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Is Your Teen Trustworthy? Can You Tell?

Can you really tell when your teen is lying?

Karen Bogenschneider of the University of Wisconsin Madison, wrote a piece called "Other Kids Drink, But Not My Kid." She found that although all the high school students in the study drank, only one third of parents were aware of it. More surprising, many parents knew - or suspected - that teens in general drank and that many of their own child's friends drank. But not THEIR kid.

Knowledge mattered. Mothers who knew their kids drank talked to them more frequently about the risks of drinking - particularly about drunk driving.

The double bind of parental trust

Parents are in a bit of a bind when it comes to trust. It is important to kids that their parents trust them. In fact, it's one of the markers of a good parent-child relationship. In addition, feeling trusted seems to inspire kids to behave in ways that will maintain parental trust. Good kidsnare trusted. The more they're trusted, the more they try to live up to that trust, and the more trustworthy they become.

On the other hand, parents who don't know that their kids are getting in trouble (because they trust them) miss the opportunity to set rules and act proactively to keep kids out of trouble. They lose the opportunity to caution their kids about drunk driving if they don't think they're drinking. Or forbid them to go to the party where the keg is. Or punish them when they do.

But there's NOTHING worse for a teen than feeling distrusted when you haven't done anything wrong.

What's a parent to do?

How good are parents at knowing when their teens are lying?

Most kids lie to their parents sometimes. For example, in a study we did of 121 high school students, 120 of them listed at least one area they lied to parents about. And that last teen told us they agreed with their parents about everything. (I'm not sure I believe them.) We've replicated these findings with thousands more kids in four countries on three continents.

Although most kids lie, some kids lie much more than others. In that first study, areas of lying ranged from 2 of 36 areas to 35 of 36. In general - and not surprisingly - the more kids lie, the more trouble they get in, the worse they get along with their parents, and the less they feel trusted.

We interviewed and surveyed mothers and teens about areas of agreement, obedience, and lying. In general, mothers were bad at even knowing whether or not their teens agreed with them.

  • For 38% of issues, both mothers and teens agreed that they disagreed. .
  • In 22.8% of cases, both mothers and adolescents agreed that they agreed.
  • In almost 40% of cases, mothers and adolescents disagreed about their agreement.

These errors occurred in both directions. Mothers sometimes assumed agreement when it did not exist, but also saw disagreement where it did not exist. For example, in 35.9% of instances where mothers thought their adolescents' agreed with them, adolescents reported that they did not. On the other hand, in 32.3% of instances where mothers reported that their adolescents disagreed with them, adolescents reported agreeing.

Mothers can't tell when their kids lie.

In general, we found mothers were very bad at reporting what areas their kids lied about. Why? Because mothers were TOO SUSPICIOUS. In 62% of instances where adolescents reported disagreeing with rules but telling the truth, mothers falsely believed that their adolescents were lying or hiding information. Mothers were better at spotting lies.

  • Mothers correctly reported that adolescents had used deception 71% of the time.
  • In 29% of instances, mothers believed adolescents were telling the truth, but their adolescents reported lying.

Taken together, these results indicate that adolescents use deception fairly regularly (in 64% of instances where they disagree with mothers). Mothers were rightly suspicious of their adolescents and believed that their adolescents use deception 68% of the time. However, mothers were not notably accurate in their assessment of when adolescents were using deception and when they were not. Why? Because they couldn't accurately tell when their adolescent agreed and when they didn't.

Although mothers accurately detected 71% of deception, they also believed that adolescents were using deception in 62% of instances where adolescents reported that they were not . Looked at another way:

  • 57% of the time mothers believed that adolescents were telling the truth, teens really were
  • 33% of the time mothers believed adolescents were lying, teens said they were telling the truth

Overall, there was a large gap between mothers' beliefs about whether their kids were behaving in a trustworthy way and adolescents' self-reports of their trustworthy behavior.

Which mothers trust their kids the most? Which kids feel trusted?

Mothers' trust of their kids is predicted by two things: how much trouble the adolescent is getting into (based on adolescent reports) and how much the mother thinks she knows about how the teen spends their time. Interestingly, neither how much information the teen says they share nor how much information the mother THINKS the teen shares predicts anything about trust.

Mothers' knowledge, in turn, is predicted by both problem behavior and teens' legitimacy beliefs. Legitimacy beliefs are the extent to which the teen believes the parent has a right to set rules. I always think of this as the 'good kid' measure, because it essentially taps into the extent to which kids believe that parents have a right and duty to protect, teach, and set rules for them and that they, as kids, should really listen.

So for moms, our model looks something like this:

The model predicting adolescents' feelings that they are trusted is much simpler. Kids who believe their parents have the right to set rules feel trusted. It doesn't matter what the kid does (although legitimacy beliefs predict adolescent obedience, sharing information, lying, and problem behavior). If the teen thinks they are a 'good kid', they feel trusted.

One thing we've learned from all of this is that these differences between families where kids think parents have the right to be, well, PARENTS, where kids essentially behave themselves and tell their parents what is going on in their lives, and where parents are warm, supportive, and fairly strict arise early - at least by age 12. Where do those differences come from?

Related pieces:

Walking on Eggshells: When Good Parenting Becomes Prying

Get Out! Sneaky Kids and Prying Parents Make a Toxic Mix

The Language of Parenting: Legitimacy of Parental Authority


Bogenschneider, K., Wu, M. Y., Raffaelli, M., & Tsay, J. C. (1998). "Other teens drink, but not my kid": Does parental awareness of adolescent alcohol use protect adolescents from risky consequences? Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60(2), 356-373.

Darling, N., & Dowdy, B. (2010). Trust, but verify: Knowledge, disclosure and trust in parent-adolescent relationships. In K. J. Rotenberg (Ed.), Trust and trustworthiness during childhood and adolescence (pp. 203-222). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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