Dr. Nancy Darling’s studies on teen lying show that 98% of high school students lie to their parents, and these studies were replicated with thousands of kids in four countries. This is obviously not a new story, but I thought I’d address a few areas associated with lying that you don’t hear about much based on what I have learned from listening to teens the past 30 years.
Many teens lie to avoid getting caught doing something they know their parents disapprove of. Some teens that feel smothered by micromanaging parents feel it’s their only recourse to claiming some breathing room or freedom. For some it’s a way to rebel, to be different than their vanilla family. For others it can be a way to get revenge when a teen feels hurt or unloved. Understanding why your teen is lying will guide you to the best response.
Behind many teenagers’ dishonesty is their fear that their parents would be disappointed in them if they knew the truth about their behavior. This is most true when the parent-child relationship is strong. Teenagers in these homes believe that their parents have the right to set rules and enforce them; they trust their folks have their best interests in mind. Not wanting to disappoint parents becomes a strong motivator for making good choices. Kids without boundaries usually feel unloved, sad, and out of control despite their freedoms.
Most kids haven’t been taught about the process of integrity and how to learn from their mistakes. Have them go back through the sequence of what happened when they made a mistake that they lied about: were they aware that their internal alarms went off when they were at the fork in the road of making a good choice or bad choice; how do they experience their alarms; why did they ignore the warnings that time; what will they do about that reason so that they’ll make a better choice next time. Teens who are willing to talk through this scenario with you are taking the situation seriously and thus much more likely to not repeat the mistake.
Teens need to understand the costs to them when they lie. No one feels good about themselves when they are out of integrity. They will often avoid people they lied to or get down on themselves, which makes it more difficult to have the courage to own up to the truth the next time around. They need to understand that they take a big chunk out of their trust account with you when they lie, and that it has to be rebuilt through their behavior over time. Dishonesty usually increases parental fear, resulting in parents being even more in their business.
As teens mature, I want them to do the right thing not because they don’t want to disappoint their parents but instead because they don’t want to disappoint themselves; not because they don’t want to be punished but because they know in their heart that it’s the right thing to do. That’s high-level integrity.
As with every aspect of parenting, your relationship with your teenager is the key to preventing dishonesty. If you have been warm, flexible, a good listener, fair, and given your kids a lot of say-so in the agreements at home, you will have created an environment and relationship that precludes lying. Parents who have real give-and-take conversations about issues and rules get a lot less pushback and lying from teenagers. A close connection and a spirit of collaboration go a long way towards encouraging teens not to lie.