by Melissa Skinner, M.A., LCPC
When I am working with teenagers and their families it’s extremely common for the issue of lying to come up. In fact 99% of the time it does. Lying, to a degree, is a normal part of the development of an adolescent. Yes, that’s right, it normal! It is not uncommon for children at all stages in life to tell lies from time to time. Research shows that children start to lie around age three, when they’re still unable to differentiate between fantasy and reality. When children are young, telling lies is an interesting way to test the boundaries. Once a child becomes an adolescent, a lie usually serves as a means to solve a specific problem. Perhaps it’s a way to get out of trouble, to fit in with peers or to protect their freedom. During adolescence the teenager is processing information with the emotional part of the brain, known as the amygdala. It is not until a person’s mid 20’s that they begin to process information with the rational part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex). Since this connection between the emotional part of the brain and the decision-making center is still developing, teenagers are not capable of thinking through consequences in the same way that an adult is.
So now that we’ve established that lying among teenagers, is to some degree very normal, we can all breathe a small sigh of relief. If however your teenager is lying consistently or compulsively, in addition to other behavioral problems, there is likely a bigger problem and you should seek professional help from a licensed therapist. There is a big difference between small lies and lies that are used to hide substance abuse and dangerous or risky behavior. So always be asking yourself. “why is my teenager lying, what is behind the lie and what problem is he or she trying to solve?”. Perhaps your teen is lying because they’re afraid of getting in trouble or they want to do something they think you won’t allow them to do. Or are they embellishing their own reality, due to a lack of self-esteem? Paying attention to what teenagers are lying about and why, often sheds light on what is going on in their worlds.
So how should parent’s respond when their teens lie? The most common reaction I see from parent’s is one of anger, which is the wrong response. This anger is motivated by their own fear; the fear that their child’s lying will become consistent and compulsive. Ultimately, on some level, parent’s fear they will fail at parenting and that their child will grow into an immoral adult. When parents react from this place of fear, it usually displays as anger, driving them to shame their teen and overreact with harsh punishments. Unfortunately these reactions cause teenagers to shut down further and be less likely to tell the truth the next time. They may conclude that it is in their best interest to continue lying, to avoid facing the same retribution as the last time. Teens lie when they are stressed, so if adults fly off the handle when a lie is told, teens will disconnect further and parent’s will find themselves farther from the truth.
The single best way to respond when your teenager tells a lie, no matter how small, is to say “when you lie to me it hurts my feelings and I really want you to know that you can trust me and that everything will be OK”. This response creates an environment of safety and security in which a seed of trust can begin to grow. The next time your teenager is feeling stressed, he or she will look to you and think okay there is someone who I can trust, talk to and tell the truth to.
Although we know teens will inevitably lie at some stage, we can actually minimize the likelihood of lying. One way to do this is for parent’s to take a leap of faith and trust their teenagers. When teens feel trusted, they also feel inspired to behave in a way that will continue to gain the trust of the important adults in their lives. Additionally, being willing to negotiate with your teen and make exceptions to rules, may help minimize lying. When teens feel heard, and believe they have a say in the decisions that impact their lives, they feel less threatened by adults and are less likely to lie. Lastly, parent’s need to model honesty themselves. Parent’s need to set positive examples by being truthful in their own actions and relationships. When parent’s demonstrate an honest character, they are helping their teens develop their moral compasses. The morals your teens learn as kids will affect how they see the world and ultimately how they behave as adults.
Melissa Skinner is the founder of Northwest Counseling & Wellness and a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who has been working with adolescents and their families for 15 years. For more information or to schedule an appointment, please call 872-222-3132