Few things are more frustrating to a parent than when your child lies. This time, we're going to talk about adolescent development, lying, and what parents can do about it. This is Dr. Matt Woolley, Clinical Psychologist and Assistant Professor at the University of Utah.
Recently, I spoke with a mom about her adolescent son, who was caught lying and she was really kind of worried about it. He was lying about where he was and the interesting thing was, he actually had permission to be over at this friend's house, but he and his parents had set up this rule where every time he would go somewhere new with his friends he would text or call in on his cell phone to keep parents kind of apprised of this real-time change in his position, I suppose. But he decided one day when he was over hanging out at a friend's house, and again, he had permission to be there, that some other friends showed up and they said, hey let's all go over to the other house. And so they went over to the other house, and he's to be believed and there's no reason not to, they were kind of doing normal teenage stuff. I think they were playing Xbox or something like that. And then eventually they went back to the other house and then he went home.
Now, the issue here is his mom had heard from a friend that they had all gone over to the other house, one of her friends. And so she was concerned that he hadn't checked in. So when he came home, she said, "Hey what did you do today?" And he said, "Oh, we were over at so and so's house and we played Xbox." "Did you go anywhere else?" And he said, "No." So, that's the problem, and she came in and we talked about it and she was very concerned. She said to me, "Why didn't he just tell the truth?" That was her question and her second question was, "Am I going to have to worry about this? Do I have a son who's going to be a chronic liar?" So, we're going to come back to see how that story ends after we talk a little bit about how lying and development work hand in hand.
Lying and Adolescent Development
In clinical psychology, we understand that a child or adolescent's developmental stage plays a huge role in where and how, and why they lie. Puberty, for most kids, starts at about age 10, nowadays, and so 11 and forwards, sixth grade, and beyond, is a great time to realize that your child, whether you want to admit it or not, they're heading into adolescence. Fantasy and reality, right and wrong, these things are very well known to children as long as they have normal cognitive development. But some other things are happening here that are different than childhood.
They're really looking for ways to protect or create their privacy, establish independence, avoid embarrassment, and spare other people's feelings. They still want to avoid punishment and chores and things like that, and they also want more. Children are going beyond just what is usually offered to them at home or with their parents. They're wanting things and they're wanting activities and so they're looking for ways to get those needs met and that's a little different in adolescence. They all of a sudden have friends who have everything. Apparently, my kid's friends have everything. Indoor or outdoor swimming pools and the best cell phones and all those things. That's a time to be aware that those needs are also trying to be met by your child and so you have to take that into consideration.
But let's talk about adolescence. And that does get to be a little bit more scary for parents because adolescents are a lot more like adults, they're a lot more purposeful, they do know the difference between right and wrong, and sometimes they make bad choices. But keep in mind, that they are trying to get different needs met in a way that they've never had to do before. They have an increased need for privacy and independence, they want to have social acceptance and social status, and the prime developmental aspect of adolescence is identity development. Who am I? And sometimes, lies are temptations in order to elevate that status to where they think they want to be. It also is a great time to try to have independence from parents, and so they may lie to get some distance from Mom and Dad on things like grades and other responsibilities.
Recognizing the Purpose of Lying in Teenagers
How do we handle this as parents? Well, the first thing I really think is very, very important with adolescents is instead of jumping right into the "I'm disappointed" speech or the consequence of taking the keys or the phone, finding out the reason for their lie before dishing out the consequence. Consider some of these developmental tasks we've mentioned and ask yourself or even talk with them about why they lie, what's the purpose, and what need are they trying to meet.
If it's a need for more privacy, you might consider that. You, as a parent, especially if it's your first child, may not be used to giving them that much privacy because you've been used to having them be your little kid for so long. If they want more independence, you as a parent might consider safe and healthy ways to allow them to have more independence. It's scary to let our teenagers have more independence. My 15-year-old just got a job for the first time this summer and it's interesting to see myself go through some of these things as they're gaining more adult-like responsibilities.
Being embarrassed, having that social status and social identity, we have to not just dismiss that. Try to remember when you were a child or a teenager, and remember how it felt to either be accepted or not accepted by your peers. And that's a big driving force in adolescent dishonesty.
And probably the biggest one is problem-solving. I would say that this is the best time, you have a child whose cognitive development has gone from what we call, as a child, concrete logic. Just one thing equals another, they have a hard time taking another person's point of view and seeing the gray areas. But now, in adolescence, they are developing that ability to take another person's point of view to consider alternative explanations for things, and so it's a wonderful time to help teenagers learn to problem solve.
Addressing Teenage Lying: The Socratic Method
So again, before we dish out the consequence, which there needs to be one, let's start with understanding why they lied, number one. What's the developmental purpose? Number two, is this a time when we could use some problem-solving? And the way I recommend doing that is a specific technique called the Socratic Method. It's the technique of asking questions to elicit thoughts from the person who's listening. So for example, as a parent, let's be honest, we know better than teenagers. We just do, right? Whether we learned it the hard way or not, we know better. But, just telling them the answer is not a great technique.
Addressing Teenage Lying: Direct Communication
The best thing you can do as a parent is to ask a question. "What would be a different way you could have met your need, Johnny, besides lying in this situation? Let's talk about some possibilities." Let them try to come up with some answers and then you fill in the blanks as they miss points that you're thinking of. But by discussing with them, problem-solving with them, and understanding the need they were trying to meet, you're doing a couple of important things: Number one, you're getting more to the heart of the issue. You don't have to worry about your child growing up to be some hardened criminal liar as an adult if you understand why they were doing it. Number two, you're helping them learn to problem solve and consider alternative ways to meet their need that are honest and meet with your approval and social approval. Number three, it's using your relationship. You're actually strengthening your relationship with the teen instead of damaging it, perhaps, by yelling or having an angry confrontation. The last one is, that they are much more likely to accept the consequence if you've gone through this patient process with them because they feel bonded to you, they still want to please you even though they're a teenager and not a seven-year-old. So, it's important, in my opinion, to go through each of these steps.
Addressing Teenage Lying: Balancing Independence and Responsibility
So now, let's go back. We have the mom that we talked about earlier and she had the dilemma of this teenager who lied. Let's talk about that. Now, in my opinion, the reason that he lied was for more independence. That seems to be the developmental task. It seems kind of obvious that he wanted to have a little more freedom to come and go. Now, it's important to point out that this teenager, I believe, was 16 at the time, and not 13 or 12. And so, as a parent, that makes a big difference. How much freedom can we allow this child? But he was the oldest child, and I think that's one of the reasons that Mom and Dad were keeping such a tight leash on him.
My brother, I'm the oldest, my brother who's ten years younger than me, it was like he grew up on his own. He could do whatever he wanted, it seemed like, whereas I felt very repressed by all the rules. So, parents, we do a great job of over-parents with that first child.
So she realized that maybe she could allow this 16-year-old, who hadn't demonstrated, really disruptive behavior, a little more freedom. And that his lie really was for that purpose. So a more direct approach would have been appropriate when she confronted him. That goes back to the don't set them up point. She kind of set him up to lie by saying, "Where were you today? What did you do?" She knew full well where he was and what he'd done. And that put him in a position of having to consider, "Should I lie or should I tell the truth?"
So we talked about in the future, she ought to say with a 16-year-old, "Hey come on in here, there's something I want to talk to you about. I found out where you were today and I want to have a conversation about why you didn't check in." That would have been a much more direct and mature approach for the child. She also realized that she never really did any problem-solving. She just got upset with him, took his phone, and gave him a grounding consequence or something.
So what we did he we talked about how to go back, sit down with him, even after the fact, and use more of a Socratic approach, a questioning approach. So later that night, she went home, they sat down, she talked about it, and she asked him questions. "Well, so tell me why you lied. Why didn't you want me to know? Why didn't you check in? What were some other ways you could have met that need?" And they decided that if they'd been talking about his feeling differently than his friends and having to check in so much, they probably could have avoided this whole situation.
Seeking Additional Support for Teenage Lying
And the feedback I got later was, they were able to compromise on how often he checked in. It still made Mom and Dad feel comfortable and they knew where he was, and it made him feel like he had a little more independence. Which was probably age-appropriate. Not all lying situations turn out this well. I know some of you are listening and saying, "Yeah, but, boy if it was that easy, we wouldn't be calling the psychologist." Some kids learn early on to lie to meet their needs and it becomes an ingrained pattern. There are times when you might need a mediator, like a psychologist, or other types of therapist, to help you.
But these are developmental tasks, so regardless of how difficult this problem of lying has become, or regardless and regardless of the age of your child, in my opinion, it's a learned behavior that can be un-learned by teaching the parents skills, practicing those skills, and really, ultimately, helping your child feel like they have a different way of meeting their needs.
So I hope you as parents and other listeners will understand that a lie is not a lie is not a lie. Lies depend a lot on a child's developmental age and the purpose behind it. And as a parent, if we understand the developmental age, we feel like we have a few tools. We can actually bond with our children, help them learn other ways of meeting their needs, and have a much better relationship.
updated: June 15, 2023
originally published: September 24, 2013
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