When Teens Lie

Woman Daughter Talking

Did you lie to your parents when you were a teenager? Be honest. Not even a teeny, tiny lie? Here is a typical scenario: You started out studying with Mary but wound up at John’s party afterward. It really wasn’t in the game plan, but you conveniently left the latter part out when you arrived home and your mom asked why you were late.

Fact: Kids aren’t perfect and lying is common in adolescence.

Fiction: “Good” kids don’t lie.

Telling tall tales

Parents may unintentionally serve as role models. Adults often use “white lies” to spare hurt feelings or embarrassment. For instance, you might tell a friend her haircut is adorable after discussing, in your child’s presence, that you would never use that salon.

“Many parents teach children that social or ‘white’ lies are acceptable,” says Dr. R. Andrew Harper, medical director of the University of Texas Harris County Psychiatric Center and associate professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston. “For example, most parents tell their children to express thanks and pleasure for gifts, even if the gift is something the child does not want. Parents also teach children that some thoughts, while honest, do not always need to be related to others when they might cause hurt feelings or discomfort.”

By adolescence, however, teens understand the difference between lying to spare feelings and lying to get one’s own way. Teens lie for a variety of reasons, such as trying to avoid getting into trouble or seeking more freedom than parents are allowing. If a teen has learned that bending the truth will help him get his way, lying may seem like a good option.

Loren Buckner, a psychotherapist and author of ParentWise: The Emotional Challenges of Family Life and How to Deal with Them explains, “Pleasing their friends becomes more important than following the rules. When teenagers have to choose between lying to parents and disappointing a friend, parents often lose that coin toss.”

Be a lie detective

How does a parent recognize when a teen is lying? Is subtle body language a good indicator, or should parents look for other things, such as conspicuous changes to a story?

“There are behaviors that may indicate your teen is lying, such as avoiding eye contact, subtle facial expressions and changes in vocal pitch. However, many parents have learned through experience when to be suspicious of what their teen is telling them. Explanations that are inconsistent or seem to shift on retelling may be clues,” Harper says. “Many teens learn to lie to their parents without being detected, particularly if the lie is well planned in advance.”

Buckner suggests that parents look for patterns. Teens who stick to curfew, do their school work, and show up when and where they’re supposed to can generally be trusted.

Choosing consequences

Teens don’t tend to think about consequences ahead of time. Parents should discuss various scenarios with their teen to illustrate what can happen when a lie leads to putting oneself and others in danger. If parents don’t know their teen’s whereabouts and something bad happens, they are unable to help when help is most needed. Teens should be told that lies, no matter how big or small, can lead to more complicated problems with more severe consequences.

“Some lies have consequences that flow naturally and help teach important life lessons,” Harper says. “For instance, a teen who lies about completing homework will lose points or get a lower grade. However, lies that place someone at risk should call for more serious consequences from parents.”

Harper believes it’s wise to have a system in place that teens are aware of to deal with lying. “Parents should consider negotiating with their teens when choosing consequences. This is an opportunity to teach them about problem-solving and collaboration in difficult situations,” he says.

Be concerned if lying becomes more frequent. This can be a sign of a more serious problem. However, belittling or shaming a teen can make matters worse. “Teens need to know they’re loved, even when they get into trouble,” Buckner says.  n

Myrna Beth Haskell is a feature writer and columnist specializing in parenting issues and child and adolescent development. She is the mother of two teenagers.


“All of their lives, I have told them that there will always be consequences for their actions. Obviously, the consequences are of lower severity if they are honest. In rare cases when nobody fesses up (such as if something is broken), I don’t stop until I get the truth.” – Lili Echevarria, Portland, Ore.

“It’s important to have an open enough relationship so they feel safe to tell you anything. That is what I have always had with my son. You have to develop this early on.” -? Suzanne Seto, Pompano Beach, Fla.

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