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Why Do Teenagers Lie and How To Deal With It

Why does a teenager lie | Misconceptions | How to deal with a lying teenager |

Some teenagers lie. This is a fact of life. In one study, high school students lied on average more than four times a day​1​.

What can parents do about it?

Why does a teenager lie

Children lie for various reasons but teenagers usually have different motives from younger children. Here are some common reasons teens lie to their parents.

Asserting autonomy

During early adolescence, the social life of adolescents tends to shift away from the home environment. One of the key developmental tasks of adolescence is gaining a sense of autonomy​2​.

Adolescents and their parents, however, tend to have different views on what constitutes an appropriate level of autonomy for adolescents.

Many teens believe that a wide range of issues, including clothing, friends, dating, and recreational activities, should be their own decisions, while parents believe that they are within the parental authority.

Therefore, teenagers may feel justified in lying to their parents if their parents try to exert influence or control on an issue that they feel should be a personal decision to protect their autonomy. 

teen boy lies

Avoiding punishment or conflict

As teens spend more time with peers without adult supervision, parents can only rely on what their children tell them about where and with whom they spend time​3​.

When parents disagree on certain issues, they may impose strict rules and punishments on their teenagers to exert their authority. 

Teenagers may lie to their parents to avoid punishment. They may also wish to prevent conflict and to preserve their autonomy in making their own decisions on things they feel they have a right to without their parents’ control.

Altruism

Among adolescents, lying is more acceptable when a person’s motive is prosocial or altruistic, rather than exploitative or self-oriented. 

Teenagers may, for instance, lie to take the blame for something they didn’t do, but want to cover for a friend​4​.

They also tend to find white lies acceptable. A white lie is a form of lying that is usually done for the benefit of others. Such lies are usually motivated by good intentions and done without malice. One may lie to be polite and to protect another’s feelings, for example.

Why teenagers lie: Misconceptions

Having our children lie to us is frustrating. It is easy to assume that teen lying is motivated by malice or bad intent. Parents sometimes label their teens as rebellious, defiant, dumb, or crazy when they don’t understand their bad behavior. But these are misconceptions.

Rebellion is likely NOT the reason

Contrary to popular belief, rebellion is one of the least likely reasons why teens lie.

In a study of 490 high school and college students, only 23% of teens viewed rebellion as an acceptable motive for lying to their parents, while 60% regarded assertion of autonomy as an acceptable reason.

Teenagers lie to parents to achieve autonomy while avoiding conflict but lying to express rebellion is likely to increase conflict. So lying and rebellion are incompatible concepts.

Teenagers may desire autonomy from their parents, but they do not see this as a rebellion against them​5​.

Not because friends do it too

Conformity to peers was also among the least acceptable motives for lying to one’s parents. In the same study, only 17% of teen students regarded “she knew that her friends told similar lies to their parents” as an acceptable motive.

During mid-to-late adolescence, a child’s desire to conform to peers peaks​6​.

By late adolescence, teens value independence highly. Emerging adulthood is characterized by making independent decisions including independence from peers​7​.

Not trying to challenge or revenge

Adolescents also considered lying to parents as a challenge or revenge to be among the least acceptable motives.

Most teens do not want to lie to see if they could get away with it or to get even with their parents. 

Not testing boundaries but defining their own

Some people believe teenagers lie in order to test their parents’ boundaries. This is a very “parent-centered” belief.

Most teenagers won’t bother doing that. When they have so much going on in their lives, why would they test our boundaries?

They are merely defining or redefining their own boundaries in order to assert their autonomy.

How to deal with a lying teenager

Teenagers who lie to their parents can seriously damage their trust. Teens’ deceptions affect not only family relationships, but chronic lying or compulsive lying may also contribute to externalizing behaviors, such as delinquency, aggression, and loss of self-control. 

The high cost of lying needs to be addressed as soon as possible, but in a way that won’t make it worse.

Acknowledge

If they lie, calmly let them know you are aware of their actions. Discuss kindly with your child about honesty but not lecture about honesty. Do not use an accusatory tone or call them names like “liars”. Placing blame or causing deep-seated resentment will only lead to more lies.

Identify boundaries for teenagers and parent

If the lying is due to disagreement on a certain issue, discuss the boundaries between the parents and the teen and why they need to be there. 

With the transition to adolescence, children’s ideas about parental authority begin to shift and there is a need to review the family rules.

Is every rule necessary and beneficial to the family?

Who should have the right to decide on each one?

Should issues such as clothing styles and friendships be the parents’ decision?

Teenagers and their parents need to establish clear lines about where parental responsibility ends and adolescents’ rights begin in order to eliminate teens’ need to lie​8​

Authoritarian parents will have a hard time accepting the right of their children to decide on certain issues on their own.

Research has shown, however, that children whose parents set strict rules and use punishment place greater importance on preserving what they perceive as their rightful autonomy. These kids tend to lie more.

Controlling parenting practices will only make things worse.

Parental autonomy support

Parents play a major role in influencing adolescent lying. In families where parents are autonomy-supportive rather than controlling toward their children, the children are less likely to lie.

Supporting children’s autonomy means treating them as people and showing respect for their needs and feelings. Children feel empowered when parents acknowledge their feelings, explain the rationale behind rules and expectations, and provide options and opportunities. Teenagers who feel empowered tend to be honest with their parents​9​.

Positive reciprocal influence

During adolescence, conflict often stems from differing views of parental authority.

When parents discover that their children are lying to them, they often become more controlling. However, the more controlling the parent, the more likely the teenager is to lie. Bidirectional influences lead to a vicious cycle.

Both parents and children perceive themselves as victims of these conflicts. While parents view adolescents as not fulfilling their moral obligations, adolescents see their rights being eroded by their parents. 

A step must be taken by one of them to end this cycle. It is only the parents who are adults in this relationship, so it is up to them to end the negative reciprocity.

Strengthen parent-child relationship

Close-knit families with warm parents lower the tendency toward teen lying. These families are often supportive of the children’s views and activities​10​.

In a close child-parent relationship, children are more likely to listen to their parents. They may feel less inclined to lie to avoid loss of trust from their supportive, engaged, and helpful parents.

Seek professional help

Research shows that children with frequent lying tend to be more secretive, less communicative, less trusting, and more alienated from them. They are more likely to suffer from mental health issues, such as low self-esteem, stress, and depression​11​.

Some lying teens exhibit more externalizing issues, including risky behaviors and substance abuse.

Seek help from a mental health professional if your teen shows any signs of internalizing behavior or externalizing problems.

Final thoughts on why teenagers lie

Although they may not act like it sometimes, teenagers are smarter than we give them credit for.

Teenagers shouldn’t be portrayed as dumb, rebellious, and ignorant adolescents incapable of thinking for themselves. 

Teens must be supported differently if we want to raise well-adjusted adults.

Keep in mind that teens did not become dishonest overnight. So no strategies can stop the lies overnight either. It takes patience and love to restore the connection between you and your children and help them learn how to communicate better.

Learn more about parenting teens: Parenting Teens – 9 Tips to Raising Healthy, Happy and Motivated Kids

References

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    Allen JP, Hauser ST, O’Connor TG, Bell KL, Eickholt C. The connection of observed hostile family conflict to adolescents’ developing autonomy and relatedness with parents. Dev Psychopathol. Published online 1996:425-442. doi:10.1017/s0954579400007173
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    Kerr M, Stattin H. What parents know, how they know it, and several forms of adolescent adjustment: Further support for a reinterpretation of monitoring. Developmental Psychology. Published online 2000:366-380. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.36.3.366
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    Arnett JJ. Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist. Published online 2000:469-480. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.55.5.469
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    Smetana JG. Adolescents’ and Parents’ Conceptions of Parental Authority. Child Development. Published online April 1988:321. doi:10.2307/1130313
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    Bureau JS, Mageau GA. Parental autonomy support and honesty: The mediating role of identification with the honesty value and perceived costs and benefits of honesty. Journal of Adolescence. Published online April 2014:225-236. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2013.12.007
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    Cumsille P, Darling N, Martínez ML. Shading the truth: The patterning of adolescents’ decisions to avoid issues, disclose, or lie to parents. Journal of Adolescence. Published online April 2010:285-296. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2009.10.008
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    Engels RCME, Finkenauer C, van Kooten DC. Lying Behavior, Family Functioning and Adjustment in Early Adolescence. J Youth Adolescence. Published online July 25, 2006:949-958. doi:10.1007/s10964-006-9082-1

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