Does your teen experience steep emotional ups and downs? Does she share less with you and keep her emotions close to her chest? Does she act one way around her friends, another way around teachers, and yet another way around you? Does she lie to you? While all of these behaviors can be troubling and disruptive, your teen child is actually working very hard on some critical developmental tasks, the most important of which may be differentiation – i.e. the creation of an independent adult identity. The fundamental challenge in parenting a teenage girl is understanding why negative behaviors are happening and how we can effectively respond to those behaviors.
Unfortunately, many teens feel that in order to properly differentiate, they have to lie and deceive. This can take the simple form of saying they’re a few blocks away at a friend’s house watching a movie when actually they’re at a raging party the next town over. Other times, a teen might act out more complex social lies by putting on a false persona for different audiences so that her experiments with differentiation, i.e. with attempts to form “true” and independent identity, are not interfered with. This can take the form of the good, compliant, youth-group attending teen who sneaks out in the middle of the night to smoke pot with her boyfriend, or the seemingly straight laced honors student who is secretly promiscuous.
Some parents understandably attempt to fight fire with fire, engaging their child’s dishonesty with sneaky attempts to catch them in the act, to outwit them, and even to out-lie them. But these tactics only add to the confusion your child’s dishonesty is causing your family. Sometimes it’s better to fight fire with plain old water. A truthful approach to parenting can foster trust, connection, and respect. Under certain circumstances it can require a lot of courage to risk being consistently truthful with your consistently deceitful teen, but it’s the best way to avoid perpetuating a destructive dynamic of mistrust. Being a truthful parent, however, doesn’t just mean not telling lies; nor does it require that you share every detail of your private life. There is some subtlety in being an effective and truthful parent. Following are four things to remember as you attempt to engage your adolescent with disarming honesty.
The adolescent mind tends to operate in black and white. They have a keen, if unmerciful, sense of justice and rightness and absolutes. This isn’t their fault; it’s the fault of normal human neurological development. The adolescent frontal lobe is developed to the point of being able to comprehend whole new arenas of thought – such as existential meaning, ethics, and other higher-order topics – but is still lacks the ability to make the finer distinctions of a fully developed adult mind. This polarized style of thinking can foster a reactive approach to life and conversation, where saying the wrong thing to your teen can set her off. So it’s understandable that parents are sometimes afraid to be direct with their teen.
Ironically, though, your adolescent needs you to be clear and direct precisely because of her developmental tendency to process in absolutes. Indirect or roundabout or subtle communication just doesn’t work so well with adolescents. So while you may avoid an argument in the short term by being vague, you’re likely to create a bigger one in the future by creating confusion for your teen: “but you said…” Vagueness and passivity in communication also conveys a lack of confidence or authority, which is unlikely to foster respect in your teen. If you passively allow misunderstandings to occur by not being clear with your teen, you are, in a sense, being dishonest. Your adolescent may react to direct, clear questions and instructions, but she will, nonetheless, be more likely to a) understand your wants and b) respect your clarity and authority.
One form of dishonesty many parents practice to their detriment is simply not following through. This can take the form of a well meaning promise to have the car available for your child on a certain night or to attend an event, and then having your own plans change. Of course, these things happen, but when it becomes a pattern of appeasing your child in the moment without a clear plan to follow through, real damage can occur to your relationship. When you surrender credibility with your child in that way, she is more likely to feel entitled to do the same in return – i.e. to tell you what you want to hear in the moment and then to do something different. If you make a commitment, keep it. If you can’t make a commitment your child wants you to in the moment, be honest about it, even if you fear it might garner a negative response.
Another way parents often fail to follow through is in the area of consequences. In the heat of an argument, they may threaten dire consequences – “I’ll ground you for a month,” or “I’ll never let you use the car again.” When the argument cools, rather than risk another blow up, they conveniently forget to implement the consequences. Sometimes the threatened consequences are poorly thought out and turn out to be as inconvenient to the parent as the child, so there’s not the time or energy to follow through. Again, this lack of follow through undermines your child’s respect for you and can induce similar behavior in her. She may begin to threaten outlandish things too, “I’ll never speak to you again,” “I’ll run away,” or “I’ll kill myself.” When threats escalate to self-harm, they should always be taken seriously. Having a habitual pattern of idle threats not only drives family members apart, it can also obscure real risks that need immediate attention – so avoid setting the example yourself of crying wolf.
When you do threaten a consequence, follow through. If you make the mistake of rashly declaring a consequence you think better of once the conflict has passed, you still have an opportunity to be truthful. Tell your teen that you made a mistake in the heat of the moment and adjust the consequence when you’re calm. One way to avoid the impulse to escalate your threats in the face of conflict is to plan a system of reasonable consequences in advance. You can also give yourself a time out and let your child know that you will need to consider what consequence is appropriate once things have cooled down. Then follow through!
This one can be scary for parents, especially those who strongly feel the need to either project authority or to model impeccable performance or righteousness. Parents who are habitually closed do well to work on opening up and being transparent with their teens. It can be a bit hazardous to go from being emotionally closed with your children to suddenly and absolutely transparent. So proceed gradually. There is much in your own life that is simply your own business and there are topics that are generally out of bounds for casual family discussion. So being transparent means being willing to share incrementally and lovingly about yourself – your feelings, your hopes, your disappointments, your victories and your regrets.
Your teenager may be crazy, but she’s not dumb; she knows that you’re a flawed human being whether you admit it or not. So admit it. Not sharing from your own heart can create distance and can even convey a kind of judgment to your child. Give her glimpses of your own heart – your hurts and vulnerabilities and your hopes. Doing so can create a sense of trust and connection, of humanness rather than judgment.
Last, but not least, part of telling the truth is simply not lying. Lies beget lies, so your teen will likely feel justified in lying to you if you lie to her. If your child catches you lying, it can add to the feelings of mistrust, alienation, and betrayal that most teens are predisposed to feel anyway. It certainly won’t help you connect. In instances that involve appropriately withholding information from your teen – and there are plenty such instances – you can let her know that it is your prerogative to decide what information to share and what to not share. When questioned about these subjects, it is better to simply say “that topic is off limits right now,” or “I’m not going to comment on that,” than to give false information. The former is setting a parental boundary, the latter is lying.
Even if your teen is consistently dishonest with you, being consistently honest with her is a long-term investment in trust, relationship, and connection. It’s fighting fire with water. Dishonesty in subtle or blatant forms is sometimes a tempting short-term strategy for avoiding conflict or maintaining control, but it tends to backfire, adding to the madness of adolescence. On the other hand, practicing habitual and disciplined honesty as a parent can go a long way toward making this crazy time of life a bit calmer, a bit safer, and a bit saner for your whole family.