As children mature into teenagers, parents increasingly rely on their child’s honesty to monitor their safety. This period of growth is challenging for teens and parents alike; as teenagers develop independence and strive for autonomy, parents want to keep their children safe and ensure that they have a bright future.
The vast majority of teenagers admit to having told their parents at least one lie. Unfortunately, there is no universal answer to how to respond if your child lies. However, there are several general guidelines that parents can follow if they catch their teenager in a suspected lie.
There are three basic types of lies:
- Lying by avoidance: Teens carefully steer the conversation to avoid a particular topic.
- Lying by omission: Teens are forthcoming about true information but neglect to include the entire truth.
- Lying by commission: Teens present factually untrue statements as true.
Evidence suggests that teenagers are most honest when they receive warmth, responsiveness and trust from their parents. High levels of conflict between parents and teens lead to disclosing less information to minimize negative interactions with their parents.
Why Do Teenagers Lie?
Teenagers generally lie for the following reasons:
- To avoid trouble: Among the most obvious reasons why teens (and adults) lie is to avoid the consequences of their actions.
- To protect their privacy: It is common for teenagers to resist perceived intrusions of their privacy. Therefore, lying about relationships, sexual activity and occurrences at school or social events are common.
- To protect someone else: Peers can seriously influence teenagers. Most obviously, teens lie to cover for their friends, but they also withhold information if they think their parents will unfairly judge their friends.
Teens often pursue immediate gratification and pleasure, so it is unsurprising that teens lie in order to have fun. An online poll of nearly 2,000 13-18 year olds found that almost 20% of respondents lie to their parents about sex, and over 16% lie about drugs.
The same poll also found that 31.6% of the respondents lied to their parents about having suicidal thoughts. While suicidal thoughts are alarming, child psychologists indicate that they are a relatively normal part of growing up and learning to overcome social stressors. Most teenagers who have suicidal thoughts do not make plans or take action. However, parents should be aware that suicidal thoughts are relatively common in teenagers, and should be prepared to have thoughtful, non-judgemental conversations with their teens.
There are many resources available for teens struggling with suicidal thoughts, including the Crisis Text Line. This is a free, 24/7 service that connects individuals with a trained crisis counselor. Teens can text HOME to 741741 to reach help at any time.
How to Address a Lying Teenager
A great deal of research suggests that the most effective parents are able to differentiate between serious lies (e.g. lies about drug use or dangerous sexual activity) and inconsequential lies. These parents can then respond according to the severity of the situation. If your instinct is to demand full disclosure and enforce serious punishments for the slightest of infractions, it may be helpful for you to remember your own experiences as a teenager. Ask yourself the following questions: Why did you lie to your parents, and how would you have responded to the discipline you are considering for your own teenager?
The healthiest parent-teen relationships develop when parents are fully transparent about their expectations for their teenagers and the consequences if these expectations are not met. Inconsistent rules and/or consequences will not promote honesty. Ultimately, teenagers who do not know their parents’ expectations will avoid interacting with their parents.
When Parents Should Be Most Concerned About a Lying Teenager
Lies come in several forms, some of which are more concerning than others. Parents should be particularly concerned in the following instances:
- Chronic lies: Chronic lying is an incredibly frustrating issue for parents. There are several reasons why teenagers may lie chronically, ranging from attempts to disrupt power dynamics to self-protection. Some teens lie to compensate for perceived flaws or to increase social standing. Chronic lies can also be indicative of substance use, but they may also indicate that a teenager who is struggling with identity. If you are overwhelmed with your teen’s chronic lies, you might consider seeking professional help for their mental health.
- Lies to cover major problems: A teenager may lie is to cover up substance abuse. If your teen is lying about academic and social success (especially if they are being evasive and secretive), you should be concerned that they may be hiding drug or alcohol use. Teens may also lie to conceal sexual abuse or other forms of abuse. If your teen is self-isolating (withdrawing from normal social interactions and events), they may be trying to minimize interactions with someone who is hurting them.
- Guiltless lies: Guilt is associated with acknowledgment of wrong-doing. Teens who regularly lie without guilt or shame may have a mental health disorder that should be addressed by a psychiatrist or psychologist who specializes in teenage mental health. Alternatively, guiltless lying can indicate a substance use disorder or that teens have learned over time that telling the truth is more problematic than lying. Parents must be willing to objectively evaluate their own behavior if their teens are routinely lying to them.
Lying & Other Early Signs of Teenage Drug Use
A study published in 2017 found that teenagers who lie to their parents often are more likely to consume alcohol. Other signs of drug use include:
- Lying and stealing money: If money is routinely missing from your wallet but your teenager denies having taken it, this may indicate substance misuse.
- Covering up where or who they were with: When teenagers lie about their whereabouts they may be concealing activities that they don’t want you to know about.
- Being overly secretive: It can be challenging to determine if your child is just being a stereotypically moody teenager or if they are actively hiding something. In this case, having a calm and non-judgemental conversation with them may provide insight into their motives.
Giving teenagers the opportunity, to be honest, is crucial. If your teenager is honest about being around alcohol, your reaction will determine whether they are honest with you in the future. Reacting in a calm, non-judgemental way does not mean there are no repercussions; on the contrary, if your teenager feels comfortable talking to you and understands that they did something wrong, they will be more likely to understand and accept reasonable punishments.
Concern and fear for the safety of your teenager is part of being a parent, but you must also acknowledge that you are raising a young adult who needs your support more than a demanding overseer.
Where to Get Help
If you are convinced your teenager is lying but you aren’t sure that drugs or alcohol are involved, seek help with a psychiatrist or psychologist who specializes in teenagers and family dynamics. For the best outcome, teenagers and parents should meet with the counselor both separately and together.
Teen drug rehab programs are appropriate for teenagers who are abusing drugs or alcohol. While there are a number of philosophies on how to rehabilitate teenagers, not all have been empirically validated as effective. For example, boot camps and juvenile prison-style programs have been repeatedly shown to be less effective than programs that specialize in therapeutic learning and cognitive healing. In addition, any teenage rehab program must be equipped to provide medical assistance including the ability to diagnose and treat co-occurring disorders (combined substance use and mental health disorders).
Next Generation Village provides teens aged 13-17 with evidence-based therapeutic strategies that are proven to deliver short and long term success in recovery. Our experts understand teenage drug use and are dedicated to helping your teen overcome substance use and growing into healthy, well-rounded adults. Contact us today to learn how our comprehensive rehab programs can help your teen succeed.Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.