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Why your teenager lies

Posted December 13, 2016

Question: My daughter was caught in a huge lie (again). Apparently I can't trust what she tells me, and this has been a huge betrayal. We were always close, even buddies, and I don't understand how she is lying to my face now. Plus she lies about stupid things that it doesn't seem to me she should be lying about. Can you help me understand this and tell me how to get honesty from my teen? Answer: If you understand the reasons your child lies to you, it will help you not to take it so personally. You will also understand how to stop it. Most parents take dishonest behavior from their children very personally, as if the lie is a sign of disrespect and rejection. Many of the parents that we work with feel betrayed by their child, because they know they have taught them to be honest. The fact is, you did teach them better, but this behavior is not about you. Resist taking this personally and don't let your fear of not being good enough be triggered. This is not about your failure as a parent. What we know through our specialized work with teens and young people is lying is usually a result of fear and emotional pain. Teenagers don’t set out to lie or to be deceitful, and most of these kids are good kids who do know better because they were brought up with a strong moral compass. They have a good sense of right and wrong, but they also struggle with a terrible fear they are not good enough. This fear of failure creates a need to embellish, exaggerate and portray details or situations in a way that makes them either look good or feel safe. We all know what this fear of not being good enough feels like. We all compare ourselves to others too much, and many of us feel we are somehow broken. It is this fear (which is greatly exaggerated during the teen years) that drives all of our bad behavior. It makes us do or say whatever it takes to quiet the pain of this fear.

These kids today are not broken or bad people. They have just lost their way, are afraid and are making poor decisions (basically not living up to their potential) because they have serious low self-esteem and little self-belief in themselves.

They are doing whatever they can think of to find a sense of value. Sometimes this means hanging out with people who aren't the greatest influence, but who validate them or accept them. It might mean self-medicating with drugs or alcohol if that is what it takes to quiet the fear.

Here are some things you can do to help them turn their lives around, stop the cycle of lying and gain your trust in them again: 1) Create a secure environment where they can be themselves without judgment. If you want them to tell you the truth, you have to be able to handle the truth in a loving way. Although it may seem difficult, creating a space where your children can heal, feel and express themselves without judgment or criticism can be done. You may have to set your high expectations to the side for a little while though, so you can create a safer space where your teen can and will talk to you. You must do this to create a place that your teen will tell you what is going on with them and where their low self-esteem is coming from. A teenager's self-image and fear of failure may usually dictate all of their decision-making, including the choice to lie. Many of them aim low in life, simply because they would rather aim low and fail than really apply themselves, become invested and fail big. As adults, this doesn’t make sense to us as we know that life is about learning and often we fail on our way to success. Unfortunately, teens don’t have this perspective yet. You can create a safe space for them by listening a lot more than you talk. You may want to learn our formula for validating conversations so that you learn to do this right. Being able to have a mutually validating conversation is critical to keeping a good connection with your kids. 2) Love them through their poor decision and bad behavior. No matter what their mistakes and poor decisions are, love them unconditionally. This does not mean you condone or accept their bad behavior. It means you make it clear their behavior is not acceptable, but that it also doesn’t change how much you love them.

Many teenagers we work with are immature and do not see their parents' behaviors clearly. They view their parents' anger and frustration as a lack of love for them. This is a scary place for a teen to be, as they feel alone and abandoned. Communicate clearly that you love them, while also not accepting their bad behavior, and ask frequently what you can do to assist them. How can we show up and support you better? 3) Make the time and space for positive interactions. With teens coming and going, there is often very little time for healthy and consistent communication. Before long, the only communication you have is negative or fear-based. This can mean the idea of going home becomes scary or undesirable.

If your child knows the difference between right and wrong, there will also be a lot of shame and guilt about their bad behavior and their poor decisions, including the lying. However, many teens at this stage are in too deep, and they don't have the skills to articulate how they feel and how to change tracks. They are also afraid of further anger and rejection. This perpetuates the cycle of further lies, dishonesty and your teen being anywhere but home. If you want to change this, you must create a rhythm and some rules about how often they are home. This gives you some control over the time you have with them so positive communication can happen. Despite all of your frustration and disappointment in their behavior, make a concerted effort to have fun, joke around and show them love. Listen to them (a lot) and make sure you honor and respect their right to their opinions and feelings. Also let them know how much you love having them around. Love wins every time, so put in the time every week to maintain and build your relationship. 4) Encourage them to trust the journey. Everything happens in your life for a reason (to teach you something), including the lying and deceit experiences you are currently having. Adopting this perspective and trusting the journey gives you a healthier view of the experience. Know that this time and stage will not last forever and try to maintain an attitude of curiosity, asking every day, "What is this experience here to teach me?" instead of "I am a victim, this should not be happening!" or "I am failing as a parent."

Remember, tomorrow is another day and another opportunity to try again. That is how the classroom works. This attitude goes a long way for everyone involved. Trust that this child is in your life to help you learn, grow and gain compassion for yourself and others. They are your perfect teacher and you are theirs. 5) Forgive quickly but put in strong consequences. When the lying does occur, forgive quickly, but put strong consequences in place to prevent it from happening again. Take away car privileges, money, electronics and other luxuries to show you mean business. Lying is not acceptable now, because it’s not acceptable ever as an adult.

Right now, your teen is on training wheels, learning how to be an adult in the world. It’s important to keep your consequences strong now, so they learn the lessons while the lessons are cheaper. But forgive and let go of anger quickly and do not let the lie affect your love for them. This is the most effective way of preventing further dishonest behavior. If it feels that your child is going off the rails, turning away from God, has an entitlement attitude or is not making good choices for themselves, don’t overlook these behaviors and get help from a well-trained and experienced specialist early on, especially if you have any suspicion of depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts.

To get more help for your teen, reach out to our teen specialist, coach Nicole Cunningham. She offers free monthly parenting classes.

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