Okay, I should qualify that. In general, don’t offer complete and unreserved trust to a teenager. Why not? For the same reason you shouldn’t fully trust someone to fly a plane if they don’t have their pilot’s license. Teens are a bit like untested pilots. They are in the cockpit of a powerful machine they’re not quite familiar with–namely their rapidly morphing bodies and brains. This machine is new, powerful, and a bit out of their control. They’re still learning what all those levers and buttons do and how to navigate, steer, and land without crashing.
Lying is a normal developmental activity for teens as they attempt to navigate an increasingly complex social and emotional universe. Like that new pilot, their world is suddenly operating in three dimensions instead of just one. It’s a lot to manage.
Lying is, unfortunately, a pretty typical strategy that teens use to try manage, or juggle, the various elements in their lives.
For a parent, the key to dealing effectively with a lying teen is first to understand that the behavior is normal. Don’t confuse normal, however, with healthy or “okay.” But it is normal. That initial understanding can slow you down enough to seek some understanding of what’s motivating the lying behavior, which in turn will help you construct an appropriate and helpful response, instead of just reacting. Is your child trying to please multiple groups–e.g. parents, peers, teachers? Is your child lying out of loyalty to her peers? Is she lying simply to get what she wants? Are there cultural dimensions to the lies–e.g. many eastern cultures emphasize group loyalty, so teens in these cultures may be inclined lie for the sake of a group of peers; western cultures tend to emphasize the individual, and lying in this population tends to be self-protective. Helping your child understand her motives for the lying as well as its consequences on relationships and other people can usually move through and out of their lying behaviors.
When lying becomes chronic and habitual, it’s even more important to seek an understanding of underlying issues. Lying is typically a symptom of another problem and extreme lying, by extension, may indicate an extreme issue. So when your teen lies chronically and compulsively, and/or doesn’t take responsibility even when caught, a serious underlying problem may be at play.
Young people whose frequently lying is purely out of self interest and without regard for others, may be showing symptoms of budding antisocial behavior. At the other extreme, a teen who is overly concerned with others opinions of her may lie to gain approval. This young person may be having real difficulty forming an identity or sense of self–a critical adolescent task for long-term adult development. Both extremes may require outside help from a mental health professional.
Instruction vs Punishment
But regardless of the mild or extreme nature of a teen’s lying behaviors, parental boundaries are important. Consequences for lying should be constructed for an instructional rather than punitive purpose. Teens need to know that their lying erodes trust, hurts others, and is ultimately an ineffective social strategy. While it’s normal to test lying as a coping and management strategy, parental consequences can help drive home the point that normal doesn’t mean effective. A calm, non-reactive approach to constructing and implementing consequences for lying can help save your teen from a much tougher set of consequences at work or in other important relationships as an adult.