When Adolescents Continually Lie

Adolescents need to learn that lying is a very inefficient way to communicate

Posted Jun 29, 2015

Carl Pickhardt PhD.
Source: Carl Pickhardt PhD.

Parents who are mostly told the truth by their adolescent are spared the stress created for those who are mostly told lies.

Two recent communications from readers brought this problem to mind. “My daughter (16) suffers from chronic lying and communication is very difficult as I do not know when she is telling me the truth.” “I am failing to understand why my 14-year-old (son) lies so much and I feel emotionally drained.”

I have no “quick fix” to offer that will solve ongoing adolescent lying. From what I’ve seen, this behavior requires sustained parental effort over time to help the young person gradually decide to tell more truth.

Ongoing lying is complicated: not just for the anxious effects on liar and lied-to (the liar afraid of being found out and the person lied to afraid of not knowing the truth) but it can meet such varied adolescent ends. Consider what a few of these ends might be.

Ongoing lying can be an act of power. More away from home and in the company of peers, the teenager knows he controls most of the data about his activities that parents must depend upon to stay adequately and accurately informed. Because he can withhold or alter information at will, it’s hard to have so much power at a young age without being tempted to abuse it. “I lie to control what my parents believe.”

Ongoing lying can be a means to cover up. Lies can be used to conceal what is perceived as shameful, disgraceful, or wrong, like a hidden compulsion of an unhealthy kind, like some form of self-harm, or to hide some illicit activity like substance use. At an insecure age, it’s tempting to conceal from the world what one believes the world would disapprove. “I lie to keep my secrets from being known.”

Ongoing lying can be an act of make-believe. Lies can be used to fabricate an image and reputation for competence and worldliness that are in direct contradiction to what the young person really knows or has actually done. To earn social acceptance and belonging, the young person can create a false identity with lies to compensate for what the young person truly lacks. “I lie to impress other people with how I am.”

Ongoing lying can be for self-protection. Lies can be resorted to from fear of parental disapproval or disappointment should discovery occur. Afraid of letting them down if the truth wa known, a young person can falsify what is really going on to prevent revealing how all is not okay, or what may even be a double life.  “I lie so parents won’t be displeased with me.”

Ongoing lying can be for beating the system. Evading rules, getting away with violations, outsmarting the powers that be can all be part of the gaming repertoire a young con-artist develops. She or he uses convincing lies to make sincere sounding promises and forgivable excuses to beguile and manipulate. “I lie to get and make my way.”

Whatever the motivations, one important declaration I believe parents need to make is how continual lying to them will affect ongoing communication with them. Maybe they could explain something like this.

“Since you’ve been lying a lot to us lately, it’s going to take longer for you to transact normal family business with us. Now there is checking that we need to do before we can count on what you say. To believe you, we will have additional questions because there is now more than usual that we need to know.

“Also, we may want evidence for what you say, or confirmation from someone else, or further information to feel satisfied, or more conversation to feel we truly understand, or have more supervisory involvement in what you do. Lying by you leads to distrust and suspicion in us. Both cause us to feel unsafe for you. So, our wanting to protect you from possible harm means you are going to have to work harder to get the support and freedom from us that you would like.

“That’s the major cost of lying to us: we will take more convincing to permit, provide, and believe what you want. Because our love for you is unchanged, we are willing to go to this extra trouble for you. But now you will have to go to extra trouble with us. Your honesty speeds up our communication; but your dishonesty slows it down.

“Of course, continued lying is up to you. While it is difficult for us, it also creates a problem for you because to work with your dishonesty, communiction with us is going to take more time.”

Finally, with the constantly lying adolescent who decides to finally tell some truth, or with the adolescent who mostly tells the truth, treat this declaration or disclosure as a big deal and say so, because it is. "We really appreciate you being honest with us!" 

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com     

Next week’s entry: Keeping Adolescents Mindful of Parental Needs