Okay, I should qualify that. In general, don’t offer complete and unreserved trust to a teenager. Why not? For the same reason you shouldn’t fully trust someone to fly a plane if they’ve never flown a plane before. Teens are a bit like untested pilots. They are in the cockpit of a powerful machine–namely their rapidly morphing bodies and brains–that is new, powerful, and a bit out of their control. They’re still learning what all those levers and buttons do and how to navigate, steer, and land without crashing.
Lying is a normal developmental activity for teens as they attempt to navigate an increasingly complex social and emotional universe. Like that new pilot, their world is suddenly operating in three dimensions instead of just two. It’s a lot to manage.
For a parent, the key to dealing effectively with a lying teen is first to understand that the behavior is normal. Don’t confuse normal, however, with healthy or “okay.” Your first task as a parent is to seek understanding so that you can construct an effective response.
-Is your child trying to please multiple groups–e.g. parents, peers,
-Is your child lying out of loyalty to her peers?
Is she lying simply for personal gain
Is she trying to hide something she’s ashamed of?
Are there cultural dimensions to the lies–e.g. many eastern cultures emphasize group loyalty, so teens in these cultures may be inclined lie for the sake of a group of peers; western cultures tend to emphasize the individual, and lying in this population tends to be self-protective.
When lying becomes chronic and habitual, it’s even more important to seek an understanding of underlying issues. Lying is typically a symptom of another problem and extreme lying, by extension, may indicate a serious emotional issue.
Young people whose frequently lying is purely out of self interest and without regard for others, for instance, may be showing symptoms of budding antisocial behavior. At the other extreme, a teen who is overly concerned with others opinions of her may lie to gain approval. This young person may be having real difficulty forming an identity or sense of self–a critical adolescent task for long-term adult development. Both extremes may require outside help from a mental health professional.
Understanding your child’s motives can help you engage her with a level of compassion and can guide your response. But whatever the motives behind a teen’s lying behaviors, parental boundaries are important. Consequences for lying, however, should be constructed for an instructional rather than punitive purpose. Teens need to know that their lying erodes trust, hurts others, and is ultimately an ineffective social strategy.
While it’s normal to test lying as a coping and management strategy, parental consequences can help drive home the point that normal doesn’t mean okay. A calm, non-reactive approach to constructing and implementing consequences for lying can help save your teen from a much tougher set of consequences at work or in other important relationships as an adult.