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Why teens lie and how to respond when they do

Understanding why teens lie and how to encourage them to be honest.

Mother pulls earphone out of teenage boy's ear

Key points

Key points - why teens lie

The teenage years are a time when young people want to be more independent. And while teenagers tell the truth most of the time, sometimes their need for independence can lead to changes in their behaviour, including lying. During the teenage years, it’s important to keep the communication lines open so your teen feels able to come to you for help when they are in trouble. Understanding why teens lie and how to encourage them to be honest, and knowing how to respond if they do lie, can help you navigate this tricky time.

Why teens lie

While teenagers usually tell the truth¹, when they do lie, it’s often to avoid disappointing their parents. For a teenager, not wanting to let their parents down can be a bigger motivation to lie than avoiding punishment. Some of the other reasons teens lie include:

  • to avoid getting in trouble
  • to avoid embarrassment about something they’ve done that could make them look foolish
  • to protect or defend their friends who might be in trouble
  • to cover up their emotions because expressing their feelings might make them look immature or uncool
  • to earn admiration from their peers by deceiving their parents
  • to make themselves look better by embellishing or exaggerating things
  • to assert their freedom and independence from the authority of their parents and teachers.

How to encourage your teen to be honest

Teenagers are more likely to lie when they believe their parents will not give them a fair hearing or respect their point of view. If you can nurture strong and trusting communication with your teen, they are more likely to come to you when they are in trouble rather than resorting to lying behaviour. Here are some ways you can encourage your teen to be honest:

Remain connected: When your teenager knows they can talk to you about how to explore doing more things in their own way, it can help them learn that they don’t have to lie to solve problems, get what they need, or gain more independence. Read these tips on how to connect with your teenager so you can create the conditions that will help them feel comfortable to share with you.

Stay calm: When your teen tells you the truth, even if it is something you don’t want to hear, try to remain calm, respectful and non-judgmental and see if you can work things out together. The truth, although painful, is better than a lie and should be treated that way.

Promote trust: If you can make the link between your teen being honest and you giving them greater independence and privacy, it can encourage your teen be honest. Let your teen be part of the process of setting rules for their behaviour and making decisions that affect them. If your teen is part of the process, they are more likely to get on board. Try and build trust by solving problems together and showing your teen that you value their input.

Model honesty: Your teen listens to what you say and watches what you do. So as much as possible, model honesty. Be truthful about your feelings, ideas, successes, and failures so your teen can see that it’s okay to be open and honest about your experiences.

Be open to negotiation: If your teen feels like there is no point asking or negotiating with you, they may start to avoid communicating with you and resort to lying behaviour. If you can demonstrate a willingness to trust your teenager by giving them a bit more freedom, they are more likely to be honest with you.

Avoid angry interrogations: Getting angry and interrogating your child is unlikely to encourage your teen to be honest with you. Your teen is likely to become more secretive, defensive and stubborn if you interrogate them. Instead, try connecting with them. Let them have their say. You don’t have to agree with their position, just try and hold back on what you think so the two of you can talk about the situation without it turning into a fight.

Don’t shame: If your teen comes to you to tell you something they’ve done that they know you won’t want to hear, avoid shaming them. If your teen is worried that you might shame them for telling you the truth, next time they may resort to lying to avoid your reaction.

Be fair: Fairness promotes honesty. Be clear, consistent and fair in setting family rules and consequences so your teen knows how they are expected to behave. You want your teen to know that they can tell you the truth and you won’t use it against them.

Celebrate their honestly
When your teen tells the truth – even if it is hard to hear – tell them you appreciate their honesty. You could say something like, ‘Thank you for being brave enough to tell me what you didn’t want me to know and what I didn’t want to hear.’ If your teen knows they can tell you the truth and you will listen without shaming them, they are more likely to be honest with you.

How to respond when your teen lies to you

When teenagers lie, it’s usually nothing to worry about. Most lies are harmless, so try not to make too much of them. Avoid labelling your teen a ‘liar’ and instead, focus on keeping things in perspective and staying connected with your teen.  Don’t take it personally but rather see it as normal behaviour in a teen that is more about your teen asserting their freedom than trying to hurt you. If you can focus on dealing with the reason why your teen felt they had to lie, your teen is more likely to feel more comfortable about being honest with you next time.

And if your teen often lies to you, it could take time to turn things around. You’ll need to establish reasonable consequences for the lying behaviour while also keeping the lines of communication open. Don’t give up and remember to celebrate the little wins along the way.

Lying about school

Sometimes teens lie about their homework or schoolwork because they simply don’t feel like doing it on a particular day. However, if your teen has a habit of being untruthful about school, then you will need to dig deeper to find out what’s going on. Such lies can sometimes be:

  • a response to an underlying learning difficulty that needs to be addressed
  • a sign your teen is giving up on school and needs support to help them reconnect at school
  • an indication they are having trouble socially and don’t know how to deal with things

Whatever it is, if your teen is lying about school, talk to the school and be open about your concerns so you and the school can work together to help your child overcome any problems that might be leading them to lie. Sometimes it takes a little bit of time and persistence to find the right person to have this kind of conversation with at school, but it’s important to keep trying.

Need help?

If you believe your teen is lying about something that could harm them, another person, or property, then it’s important that you seek help. Please contact Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636), eheadspace, Lifeline (13 11 14) or KidsHelpline (1800 551 800).

 

References

  1. Darling, Nancy, Patricio, Cumsille, Caldwell Linda L & Dowdy, Bonnie, Predictors of adolescents’ disclosure to parents and perceived parental knowledge: between -and within-person differences (2006)

Last Updated: 08 April 2021