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Lies, teens, & a little less misery

Updated: Aug 3, 2020

A whopping 82% of adolescents and young adults reported lying to their parents in a recent study. For many parents, knowing their teen might be lying is a huge source of anxiety. How did your adorable cherub of a child grow into a deceptive adolescent? (A note of hope: young adults engage in deception much less than teens. It’ll get better.)

Despite its less than stellar reputation, lying signals an important milestone in your child’s developmental growth and social functioning. It is actually a skill that children have to learn and master because it relies on an understanding of theory of mind, or the existence of other perspectives. When a person lies, they implicitly have to understand that others have different beliefs that can be influenced or even fundamentally changed. Babies don’t have this skill nor understanding.

But, it’s one thing for a five-year-old to weave together innocent stories of who ate the cookies, and quite another for your sixteen-year-old to lie about where she was, what she was doing, and who she was with when she missed curfew. Before interrogating her, however, try to reframe the situation and acknowledge that this is a typical phase of your child’s overall development. An increase in deviant behaviors, including lying, is actually normal, as it may be grounded in a natural push for autonomy. Nevertheless, it’s helpful to set clear boundaries and expectations around honesty in your home.

Here are some steps you can take to foster an enduring and trustworthy relationship with your teen:

1. Understand the different categories of lying, and try to understand why they are lying.

More often than not, lying is not a clear-cut sign of failure on anyone’s part. Most lies aren’t serious. Generally, there’s a reason for why teens lie and hide information from their parents. Small lies often serve as an excuse for your teen to get out of finishing chores or signal their growing need for privacy. Sometimes, people lie to preserve peace. Ultimately, trying to see things from your teen’s viewpoint enables you to have a more objective, holistic perspective of a situation, and this may calm you when you are upset at your teen. On the other hand, if lying becomes repetitive, it may be a warning sign of maladaptive coping for underlying emotional challenges (e.g., low self-esteem, depressive feelings, etc.) or fear (e.g., of punishment, judgement, failure). They may not be able to cope with difficult situations in a healthy way that doesn’t involve lying. So, you may need to engage them more to fully understand what’s going on, and then extend a helping hand.

2. Set clear and realistic house rules about negotiable and non-negotiable boundaries.

While lying may increase miscommunication in relationships, make sure that you and your teen are on the same page when it comes to negotiable and non-negotiable behaviors. Set clear expectations about what the consequences will follow if non-negotiable boundaries are violated.

Example of Negotiable Behaviors:

Nat: Mom, I know I’m not supposed to hang out with friends until I’m done with all my school work. But it’s Andy’s birthday tomorrow and I’ve been stuck at home working for the last few weeks. Would it be okay for me to join his birthday party on Zoom this afternoon and then finish the rest of my work after?

Mom: Ok, we can work around that. Good thinking to plan ahead and figure out when you’re going to get the rest done. Thanks for being honest with me. But, remember this shouldn’t happen too often!

Example of Non-negotiable Behaviors:

Dad: I want to make it very clear that in this household, smoking is prohibited. You will be grounded if you get your hands on cigarettes.

Nat: Dad, it’s not a big deal. I know so many people at school who have smoked before.

Dad: I know many teens try out smoking, but it can be a dangerous habit to fall into. Our family has a history with addiction, and this is not something your mother and I are comfortable with you doing.

You have to be realistic, and try to remember that adolescence is an exciting time for your teen to become more independent and eventually assert themselves as independent adults. Help them along the way with clear reasoning, and expectations will make sure they know where the bright red lines are.

3. Fun fact: You can nudge your teen towards goodness and honesty.

In a study that compared two groups of people who engaged in reward-based tasks, during which one group first recalled the 10 Commandments and the second group recalled 10 random books, the first group hardly cheated, whereas the second cheated often. The study concluded that when people are encouraged to think about their own morals, they tend to be more honest! So, to discourage lying, nudge your teen to think more about personal ethics! You could talk about whether or not justice was served in certain personal situations at work, for example, or in the news. And it may be a good idea for you to encourage self-reflection by asking them if they think their behaviors are good and fair every once in a while.

Let us know how this goes, and if you ever want to take advantage of Cherish's free resources (including SMS coaching and parent groups) during COVID-19, please connect with us! And if you're interested in a personal parenting coach with Cherish, please sign up here!

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