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How to Lie to Your Parents

Parents intrude when teens look like they're hiding things.

Over the last 20 years, I've been studying why and when adolescents lie to their parents. We've studied youth on four continents. Some findings are pretty obvious:

  • Almost all kids report lying to their parents about at least something.
  • Kids differ: Some kids lie about almost everything. Most kids lie about a few very specific issues.
  • Kids lie because they're afraid they'll be punished, they're afraid their parents will stop them doing something they want to, or they're afraid their parents will be disappointed with them.

Some are less so:

  • Arguing is good. When kids disagree with parents they have three options: obey and be unhappy, disobey and often lie, or argue. Kids argue when they respect their parents and think they have to obey with parents even when they don't agree with them.
  • Exploding backfires. When parents respond to catching their child in a lie with disappointment but openness, kids are more likely to disclose more.

What Makes Parents Pry?

I was thinking about lying this morning when I was talking to my son. I knocked, he said to come in, and I walked into his bedroom, handed him a cup of tea, and picked up a pill box to hand to him.

Sudden flurry of movement . . . . No! Wait! Give that to me!

I'm like "what?" All my parent antenna are up. Had he not taken his pills last night like he said he had? Did he want to not take them now? What was going on? My whole brain is ringing with suspicion.

This is very typical of parents: we respond to perceived hiding with suspicion.

You're a kid who wants their privacy. What should you do?

  • Rule 1: Don't look like you're hiding things. Parents respond to concealment by wondering what the child is trying to keep them from finding out. They start asking questions. They may start prying.
  • Rule 2: Revealing information encourages trust. When children share information, parents respond with trust. And when we trust people we ask fewer questions and we cut people more slack. Want your parent to back off? Share information. Tell them about your day. Chat about your video games or the quality of school lunches, or your favorite book.
  • Rule 3: Partial disclosure is a fantastic way to lie. The most effective adolescent liars were those who shared most information, but strategically omit information that their parents would want to know but would get them in trouble. In All Things Great And Small, James Herriot has a nice example of this. Tristan tells his older brother that he failed one unimportant test and takes a tongue lashing for it. But he is thrilled because he ACTUALLY failed all his tests. But because he'd confessed to the one, his brother never asked about the others. A very successful lie.

Body Language

Everyone says they can tell a liar by their body language. Research says we're just not good at it. There are things that cue suspicion. If you want to be believed:

  • Rule 4: Make eye contact, but not too much. If you don't meet someone's eye when they ask you a direct question, people think you're evading or hiding. For parents, this evokes prying. On the other hand, if you hold your parents' eyes and won't let them go, you're directly challenging them. That means they have to pry or back off. Even if they back off, they'll be suspicious. Think about how you normally hold their eyes. That's what you want to go for.
  • Rule 5: Relax. Crossing your arms, tensing your shoulders, looking down, wiggling or twisting your arms, crossing your legs all give off signals of tension. They're going to make people think you're lying and, in parents, evoke prying.

Lying and Prying Are Bad for Families

All research shows that kids lying and parents prying makes a nasty cycle of distrust and distancing. The best outcomes come when kids share information that helps parents monitor them and keep them safe and when parents respect kids' boundaries in areas that are legitimately private.

Sometimes, kids can set up a situation where they look like they're lying when they're not. Sometimes that's a response to too many privacy invasions. Sometimes it's a need for more autonomy. Sometimes it can even be because kids feel so close to their parents they need to make sharp boundaries between themselves and their parents so they know where they are.

But it's always good to know the kinds of things that can invite privacy invasion you just don't want.

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