in their lying – why can’t they talk to you honestly ? Do you judge them too harshly, hold unrealistic goals for them in school, are you inflexible about accepting their sexuality ?
5. Explain that how we show up in the small stuff is how we show up in the big stuff. Explain that all relationships from family, romantic to work relationships all thrive on openness, transparency and honesty. A life built on lies is a dishonest one.
6. Finally, this is all about talking and teaching, listening and learning and that you really want to build back trust with them again and want to give them the chance to start over with an honest relationship and so you do not drive your selves crazy with distrust. Explain that we all make mistakes and life is all about the learning because in a healthy family people everyone should be able trust each other to tell the truth.
If lying keeps happening repeat the sequence.
You can’t stop your teenager from choosing to lie, but you can definitely treat lying as something that needs to stop.
I found ‘Adolescent Lying: What it costs and what to do.’ by Carl E Pickhardt Ph.D most helpful in Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com
Here are The Ten Most Common Teenage Lies:
1) “I already did it.”
2) “I didn’t do it.”
3) “I’ll do it later.”
4) “I didn’t know.”
5) “I forgot.”
6) “I didn’t think you’d mind.”
7) “I didn’t know that’s what you meant.”
8) “I didn’t think you were serious.”
9) “It wasn’t my fault.”
10) “It was an accident.”
For more information read Dr Carl Pickhardt’s book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com
Raising happy, confident, resilient children is not easy. It’s messy, complicated,exhausting at times and overwhelming. It’s about handling every emotion there is – and sometimes we all need a little support, guidance, and a champion to believe in us as parents, as we navigate the choppy waters of bringing up happy adults.
If you would like to work with me drop me an email on Sue@TheSueAtkins.com or call my office on 01883 818329