Lying is an almost universal behavior among adolescents. Will Mangum, a mental health writer for InnerChange adolescent treatment centers, discusses the developmental roots of adolescent lying and offers strategies for effective intervention.
Teens lie for several reasons, most of which stem from a single motive: the developmental urge to establish independence and freedom. Understanding this urge and the resulting motivations to lie is the first step to effectively engaging your child, student, or patient when she does lie.
In general, adolescents are dishonest, whether by commission (telling a non-truth) or omission (not telling or hiding certain things) or distortion (weaving together truth and lies so that the lie seems tenable)—for some combination of the following reasons, all of which initially stem from the developmental urge for independence:

  • To do something forbidden
  • To evade consequences that might further restrict their freedoms
  • To avoid conflict over personal choices
  • To create personal space by keeping others at bay
  • To exercise freedom but avoid disappointing parents, teachers, or others
  • To cover previous lies

If your child, student, or client is caught lying, the following
1. Create Safety: If young people feel that their relationship with you is based on unconditional positive regard they will be more likely to share openly, even when they know you might not like what they have to say. This kind of relationship takes time, attention, transparency, and honesty.
2. Clarify Consequences: Studies show that young people tend to respond to consequences that have been clearly articulated in advance as opposed to those that remain vague or murky. Be specific regarding the consequences for lying.
3. Consequences Should be Reasonable and “Natural”: Effective consequences should fit the scope and scale of the issue at hand; they should involve something outside of the young person’s comfort zone that is relevant to the offense. Confessing and apologizing to people impacted by the lie, working to repair any damage caused by dishonesty, and losing privileges related to the specific situation (e.g. losing car privileges if one’s whereabouts while using the car were lied about) are examples of reasonable and natural consequences.
4. Follow Through: One area where parents and teachers themselves stumble into “dishonesty” is when they threaten consequences but don’t follow through. This has a similar effect as other forms of dishonesty; it erodes trust, destroys credibility, and sabotages your relationship with the young person in question. Never threaten consequences in the heat of the moment that you don’t intend to follow through with. Instead, take time away from the situation to construct an appropriate response that you can effectively implement. Describe it to your teen and then follow through calmly and completely.
5. Express Yourself: It’s important to treat instances of lying as teachable moments. A good place to begin this teaching is with yourself; articulate your worry, sadness, frustration and whatever other feelings come up for you when your child lies. Help them understand the unintended consequences of lying; lack of trust, fear of being caught, feelings of shame, loss of friends, et cetera. Also help them understand the benefits of truthfulness, intimacy, friendship, less stress, more freedom, and less negative drama.
6. Tell the Truth: Teens can sniff out hypocrisy. They are unlikely to respect standards you uphold in word but not in deed. Even if you don’t lie outright, beware of dishonesty that takes more subtle forms, omission, half-truths, and a general lack of transparency.
7. Return Trust: Once consequences are completed, it’s time to start over and give your child a fresh start. This gives a teen the opportunity to learn from her mistake and change her behavior. It also ends the cat and mouse game that can exacerbate the cycle of mistrust, feeding an adversarial dynamic that will not foster honesty.
8. Start Over: Don’t despair if this sequence doesn’t cure your child or student of lying. It probably won’t! So when she lies again, just start the sequence over. This kind of moral instruction often requires time and consistency to take root.