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Adolescent Lying: What It Costs and What to Do

Teenage lying creates problems for the liar most of all.

Key points

  • Kids tend to lie most between the ages of 13-15 because of the intense push for freedom at this stage.
  • A high cost of lying is becoming isolated from family and friends who one has deliberately misled.
  • One of the most common adolescent lies is, "I already did it."

When their child enters adolescence and begins acting more evasively to get more room to grow, parents may begin to wonder, "Whatever happened to the truth?" Not that their little girl or boy was always honest, but their teenager seems more prone to lie both by commission (telling a deliberate falsehood) and by omission (not voluntarily disclosing all that parents need to know).

Why do adolescents tend to lie more than children? Usually for freedom's sake — to escape punishment for misbehavior or to get to do what has been forbidden. To many teenagers, lying seems to be the easy way to get out of trouble or to get to do some adventure that has been disallowed. As described in an earlier post about mid-adolescence (ages 13-15), because of the intense push for freedom at this stage, this is often when the most frequent lying seems to occur.

Lying is deceptive for adolescents in more ways than one because deceiving others proves deceptively complex. What seems simple at the moment proves more problematic over time. The "easy way out" turns out to be extremely expensive, particularly for teenagers who have gotten so deeply into lying that they feel trapped in a world of dishonesty, a world of their own fabrication. To these young people, it can be helpful for parents to itemize the high cost of lying in order to encourage a return to truth.

What to tell an errant teenager? Explain some common costs that liars pay:

  1. Liars injure those they love. Parents who are lied to can feel hurt because lies take advantage of their trust, can feel angry because of being deliberately misled, and can feel frightened because now they don't know what to believe and so feel out of control. Liars can feel guilty about they damage to loved ones that they do.
  2. Liars are doubly punished. Lying is a gamble. If the teenager is not found out, then there is no punishment, but if the teenager is found out, he or she is often punished twice—first for the offense, and second for lying about it. Liars double up the consequences for getting caught.
  3. Liars complicate their lives. Liars have to remember two versions of reality: what they actually did (the truth of what happened) and the lie they told about what they did (the falsehood they created). Keeping this distinction clear proves twice as complicated as telling the truth. Liars have to manage double lives.
  4. Liars live in fear. Concealing the truth, liars have to live in hiding. They wonder and worry whether their deception will hold up or come crashing down around them if they are caught. Liars live in fear of being found out.
  5. Liars feel out of control. Covering up one lie with another, liars soon lose track of all the lies they've told. They find it harder to keep their story straight. Liars can't remember all the lies they've told.
  6. Liars hurt themselves. Because they lack the courage to own up to the truth of their actions, liars live a coward's life. Each time they deny the truth, they don't dare to be honest. Liars lower their self-esteem.
  7. Liars are lonely. To avoid questions and to keep from being found out, liars distance themselves from those to whom the lies were told. They become isolated from family and friends they have deliberately misled. Liars cut off closeness to those they care about and love.
  8. Liars become confused. Lying to others can become confusing when liars start believing the untruths they've told. The more often they tell the lie, the more likely they are to believe it. Liars start by deceiving others, but they end by fooling themselves.
  9. Liars outsmart themselves. A lie is a trick to get others to believe what really isn't so. It assumes others are gullible or stupid. But most lies don't hold up: They don't last, and they are discovered. Liars are not as smart as they like to think.
  10. Liars are offensive. Each time they are found out, liars must deal with people who dislike being manipulated by lies and resent the liar. Liars live with a lot of angry people.
  11. Liars are hard to believe. The more lies are found out, the less easy it becomes for liars to be believed when they actually tell the truth. Liars lose credibility.
  12. Liars are stressed. It takes a lot of energy, attention, and effort to keep up a false impression. It's nerve-wracking and fatiguing to keep so many phony stories straight. Liars live under a lot of pressure.
  13. Liars dream of getting caught. After paying their dues for lying by accepting consequences, liars often welcome discovery because now they can get back on an honest footing with people. They can stop living in hiding and lead a simpler life based on truth. Liars are relieved to be found out.
  14. Liars learn the lesson of lying. Liars discover that it is far easier to be the person lied to than to be the one who has been telling all the lies. Liars learn that though it can be hard to tell the truth, lying makes life even harder.

Whatever the teenager's reason, parents need to treat lying seriously. The quality of family life depends as much as anything on the quality of communication. Lying can erode that quality to devastating effect. An extreme example is lying about substance abuse to conceal what is really going on. There is no trust without truth. There is no intimacy without honesty. There is no safety without sincerity. And there is no such thing as a small lie, because when parents overlook one lie they only encourage the telling of another.

So, when the adolescent lies, what might parents helpfully do?

  1. Explain the high costs of lying so the teenager understands the risks that go with dishonesty, and how the liar ends up mistreating himself most of all.
  2. Declare how it feels to be lied to so the teenager understands the emotional impact of being lied to.
  3. Apply some symbolic reparation — a task the teenager must do that he or she would not ordinarily have to do — to work the offense off.
  4. Insist on a full discussion about the lying — why it occurred, how the teenager could have chosen differently so that lying did not occur, and what he is going to do to prevent further lying.
  5. Declare that lying in the family will always be treated as a serious offense. Explain how now is later, how if they let his lying go now the young person is more likely to lie in significant relationships later on.
  6. Finally, state that you intend to reinstate trust and the expectation of truth in order to give him a chance to resume an honest relationship and so you do not drive yourselves crazy with distrust. Most important, explain that you reinstate trust because in a healthy family people should be able trust each other to tell the truth. If lying occurs again, repeat the sequence. You can't stop the teenager from choosing to lie, but you can definitely treat lying as something that needs to stop.

In closing, remember the 10 Most Common Adolescent Lies:

  1. "I already did it."
  2. "I didn't do it."
  3. "I'll do it later."
  4. "I didn't know."
  5. "I forgot."
  6. "I didn't think you'd mind."
  7. "I didn't know that's what you meant."
  8. "I didn't think you were serious."
  9. "It wasn't my fault."
  10. "It was an accident."
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