/ Jan 03, 2020

Is It Ever OK for Teens to Lie?

You’ve caught your teen in a lie. Like all parents, you find yourself caught up in a whirlwind of emotions. You may be angry or disappointed. You may feel sad or betrayed. No matter the degree of your frustration, there’s one truth about lies every parent should keep in mind: at some point, everyone lies. Haven’t you?

Lying is Human

It’s perfectly normal for teens (and adults, for that matter!) to practice a certain amount of deception and dishonesty. The ability to lie comes naturally, beginning when children are toddlers and increases during late adolescence. Adults tell roughly two lies every day. The uptick in lying during the teen years is likely the result of this age group wanting to assert their independence from their parents. However, as teens gain more freedoms in young adulthood, they don’t feel the need to lie as much.

Why Do Teens Lie?

The answer to this question may seem obvious to some. You may be thinking: They lie because they want to get away with something. They lie to avoid consequences. 

According to teens, the below scenarios represent some of the most acceptable reasons for being dishonest with parents:

  • A friend or significant other is having trouble and needs support
  • The family is stressed and the teen does not want to add to that stress
  • The teen did not want to get a friend or significant other in trouble
  • The teen believes they have the right to make their own decisions, and feel controlled by others

It’s important to note the first three responses are what researchers call “pro-social” lies. Lies that are “pro-social” are aimed at protecting family or friends. The fourth reason – teens having the right to make their own decisions – reflects their desire for parents to have less control over their lives, which is developmentally expected and appropriate

Another essential takeaway is that families tend to have different opinions and rules about telling lies. “Many parents believe it shows great empathy to be dishonest [to protect someone’s feelings], while others think it’s never OK” explains Scott Seider, Associate Professor of Applied Developmental Psychology at Boston College. “Is withholding information a lie? You can see how even that one question can be answered differently by different families.”

Teens tell fewer lies when they feel they have room to grow and make mistakes.

Strategies That Promote Honesty

Since lying is basically impossible to avoid all the time, how can parents make sure it happens less of the time? Below are three strategies for developing the kind of relationship with teens that promotes honesty. For even more tips, read this. So, what’s the bottom line? Teens tell fewer lies when they feel they have room to grow and make mistakes. They also lie less often when they feel they can be honest with their parents.

1) Be A “Lighthouse Parent”

Being a lighthouse parent is all about balance. Teens who grow up with parents who follow a balanced style of parenting (neither too strict or permissive, expressing of both unconditional love and demanding of safe behaviors) are more likely to share what’s going on in their lives.

2) Be Flexible

Of course, one of the main reasons teens don’t tell the truth is to avoid being punished. But what should parents do if they catch their teen in a lie? First, take a moment and remember this: Even the most trying moment offers the opportunity to teach lessons about making wise choices in the future. As Dr. Seider reminds us: “Life doesn’t offer just one teachable moment, it presents a series of teachable moments. There will be hundreds.” 

3) Be Calm

When your teens come clean, avoid yelling and lecturing. If you don’t, they may withhold information the next time. If you decide they need to face consequences for their actions, consider being less harsh if they fessed-up to what happened. “Parents should be transparent about their decision-making,” advises Angela Evans, Associate Professor of Psychology at Brock University in Canada. “A parent might say, ‘I was going to forbid you going out with your friends for the next three weekends, but because you’ve told me the truth, I’ll only keep you home one weekend,’” she offers. “This kind of calm, reasoned reaction makes it more likely your teen will disclose the truth in the future.”

A Final Word:

As teens get older they want more control over their lives. They want independence. This is an exciting stage of development but it also challenges parents to take a step back. Overprotection can backfire, leading to even more lies. For strategies on maintaining a positive, open relationship with your teen (one that might stop repeated lying), read Communicating With Teens: What to Say and How to Say It and 7 Expert Tips for Talking with Teens.

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Allison Gilbert

Allison Gilbert is Senior Writer for the CPTC. Her pieces cover an array of topics including self-care, bullying, grief, and resilience. Allison is author of numerous books and speaks across the country to corporations, non-profits, and community groups. You can learn more by visiting www.allisongilbert.com.

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