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Helping Your Child, Teen, or Adult Child Stop Lying to You

Making honesty a shared goal for the common good.

Key points

  • It is easy for parents to overlook how lying behaviors in their children are driven by their underlying struggles and emotional pain.
  • Taking your child's lying personally at any age gets in your way of creating emotional safety for your child to level with you.
  • The more you see yourself as your child's supportive emotion coach vs. hurt parent, the more you guide them to be more open and honest with you.

According to "A Guide for Families by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry," children, preteens, and teens can lie for varying reasons. They try to avoid getting in trouble, defend a friend they like, or lie because they are too upset to talk about painful experiences. Their upsetting situations could include losing a job, failing a class, and other struggles with things about themselves or fitting in with their peers. I have seen this same dynamic play out with adult children as well. The "truth" is that often our kids at any age will spin the truth or downright lie.

When I coach parents, I help them learn to not take lies from their kids personally. This is not to say that lying is acceptable, but the less parents take it personally, the more they can calmly and constructively help their child be more open and vulnerable to address their dishonesty. As I write in my book, The Anxiety, Depression, and Anger Toolbox for Teens, children and teens who are prone to anxiety will use lying as an unhealthy coping strategy. The more you help manage your child's anxiety, the more you will pave the way for them being more open with you.

Below are some examples of teen lying.

The Truth About Not-So-Angelic Adriana

"I'm at my breaking point, all she does is lie to me!" exclaimed Julia about Arianna, her not-so-angelic 17-year-old daughter. "She lies about what friends she sees at the movies, lies about completing her homework, and by the way, I am sick of policing her about it. And, you know what, I can't even trust if she really washes off her dishes. If she's like this now, how's she going to make it as an independent adult? And, even when she tells me stories, I am finding that she is embellishing big-time! I just don't get it. I was not like this as a kid and it would be so much easier if she was straight-up about things."

A Terrifying Tale of Potentially Explosive Lies

One child in my counseling practice concocted a story about burying a gun in the woods that was supposedly obtained from a "gang" he belonged to. Turns out the story was a hoax but his underlying feelings of inadequacy were a serious matter. In this example, the child lied to make himself seem more powerful to others, calm himself from feeling invisible and lonely, and because he lacked social and problem-solving skills.

The Size of the Lie Matters

It's important to be cognizant of the difference between lies that cover up for risky behaviors including drug use as opposed to smaller, everyday lies. Lying that results in, or covers for, unsafe or illegal behavior must be addressed directly. Instead of getting hung up if your teen is showing remorse, and yes, I realize that this is important, remember that being responsive is paramount. When the lying is about dangerous behaviors, involving drug or alcohol use, stealing, or other risky activities, seek guidance from a qualified mental health professional in your local community.

Parents Get Stressed Out From Lying Children, Teens, and Young Adults

As you can see from the above examples, and as you probably know if you are reading this post, lying-related behaviors from our children can drive us nuts, if we allow them to. The best you can do as a parent is to keep yourself from overreacting to your child's lies. If you overreact, then you are just building a bigger barrier between you and your child feeling safe to open up to you.

What to Do as a Parent Or Caregiver

Try to keep in mind that kids can be quite self-absorbed (can't we also be as adults, too?) and they often don't understand how hurtful lies can be. With this in mind, here are some strategies to help promote truthfulness in your child at any age:

  • Calmly discuss versus lecture about honesty and dishonesty, and why they chose to lie.
  • Do not use a judgmental tone, as it just usually fuels the "see, I can't tell my parents anything" reflex from preteens and teens. You may not be able to stop your teen from creating those everyday lies, but you can convey that there are other options available.
  • Think of yourself as an "emotion coach" versus an over-the-top disciplinarian out to show who is boss.
  • Talk about how telling the truth can feel scary and how we can all feel scared and that it's OK. Share how calming down and solving problems are the keys for a successful life.
  • Relate how lies can give the tempting illusion of calm and avoiding problems (e.g., homework not completed) but in the long run lies just create stress and emotional chaos.
  • If you feel that your child is making lies a "go-to" way to cope, then acknowledge this observation. Talk about the problems they face as a consequence of lying but don't use shaming tones as you speak. Join with your child about their fears. For example, do they believe that saying something dishonest helps them fit in?
  • Remember, above all, to help your child see their value. For example, if your child is exaggerating a story, you might ask, "What you were telling me really held my interest, but then it seemed like you started to add things to it that weren't true. That got in the way of seeing how you really are becoming so mature. Can you tell me why you decided to do that?"

Final Thoughts

Keep in mind that addressing lying behaviors is a process versus a quick fix. Some kids may take a while before they feel safe to level with you. But if you keep your own emotional reactivity and judgmental responses at bay, your child or teen is more likely to eventually open up. While in the short term you may just get a shrug, keeping yourself calm to create a sense of emotional safety will help your voice of truth and reason be heard throughout their lives. That is a gift to your kids that will always keep on giving.


A Guide for Families by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent, Psychiatry,…

Bernstein, J. (2020), The Anxiety, Depression & Anger Toolbox for Teens: 150 Powerful Mindfulness, CBT & Positive Psychology Activities to Manage Emotions, PESI Publishing, EuClaire, WA.

Bernstein, J. (2003). Why Can't You Read My Mind? Overcoming the 9 Toxic Thought Patterns that Get in the Way of a Loving Relationship Paperback, Perseus Books, New York, NY

Bernstein, J. (2015). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, second edition: The Breakthrough Program for Overcoming Your Child's Difficult Behavior Paperback, Hachette Publications, New York, NY.

Ehrenreich, S., Meter, D., Beron, KJ, Burnell, K, and Underwood, MK, (2021) How Adolescents Use Text Messaging Through their High School Years

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