"My 17 year old son lies all the time," a mother said to me recently. "He lies about his schoolwork, what he ate for lunch and whether or not he's brushed his teeth. He also exaggerates to make his stories more dramatic or to make himself sound bigger. It's come to the point where I don't take anything he says at face value. He's not a bad kid, but I just don't understand why he lies so often, especially when telling the truth would be easier. What should I do?"
Dealing with lying is frustrating and confusing for many parents. Unfortunately, teens and pre-teens often lie or tell only part of the truth. James Lehman explains that kids lie for many reasons: to cover their tracks, to get out of something they don't want to do, and to fit in with their peers. Sometimes kids tell white lies to protect other people. I've heard my stepson claim a "bad connection" while speaking to a relative on the phone, rather than simply telling them, "I don't want to talk right now." When asked, he says he doesn't want to hurt that person's feelings by saying he wanted to get off the phone. Simply put, it was just easier to lie.
Some teens develop the habit of telling half-truths or exaggerating about things that seem completely irrelevant or unnecessary. They might think it will get them what they want, or get them out of a sticky situation. Like many adults, kids can also be less than honest at times because they think the truth isn't interesting enough. They may lie as a way to get attention, to make themselves seem more powerful or attractive to others, to get sympathy or support, or because they lack problem-solving skills.
Lying about Risky or Dangerous Behavior
It's important to differentiate here between lies that cover up for drug use or other risky behavior, as opposed to "every day lies" that some teens tell just as a matter of habit or convenience. Make no mistake, lying that results in, or covers for, unsafe or illegal behavior must be addressed directly. If your child is lying about things that might be dangerous, involving drug or alcohol use, stealing, or other risky behavior, seek resources and support in your local community.
Why Doesn't My Child Care that Lying is Wrong?
Adolescence is such a tough time: trying to fit in, feeling unfairly judged or limited, wanting to be seen as powerful even while you feel completely powerless. Teens and pre-teens are navigating some pretty challenging waters. For some, lying can seem like an easy way to deal with the stress of being a teenager. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology, an occasional fib from a child is nothing to get too concerned about. Chronic dishonesty and exaggeration, on the other hand, should be addressed - but maybe not in the ways you think.
We talk with many people on the Parental Support Line who feel that lying is a moral issue. But even so, as James advises, treating it that way is not likely to help solve the problem. When your child tells a lie, giving a lecture about why it's wrong is probably not going to help them change their behavior. Most of the time, they're tuning out our words of wisdom anyway! On the other hand, if you feel that your child is making a habit of lying, you need to acknowledge what you see happening. Open a discussion with them and find out what problem they are trying to solve. Are they trying to avoid trouble? Do they think it's easier to lie than to risk hurting someone else? Do they believe that saying something dishonest helps them fit in? When they answer you, listen to what they have to say carefully.
When Kids Lie to Get out of Trouble
In The Total Transformation Program, James Lehman points out that most kids lie because it's expedient--it seems like the best decision at that time. Once you understand what your child is hoping to gain from lying, you can help them come up with a better problem-solving strategy. If your child is being untruthful to get out of trouble--for example, telling you that they took out the trash when they really didn't--clearly state the rules of your house, and the consequences for breaking those rules. Remind them that they don't have to like the rules, but they do need to comply with them. You might also tell your child that if they break a rule and lie about it, there will be a separate consequence for lying.
Exaggerating and Lying for the Sake of Lying
If your child isn't simply lying to keep out of trouble, you might have to dig a little deeper to find out what's going on. Start by saying, "I notice that you often lie about things that seem strange to me. For example, when I asked you where the phone was, you said 'I don't know, I don't have it,' and then I found it in your room. You wouldn't have been in trouble if you'd told the truth. Can you tell me why you lied about it?" If your child is exaggerating a story, you might ask, "I was interested in your story, and then it seemed like you started to add things to it that weren't true. Can you tell me why you decided to do that?"
Now I realize you may not get a great answer from your child. From some teens, a shrug is the best response you can hope for. But by acknowledging the lie without moralizing or lecturing, you are sending a powerful message to your child that being dishonest won't get them what they want. You are also letting them know that you are aware of the fact that they were being less than truthful.
Kids often don't understand how hurtful lies can be. Still, you need to remind them that not knowing doesn't make it okay. Start a discussion with your child about honesty and dishonesty, and why they choose to lie. And remember, focus on the problem your child is trying to solve instead of on the morality of lying. You may not be able to stop your teen from creating those every day lies, but you can send the message that there are other options available.
"How Dare You Lie to Me!" is reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents magazine. James Lehman is a behavioral therapist and the creator of The Total Transformation Program for parents. This program offers practical, real world solutions for the most challenging problems parents face: defiance, disrespect, back talk, lying, cursing, lack of motivation, acting out in school and more. In this step-by-step program you'll learn the techniques James has used in his private practice to help children take responsibility for their behavior and help parents get back in control of their homes.
Megan Devine, LCPC, is a Parental Support Line Specialist, writer, and bonus grown-up to a 16-year-old. She holds a Masters degree in Counseling from Antioch New England, and a Master of Fine Arts from Goddard College. Megan has been in the counseling field for over 10 years. She has a children's career book in pre-publication, and has several other books in the works.