Teens lie. Yes, even yours

Most parents of teens I talk to say:  “most of all, I just want him/her to be honest with me”.  A study of parents desires for teens found that honesty is up the very top of the list of characteristics we wish for our young people.

It is unfortunate therefore, that almost every single teenager lies, and lies frequently.  Some recent research by Dr. Nancy Darling in the US, found that out of several hundred teenagers, 98% of them had lied to their parents in the last few months.  Teens lie to their parents about many areas of life, including what they spent money on, who they were with, what they wore after leaving the house, about whether parties were supervised, what they did after school and who they were in the car with and what was happening at school.

Why do teenagers lie?  I asked a client recently, aged 16, why he lied about his grades to his parents – “because they will be so upset, it’s just not worth the hassle.”  This is pretty typical, Dr. Darling found that teens usually lie to protect other people.   Another reason teens (and preteens) lie and withhold details is to carve out some area of life which is theirs alone.   To escape the constant monitoring and checking up which they are often subject to in the rest of their lives.  Teens also lie to get out of trouble and to protect their friends.

So how terrible is it that teens lie to us?  First, I think we should consider our own truth telling habits.  The average adult lies once a day (sorry, I didn’t hear my phone/I really like your new hair cut/I can’t really afford it right now) and young adults lie twice as much.  Perhaps our teens have learnt to lie simply by watching us?
I think expecting 100% honesty from our teens, on every single occasion is asking too much:  and setting them and us up for failure.   Instead, some ideas to consider.

When we inevitably discover dishonesty in young people how should we react?  Be calm.  Know that it is normal.  Be understanding about the pressure a teen feels to lie.  Think about ways in which the situation could have been different, or we could have been different – which would have helped the teenager tell the truth.  Provide incentives for truth telling.  Remind teens of the negative consequences – socially and in our relationship with them – of lying.

In the long term however, we need work on being the kind of parent a teen feels they can tell the truth to as much as possible.   This do. esn’t mean having no rules.  This doesn’t mean not providing negative consequences for teens when they cross a line.  (In fact Darling’s research showed that teens who had permissive parents – parents who don’t expect their teens to do anything, contribute to the household, and who allow them to do whatever they want – lied just as much as teens with stricter parents).   But it does mean continually showing respect for, interest in, love and admiration for the teenager, being gently curious about their lives and opinions, getting to know and then showing understanding about the pressures and stressors they face.  I believe that when a teenager knows that we are “on their team” – they are slightly less likely to lie – at least less often.   That’s the truth as I see it.

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