As a dean at an independent school, I sometimes have to call parents and tell them their child is in my office and has broken a major school rule. Sometimes, in their shock and dismay, a parent will say something like “how do you know it was my child?” and I can typically report back that their child told me the truth about whatever situation we are dealing with. Teenagers need quite a bit of room in order to tell the truth. Ironically, those parents who insist their child never be interviewed alone, or that their child never lies to them, are often surprised to find out that it is easier for me to get to the truth than it is for them. The only magic in my method is that I am not their parent, and perhaps I give them more space for honesty. First, let’s explore why teenagers lie in the first place:
1. One of the primary reasons teenagers lie is so they don’t get in trouble. It is as simple as that. I label that sort of lie the “panic lie”. This is the lie that a teenager tells when they are still at the stage in whatever discussion you are having with them where their first instinct is to protect themselves.
2. Teenagers lie because they do not want to disappoint us. This is a tough one for parents to grab hold of, and often, when we are in conversation with a lying teenager, we sometimes make it even harder for them to tell the truth. Our own rising panic as a parent sets off the preservation instinct for our teenager. They are seeing us get upset, and they know it may only get worse. At this point in the conversation between parent and child, it is less about the behavior being confronted and more about the relationship being disturbed.
3. Teenagers lie about their actions in advance, or after doing something they do not think you would approve of. On the one hand, this means that you have done a good job of communicating your values. On the other hand, most parents and teens have differing job descriptions: it is their job to test the boundaries and our job to continue to set and enforce them. This creates a natural dissonance that teens want to avoid, and lying is a proven method of avoidance, at least for a little while.
4. I feel pretty confident saying that all teenagers are going to lie to their parents at some point. No matter how much truth is valued in your household, there will come a time when your teenager sees the relationship they have with you as threatened in some way. When a teenager experiences a risk to the relationship, they are going to have an impulsive response and this often leads them to telling a lie, or at least providing a watered-down version of the truth.
Now let’s take a look at how to improve the chances of getting teenagers to be truthful once confronted:
1. Teenagers often need our silence to get to the truth. As parents, this is very hard to do because we want to fill in all the details of what we think may have happened. The quieter and more patient you are, the more room your child has to be honest. I spend a lot of time with a student who I think is lying, not badgering them, but letting them either speak freely or sit silently.
2. It is really important that your teenager understand the immediate benefits to telling the truth: a weight off their shoulders, a clear conscience, a chance for a clean slate, and an end in sight to what is probably a pretty miserable conversation.
3. Some teenagers will sit with a lie a long time, sometimes way past the time when they realize the adults are on to them. At that point, they need to get comfortable with the disappointment their parents and peers will feel, and they need to get past their fear that the consequences will ruin their lives. Be frank and assure them that although you know they are lying, you also know they have the grit to get to the truth. Remind your teenager that you will stand by and support them (not defend or cover up their misdeeds) no matter what. If they have fallen in the well, go ahead and toss them a rope so they can begin the ascent.
4. Don’t give up if your gut tells you they are lying, but go ahead and take a break from the discussion if there is a stalemate or tensions rise to an unproductive level. Your teen’s conscience may catch up with them in the meantime. Reenter the conversation a bit later, and again after that if need be. It is important they know you will persist in getting to the truth and that time is always on the side of the real story.
I know it can be tough, but go after the behavior and not the character. Discussing the lie is one thing, but calling your teenager a liar repeatedly is not going to be helpful and may result in your teenager feeling shame rather than regret.