A mental health newsletter wrote for permission to reprint my past blogs about adolescent lying (“Adolescent Lying: What it Costs and What to Do,” “Adolescence and the Problem with Truth,” “When Adolescents Continually Lie”) because, the writer concluded, “lying is only getting worse in our society and especially among teens.”
I don’t know about an increasing trend, but I do believe no teenage behavior creates more problems for parents than adolescent lying because in the face of falsehood they don’t know what to believe, while lying creates lots of problems for the teenager too.
So, here is a longer blog about the topic—first some thoughts about Adolescent Lying in General; then about when I believe it becomes most serious, Lifestyle Lying; and finally What is at Stake (because the stakes can become very high.)
ADOLESCENT LYING IN GENERAL
Lying is a kind of storytelling to make people believe what isn’t true. The purpose of this falsification is to control the narrative about what did or didn’t happen, what is happening, or what will happen. The power of lies depends on how convincing the storyteller is and how gullible the audience is—how much they want to believe that the story being told is the truth.
Lying that works requires a collusion this way—between the teller and the told. “In spite of what others say, we believe your version of what really happened.”
Teenagers seem drawn to lying as a moth is to illumination, only instead of light being the attractor, the allure is freedom because adolescence is a more freedom loving age. While parents often view lying as a moral issue; to the adolescent it is often just seen as practical one – getting out of trouble or getting to do what is forbidden.
There are two liberating changes in personal power usually associated with the transition from being a child to becoming an adolescent.
One change is moving out of The Age of Command, where the child thought parents had the power to make them and stop them, into the Age of Consent when the young person comes to understand that parental control is mostly dependent on teenage cooperation. “Doing what they want is up to me.”
The other change is moving out of the Age of Confiding where the child thought parents should be told everything and could tell when they weren’t, into the Age of Concealment when the young person knows how parents mostly depend on them to find out what is going on. Lying occurs when the teenager abuses this power of being primary informant on which parents depend. “What I tell them is up to me.”
Consider lying in two major forms.
There can be lying by omission—deliberately keeping parents ignorant of information they need to stay adequately and accurately informed. “You didn’t ask, so I didn’t think you wanted to know.” The teenager wanted ‘freedom from’ parental discovery or oversight. “Parents keep best in the dark.”
And there can be lying by commission—deliberately misleading parents by falsifying information about what did, is, or will be going on, in order to get what is wanted. “I told you there wasn’t going to be drinking at the party so you’d let me go” The teenager wanted ‘freedom for’ some forbidden experience. “Parents only know what they are told.”
I think that at some points during growing up, all teenagers lie to their parents; and at some point all teenagers get caught. I also believe that at all such points of occurrence parents should confront adolescent lying.
There needs to be a discussion that explores how it feels to be lied to and how it feels to lie because lying has powerful emotional consequences on both sides of the relationship. “Not only are you treating us with deception and so injuring our trust in you, you are treating yourself as a deceiver and so injuring self-respect. You are placing yourself in a false position, acting like a person who is unable or unwilling to own up and tell the truth.”
In general, parents should get an explanation of why the lie was told, exact a commitment not to lie again, and apply some specific task to symbolically work off the offense. Reparation requires an act of doing that is often more powerful than deprivation—like grounding—which only requires doing without.
Although it’s easy for parents at this juncture, feeling wounded and betrayed and suspicious, to say “and it will be a while before you earn back our trust.” That is not a workable position. First, it places parents in a state of continual distrust which creates ongoing anxiety; and second, the teenager may well think, “If they’re not going to believe me, why tell them the truth?”
Thus, hardest of all, parents must finally declare their ongoing intent to hold the young person to honest account because in healthy human relationships this is what people need to do. “Just as you expect the truth from us, we expect the same from you. No one likes to be lied to. For the liar and the lied to, dishonesty is a harmful way to live.”
By the term “lifestyle lying” I mean when lying becomes a preferred operating style to manipulate and misrepresent reality for the sake of protecting or advancing one’s immediate self-interest. Lifestyle lying commonly becomes a reflexive response to accusation, temptation, or threat. Now there is no sense of obligation or responsibility for accurately or openly portraying what did happen, is happening, or what one is intending to have happen. The guiding principle seems to be: “I just make up what I want people, and even me, to believe as I go along.” Now fiction is told as fact.
An extreme example of lifestyle lying during adolescence is when lying becomes an essential habit that is practiced to enable a substance or other addiction. Most addiction is to lying—to escape discovery by others, to gain repeat access to what one compulsively craves, and to avoid admission about the self-destructive dependency that is ruling one’s life. Addictive dependency is enabled by deception.
Becoming expert at conning other people and themselves into believing what isn’t so, even in support groups and in treatment, the addicted adolescent’s habit of lifestyle lying can linger on, creating a major resistance factor in recovery and a major risk factor for slips and relapses. “Once I start lying, I’m on my way back to using again.”
This is why all recovery from addiction requires the courage to confront and confess and commit to owning up to what is really going on. Thus assisted-abstinence programs like AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and its variants place a premium on truth-telling to self and others. Sobriety and recovery depend on developing a new habit—rigorously holding oneself to honest account.
Of course, getting into a pattern of lifestyle lying doesn’t require addiction for the freedom-loving adolescent. Because it can accomplish so many objectives, lying can be extremely tempting to do. Consider only a few of the tempting uses to which youthful lying can be put.
Lying is a powerful persuader in so many ways, no wonder it can come into such heavy adolescent use, as the writer quoted at the outset declared.
Unhappily, coupled with the teenage temptation to lie is the parental temptation to believe adolescent lies that are told. So the concerned parent asks the teenager: “Is everything going okay?” The truthful answer is: “No, a lot is going wrong.” But to keep parents in ignorance so they don’t interfere, the adolescent lies: “Sure, everything is fine.” And because parents don’t want their worries aroused or confirmed, they reply: “That’s a relief to know.” It’s not just tough to tell the truth; it can be tough to hear the truth too. Denial can be when parents lie to themselves.
Many lifestyle adolescent liars can be skilled manipulators and charm-artists too— easy to believe and easy to forgive on that account. “He’s such a good kid. He’s so repentant when he gets caught. I feel so sorry for him. I always want to give him the benefit of the doubt and another chance.” Probably the most common parental denial of adolescent lying is hope—hope that their suspicions are unfounded, hope that what happened before won’t happen again, hope that conduct will get better, hope that from now on truth will be told.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Part of parenting is preparation now for self-management later. What the adolescent learns from adult instruction, interaction, and example in family influences conduct incurrent relationships and in those to come. Thus, how the adolescent learns to transact communication with parents has a bearing on how this young person is likely to transact communication with others after leaving their care.
Lying can be formative this way. I believe having parents who model and expect honesty is generally for the best. To get on in later life, it can make a powerful difference if the young person has been taught to be an honest communicator, and not a deceptive one.
Parents cannot compel a young lifestyle liar to operate on a more truthful basis with them, however, they can itemize some basic costs of deceit by explaining how nothing corrupts caring relationships like lies because:
One can’t have trust without truth,
One can’t have intimacy without honesty,
One can’t have safety without sincerity.
Parents can explain how lifestyle lying is eventually self-defeating because sooner or later it creates more problems than it solves. Like Abraham Lincoln said: "No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar." It takes lying to cover up lying until at some point liars can feel out of control because they can’t keep all their stories straight. So they lose track of what they said to cover their tracks, slip up and get caught. And now they get a reputation for lying. Thus, they can become their own worst enemy.
In addition, lying is much more labor intensive to manage than truth because it imposes the double burden of deception. Truth has only one story to remember; but lying always requires remembering at least two. There is the truth about what actually happened (what not to tell) and about the fiction that was made up to conceal the truth (what was told instead.) So lifestyle liars start lying to gain control of their story, but increasingly feel a loss of control over all the fabrications they have created. Becoming increasingly fugitive, they tend to lead stressful lives.
This is why, when all is falsely said and done, adolescents who get into lifestyle lying end up feeling distant and cut off from family, fearful of what closeness might reveal. Many such teenagers are very lonely people because they cannot be their true selves with anyone. How isolating is that?
Thus, a young person often ends up feeling grateful for being caught because now she or he has a chance to get back on an honest footing with those they love. Then they can come out of hiding. They can stop feeling fearful of being found out. They don’t have to be so vigilant. They can feel more relaxed and connected. They can be truly known and understood and legitimately trusted.
If parents see their adolescent getting into a pattern of lifestyle lying they can explain the human costs of this deception and encourage the harder habit of telling the truth, however painful or scary that might be.
Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Re-Purposing One's Life