5 Ways to Promote Honesty in Teens

Teens and Honesty

Teens want honesty from adults just as adults crave the truth from teens. If we both want the same thing, why is it so hard to get there? Many parents worry about whether or not their teens are lying, and what to do about it. Luckily, years of research shed light on why teens choose to tell parents the truth. Teens are more likely to be honest when they feel close to their parents. When their parents trust them to make independent decisions. And when they are given room for growth.

I’m pretty certain no truth serum exists. Rather, the secret ingredient is in the kind of relationship established between parents and teens. It has to do with being a “tellable” parent. One who creates an environment where young people feel empowered to share without hesitation. Before we can become that kind of parent, we must understand what’s behind the lies in the first place.

Lying as a Developmental Milestone

Lying is a normal part of a child’s development. Most children can lie by about age 3. I find it quite amusing to watch my two-year-old try to lie. It’s usually written all over his face, often literally. (Me: “Did you eat your sister’s Halloween candy? Him with chocolate smeared across his face: “I no eat it!” ). Over time, children become better at lying, but also less likely to do so. There’s an uptick in lying that comes in late adolescence. This is likely due to teens’ growing need for independence. But there’s an overall decline and less tolerance for lying in young adulthood.

Young people lie for similar reasons as adults. To avoid being punished, to save face, to preserve others’ feelings, to try to please, or simply to get away with things they want to do. Lying is instinctual as they work to adapt to different circumstances. Everyone does it. Yet it’s still maddening to be lied to. And while my toddler’s lie about his sweet tooth may be endearing, a teen’s lie about whether or not a party is supervised or about substance use is another story. When the stakes are high, the truth becomes that much more important.

When the stakes are high, the truth becomes that much more important.

Strategies Encouraging Honesty

There are several ways parents can promote honesty in teens. Here are five to consider.

1) Be A “Lighthouse Parent”

Lighthouse parents trust their children to ride the waves, but protect them from crashing into the shore. Being a lighthouse parent is all about balance. You provide loving guidance, structure, but are flexible in allowing young people to gain increasing independence and set off on their own. Children of balanced parents do better on a range of outcomes — school performance, stronger social connections, and better physical and emotional health to name a few.

Teens are also more likely to tell balanced parents what’s going on in their lives! Why? Because they understand that the rules are there to protect them and that their parents will love them unconditionally, even if they make a mistake. Consider ways you can achieve greater balance in your home. Listen without judgment. Give your teens a chance to tell their side of the story before jumping in. Praise them for sharing. Be a sounding board so they can bounce ideas off you. And avoid trying to solve all their problems.

2) Take Inventory of Your Habits

Adults report telling about two lies per day. Think about that for a minute. And then reflect on your day. Did you lie about how much you “loved” your co-worker’s new sweater? About why you were late for pick up? Or about hidden vegetables that found their way into those “chocolate chip muffins” you packed your kids for lunch? An important step in guiding teens towards being honest is to get real with yourself. Our children are always watching. Parents must model the kind of values and behaviors they’d want to see in their children. 

3) Support Their Growing Independence

Teens demand the right to make their own decisions. As they get older they want more control over their personal lives. And because they learn best through experience, this sometimes means they’ll step out of bounds to see what’s just around the corner. This pulling away process is jarring enough to put many parents’ protective radars on full alert. But before you start revving up those helicopter engines, know that overprotection can actually lead to rebellion, and more lies. Instead, help them fulfill their developmental need to explore in healthy ways. Allow them to have new experiences and take positive chances. This could include trying out for a school play, entering a competition, or asking someone out on a first date.

4) Create Flexible Rules with Reasonable Consequences

A major reason teens lie is to avoid being punished. But what’s a parent to do if they catch their teen in a lie? Take a step back and remind yourself that discipline is not actually about punishment at all. It’s about teaching lessons so children learn to make wiser choices in the future. Discipline is most effective when consequences make sense in light of the offense and when rules are flexible enough to allow for growth.

Creating appropriate rules and consequences involves some planning. Get on the same page about your discipline plan and create an Adolescent Responsibility Contract (ARC). ARC’s allow you to come to a mutual understanding about why rules exist and what happens if they’re not followed. They make it clear that rules are about safety and assuring behaviors consistent with good values. They are adaptable as teens prove themselves trustworthy. And when rules are framed in this way, teens are more likely to accept them. Learn how to build your own ARC here.  

5) Remain Calm and Avoid the Lecture

We want our teens to talk to us about any and everything. When they do, we must remain calm and not overreact. The good news is they’re coming to you! Keeping your cool when your emotions are bubbling at the surface is no easy feat. Go into the conversation with a clear head.  Be honest if you need time to think. Don’t be afraid to say, “Thanks for telling me. I need a few minutes to process this. Can we talk later tonight?”

When your teen talks, avoid lecturing. If you launch into a lecture, they may withhold information the next time. There’s plenty to be done to get a point across without lecturing, according to Dr. Ken Ginsburg, an Adolescent Medicine specialist and Co-Founder of the CPTC. “We want to honor the intelligence they have and facilitate them to make wise decisions. It’s about changing the mathematical structure of how we talk. Adjusting it so it matches their stage of development. It is also about calmly delivering the message so we don’t turn on their panic mode of thinking,” he says.

In other words, talk to them in ways they understand. Give them time to process one point at a time. Ask them to reflect on what they heard you say. Help them link their actions to the consequences. Guide them to understand how their behavior impacted others. For more tips on how lectures can backfire and ways to avoid them, tune in to this 5-minute podcast.

Create a Culture of Honesty

If we want to raise young people that value honesty we must hold them to high expectations. We can’t assume they are lying to us. Instead, we must trust them to do the right thing. Let them rise to the occasion.

And if they do lie, remember it’s human nature and an essential part of development. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps there’s an underlying reason. Are they struggling emotionally, socially, or academically and don’t know how to deal with it appropriately? Determine how you can help them cope with these issues and promote better choices. If there doesn’t seem to be root cause, consider what you can do as a parent to shift the tide towards more honest behavior in the future.

Why not work together with your teens to create a family honor code? It works in school settings. And it may help create a home environment where values like honesty, integrity, and forgiveness are practiced, expected, and appreciated.

About Elyse Salek

Elyse Salek, M.S.Ed. is an Administrative Director of Research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Her degrees are in Psychology and Human Development from Middlebury College and the University of Pennsylvania School of Education. She is the proud mother of two children.

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