Is your teenager lying to you? Probably. Think back: when you were a teen, did you ever lie to your parents or shade the truth in a way your parents would think was lying if they had known the whole story? Did you ever tell a portion of the truth, but not the whole truth? Have you done such things even as an adult? Even as recently as last week?
Studies have shown that 98% of American adults lie, meaning they don’t tell the whole truth all the time but edit the facts to protect themselves or to protect the person they’re lying to. A current insurance ad shows a fictive Abe Lincoln failing to lie to his wife at a moment when most of us would believe the kindest act would be to tell an untruth.
In the instances when a lie protects ourselves, not the listener, we may be forgiven for wanting to stay out of trouble. Guilt and shame are uncomfortable emotions most of us want to avoid. When guilt is accompanied by a punishment, we want to avoid admitting guilt even more. So lying is a natural reaction to wanting to avoid punishment and feel guilty and ashamed, as well as a way to avoid worrying or hurting the people we love. For children and teens, whose sense of integrity is still under development but whose sense of self-preservation is working just fine, lying seems like the logical course much of the time.
So is your teenager lying to you? Most likely, yes. The main question is what should you do about it?
First, never try to trap your child in a lie. If you know the truth or have a good suspicion, then don’t ask about the incident and provide an opportunity to lie. Instead, say what you know: “I see the bumper on the car is dented. Tell me about that.” This will get you more information than asking, “Did you dent the bumper?”
Second, never penalize the truth. This is a hard one, but it’s essential. When your child says, “Yes, I backed into a fence post when we took the car off-roading last night after Tommy gave us some beer,” you will be sorely challenged. But if you punish your child for telling the truth, you’ll never hear the truth again. So, after a stunned silence you will simply say, “Thanks for telling me. How do you plan to fix the bumper?” Later, you will talk about taking the car off-road and about Tommy and beer. But you will not punish your child for telling you the truth.
Third, model what you want to see. Tell your child the truth when she asks and if you can’t tell the truth about something, tell her that you can’t. But don’t lie. Demonstrate what integrity looks like. Telling the truth about anything is a leap of faith. Let your kids know that you can be trusted with the secrets they might want to keep to themselves.