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Your Lying Tween

The truth about tween dishonesty.

Jack F/iStock
Source: Jack F/iStock

“He lies about everything,” she tells me. “Big things, small, things, whether he did his homework, the color of the shirt he’s wearing. He lies to us, to his teachers, to his friends. When I catch him in a lie, he will tell another lie, to avoid admitting the first one. What is wrong with this kid?“

I smile slightly and calmly tell her that nothing is necessarily wrong. His tendency toward dishonesty can be addressed successfully.

There are few people who can honestly say they haven’t lied. Whether we lie to protect someone from a harsh truth or simply to avoid an altercation, the majority of us would admit moments of dishonesty.

Why They Lie

Tweens are obviously not immune to such behavior. It is not uncommon to feel that the number of lies and tall tales your tween tells seems excessive. The reasons why tweens lie are varied. Here are just a few types and reasons:

The Image Lie

From a developmental standpoint, the tween years present unique challenges. To manage these vulnerabilities, many tweens lie. During this developmental stage tweens grow and mature physically and emotionally at different paces. This often results in tweens feeling awkward and lacking self-assurance. It is also during this stage that tweens start to become more aware of their bodies and how they are perceived by others. In an effort to feel better about themselves, some tweens will build themselves up by exaggerating or even lying about their abilities. To an outside ear such as a parent's, these lies may seem useless and puzzling. For example, a kid lies about placing in a race or scoring a goal in a big game. To a tween, however, these types of lies serve to seem self-assured, talented, special. Tweens often feel so awkward that these types of fibs serve to protect their fragile egos.

The Avoidance Lie

It can be frustrating to realize that your tween has offered you a bold-faced lie. It can be particularly puzzling when no attempt is made to cover up or explain a lie that quickly and easily comes to light. For example, a tween claims they did the dishes or handed in their homework, or stayed after school for extra help. These lies are more like false yeses. A tween acknowledges that a task has been completed when it hasn’t. These fibs are more about avoiding immediate consequences than totally avoiding a consequence at all. In these moments it is as if your tween is simply swatting a fly away, telling you what they know you want to hear most likely so they can be left alone. Quite often these types of lies occur because the parent and tween have a different view about priorities. For example, a tween struggling in English stays afterschool at a parent’s request but instead of meeting with the teacher as the parent prescribes, he messes around with some friends until he can catch the late bus home. “Does this child want to fail English?” his parent may ask. Not necessarily. He may not connect the parent’s solution—seeking afterschool help from the teacher—with success. Or he may be embarrassed or anxious about approaching the teacher, because to do so would mean he is highlighting his own deficiency or weakness, which may feel like too much to tolerate.

The "I Want What I Want" Lie

You open her drawer to put away her laundry when you notice that provocative t-shirt you specifically vetoed the last time you took her to the mall. You know she must have gotten it when you allowed her to walk around with her friends at the mall last week. She specifically told you she did not get anything that day. Or maybe you have firm rules about gaming in your home: No gaming until homework is done. You get home early from work one day and to your surprise he is on the game console chatting away with other players when you know he has a project due the next day. He has admitted to you he has not started the project. When you texted with him an hour ago, he told you he was diligently working and specifically noted that he also had other homework. Catching these types of lies can be particularly infuriating because they feel like acts of blatant defiance.

These lies often occur because your tween is responding to social pressure. She defies you to buy the top because she wants to fit in with her friends. He jumps on the game console because his friend Snapchats him to play. Taken together, the need to fit in and a tendency toward impulsivity often result in an inability to use insight. Your tween is blinded by the desire to do what he wants. These types of lies are rarely meant to be disrespectful although they can feel that way. In reality the decision is not made to defy you; it’s really not personal. It is just that other pressures or desires outweigh your tween’s concern for breaking your rules. It is during the tween years that kids begin to form their own opinions about things. Egocentrism can result in a false belief that they in fact know better. If they disagree with your reasoning, they conclude that going against it is reasonable.

The "Just Because I Can" Lie (aka the Defiance Lie)

Put bluntly, sometimes your tweens lie just because. Tweens are at the age of push/pull. They are starting to push away from you but still have the need to pull toward you. These in-between years are the beginning of abstract thinking that often results in a need to affirm their own authority. They do this through stating their own opinions and attitudes. In an effort to individualize they may even lie just to defy you. They often do this simply to see if and when they can get away with it, as well as to gauge your reaction. Sometimes it is their way of throwing a temper tantrum. At a time when they are looking to be more independent it may seem kind of ironic. By lying they are bound to lose your trust and, with it, the ability to be afforded more independence. This is due in great part to their lack of maturity. As they grow into teens, they realize there are far more productive paths to this end. You have to earn independence, not take it.

Tips for Teaching Honesty

To be clear, just because there are reasons from a developmental standpoint that may incline your tween to lie, this is an explanation, not excuse. What it does highlight is that despite your emphasis on honesty in your household, reinforcement of these principals may be necessary if your tween is particularly prone to lying. Here are some quick tips to ensure that honesty is the best policy:

1. A little bit of positive reinforcement goes a long way. Any time your tween is upfront and honest, acknowledge and appreciate it. For example, if she comes to you and tells you she lost the bracelet you told her not wear to her friend’s sleepover, don’t berate her with “I told you sos.” Let her know you are glad she told you. Then focus on helping her generate solutions.

2. Exemplify what you expect. Tweens are like sponges. So much of what they learn about behaviors comes from observing the important people in their lives, especially parents. The best way to ensure honesty is to consistently demonstrate it in front of tweens. This also means being honest and direct with them even if you have to express things to them they may not want to hear.

3. It’s not what you say, but how you say it that determines how a message is received. Sometimes being honest means saying something that can be difficult for someone else to hear. It is important to demonstrate that delivery often determines how a message will be received.

4. Managing the truth beats dealing with the fallout from deception. In general, even the most difficult truth is more easily addressed than a lie. Teach your tween that lies complicate situations. As awful as the truth may seem at least it can be dealt with directly. Deceptions always add unnecessary layers that usually will have to be dealt with eventually.

5. Honesty can lead to confidence and self-assurance. Tweens often lie because they want to fit in, or don’t feel like they measure up. Honesty at the age of awkwardness will teach your tween to step up. This in turn encourages confidence in their choices and earns respect from others leading to higher self-esteem. Peer pressure abounds during the tween years. There is power in saying no. Tweens who can confidently refuse to cave emerge as teenage roles models and leaders.

6. Acknowledge there are exceptions. It is important to note that there are always exceptions to the rules. There are times, for example, when withholding the truth may be the best course of action. Learning how to decipher those unique instances when the truth can hurt more than it can help takes maturity and insight. Through interactive discussion you can help guide your tween toward understanding. By offering clear and open lines of communication, you teach your tween to handle these anomalies with your guidance and support.

The in-between-years present many challenges for tweens and their parents. An increase in lying during the tween years may be attributed in part to the unique aspects of this difficult developmental stage. Although tweens may be vulnerable, their brains are also very flexible and impressionable. Through guidance, support, and understanding, parents and the important adults in their lives can encourage honesty and honor. Honesty can encourage confidence and self-esteem. This reinforces the ideal that with few exceptions, honesty is truly the best policy.

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