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On Lying in Adolescence

by Jean Walbridge

Several questions submitted recently to this site are from parents concerned that their children have lied to them. For instance, a mother writes in to complain of her 13-year-old's having invited a friend over after school instead of practicing his piano while the mother was at work. It isn't even that he skipped piano practice that the mother minds so much, as that her son lied to her about it.

She says, "My son is transforming into a new creature." And, by implication, she's not so sure she likes the new creature he is becoming. He never used to lie--or so it seems. And he seldom disobeyed when he was younger. So what's going on?

Adolescence is what's going on. During adolescence, kids experience a developmental imperative: to become independent of the parents and to establish their own identities separate from the identities of their parents.

Beginning in the pre-adolescent years, kids will do anything to achieve these goals--including lying to their parents, if need be. I think the reason the mom we mentioned above was more hurt by the lie than by the disobedience was that on some level she realized that her son had chosen his relationship with his friend over his relationship to her. The lying cost him something in terms of his relationship with his mom. But giving up the opportunity to be with a peer would have, in his scheme of things, cost him far more, and in an area where he is far less certain of his standing.

Parents, in other words, get their feelings hurt by their children's not telling them the truth because at bottom the parent realizes it is a sign that her child is pulling away from her, and there is some pain in letting go.

It hurts your feelings when your preteen lies to you, but unlike when she was younger, your teenager is not so powerfully motivated to avoid eliciting your anger or disappointment. In your teenager's eyes, your feeling hurt or angry may be "a good sign" in that it proves to her, at least in the moment, that she is not being controlled by you, that you are not running her life... look, here you are hurt and angry. Doesn't that prove that she decided to do this thing on her own? That she wasn't allowing herself just to be your 'toady'?

If it takes breaking an agreement with parents to do what the kid feels, in the moment, that she MUST do in order to move towards autonomy and identity, the kid chooses to break the agreement. He chooses himself and his peers over the relationship with the parents. This is what the parent's deepest experience of hurt is about, and it comes from not realizing the power of the developmental challenge of adolescence: the child really MUST separate from the parent and MUST find his place among his peers.

Not that he knows how to do it! Not at all. There are many false starts and painful lunges toward proving himself autonomous and building an identity. Yet these attempts at growing up, however awkward and painful for all concerned, are necessary steps in learning to become an adult, in learning who he is. If he is truly to become autonomous, he has to risk hurting and offending you and actually needs, at least once in a while, to do something he's sure you disapprove of.

It's not that your preteen or teenager is becoming a moral cretin, or that you forgot to emphasize truth-telling during her childhood. It isn't that the adolescent doesn't know it's wrong to break her agreements with parents, when she breaks a rule in
order to prove her autonomy or to connect with peers, but she may not experience the same remorse as a younger child because the adolescent's sense of imperative need weakens the sense of guilt. It is as if "she had to" do what she did, sometimes precisely because she knew you had a rule against it.

Because of the different function of lying during adolescence, I don't think it works to assign consequences for the lying itself. The problem with giving consequences for lying per se is that it comes too close to demanding that the child hold the relationship with the parent and the parent's values first in her heart, at a time when it is not normal to do so. Besides which, it focuses the child's attention on what she said, rather than on what she did or didn't do. This can really backfire, as when you find out that she had a party at the house when you were not home, which you have a rule against, and she tells you the truth about it. "Yes," she says, "I did have the kids over while you were gone. I'm sorry. (Probably itself a lie.)" -- then expects the consequences to be waived because she told you the truth!

I would even argue that sometimes an adolescent's resorting to lying about her behavior (which very often involves a peer situation) is a "good sign"! -- Because, if she is taking the trouble to lie, it must mean she still cares about your reaction and has not had to go so far as to simply defy all rules to
your face. The lie is a signal that there is conflict: do I do what I want to here, and risk disappointing and angering my parents, or do I obey Mommy and Daddy? There is a pull towards dependence and obedience, but often an even stronger pull toward independence and acceptance by one's peers. The occasional lie facilitates the establishment of a private space, an area of her life in which she is sure you don't have control.

It is, simply, unreasonable to expect adolescents always to tell you the truth. Believe me, you don't really want to know everything your adolescent is doing! And unless they get caught, you can't implement consequences anyway. What we as parents need to realize is that in fact our children have control over this aspect of their lives, and we do not. They will tell you the truth or not, as they see fit. When you catch them in a lie, and it involves behavior that is important, that you have a rule about--you said they could not entertain in your home friends who use drugs, and you find clear evidence that the rule has been violated-- attention needs to go to your kid's having broken the rule, not to what he says or said about it.

We are aware that this topic leads to another: see the article on Trust.

Copyrighted © Parenting Adolescents; all rights reserved. 

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This page was updated 1/30/08. Copyright ©Parenting Adolescents, all rights reserved.