“Why would my teen lie to me? I mean, I have told them over and over that they can come to me and tell me anything and that I only want what’s best for them. So, why lie?”
I think that likely every parent in the world has spoken these or similar words to their teens and tweens at some point. After all, we really do want to know what they are up to! During these transitional years, we are scrambling at ways to keep them safe, and if we can get them to fess up to what they are doing, then maybe we have a fighting chance! Or do we?
I lied to my parents as a teenager. I’m pretty sure you did as well, along with all teens since the beginning of time, but why? Why do teens lie to the people who love them more than anyone else on the planet?
I believe that there are five reasons hiding in plain sight that can help explain why we, as their parents, actually create an environment of rich soil that grows the ugly fruit of lying.
Reason number one: We come unglued. We hear about something our teen is doing that somehow goes against what we had hoped or expected for them and we lead with our feelings. “What do you mean you were drinking? You are only seventeen! This is illegal, and unsafe, and unhealthy, and….!” Or, “You didn’t turn in your final project for AP History? Do you know what this is going to do for your chances of getting into college?!” Our teens will not be truthful about the tough stuff if we are unable to regulate our own emotions. Our actions—our reactions have shown them that the truth is not safe to share with us.
Reason number two: We lecture. While our teens don’t know everything about everything as they might profess they do, they do have a pretty good gauge for what is right and wrong at this point. This, however, doesn't mean they will always choose what is right. This is the age of testing and experimenting their limits and boundaries. It is the time for discovering who they are and what they contribute, and this “discovering” requires sometimes living outside of the lines so to speak. Because we love them so much, we want to jump in and coax them back inside the lines with lots and lots of explaining—to keep them safe. But our teens don’t always want our opinion about the choices they make as they are finding their way. They want and need to make their own mistakes.
Reason number three: We take. As our tweens turn into teens, they begin to gain all kinds of new freedoms and “luxuries” such as phones, car keys, and extended periods away from home with friends. And, while we kindly offer these things to our teens, somewhere in the back of our minds, we are still holding these high value items at ransom. We secretly know that they give us leverage and power over our kids. When a rule is broken or we catch our teen in the tangled web of a lie, one of our first responses is to take—take the phone, the keys, the friends. And, we only have to do this once and we have now guaranteed that our teens will lie again so they won’t lose the things that they love. What our teens really need instead, is for us to give. To give grace, space, and attentive listening.
Reason number four: We forbid. Our teens will lie to us about what they did or are doing because they know we won’t allow it. We have already made up our minds that a particular action or behavior is somehow not good, safe, or beneficial to our child, so we simply say “no”. By doing this we are disrupting a natural and important process that teens need to experience. If we remove all of the obstacles from the path of our teens, they can't grow any character or grit. Sure, it is painfully difficult for a parent to watch their child make a mistake that we could easily prevent for them, but they simply have to make them. If instead of forbidding, we take the time to teach them how to walk through difficult or dangerous choices, we are creating trust. And when there is trust, there is less of a need to lie.
Reason number five: We control. Some (ok, a lot) of the things our teens are doing or going to do will bring up fear for us. Our babies are now dating and driving away in cars. They will be exposed to drugs and alcohol and sex. They are going to take risks, experiment with their appearance, and bump into a few unhealthy friendships. And all of this scares us! For the first 10-12 years or so, we didn’t have to worry about any of these things. This fear we have now leads to control because we feel it’s the only thing we have left to hang on to. But this is not what our teens need from us. What they desperately need is space to grow into who they are becoming. If we aren't able to let go of control and allow for this space, our teens will feel they have no other choice but to lie.
When we tell our teens that we want them to be able to come to us and tell us anything, and that we only want what’s best for them, perhaps we need to first ask ourselves these questions: Is the way I am responding to my teens’ honesty best for them, or best for me? Have I created an environment that makes lying the safest option? Am I coming unglued, lecturing, taking, forbidding, and controlling what my teen is doing in order to keep my fears nice and quiet? And if I am, what if I choose instead to pause and take a breath before I react? What if I offer grace first and let go just a bit, to allow for trust to develop between myself and my emerging adult? This is the environment I think we all want to cultivate, and the fruit I believe we all want to grow with our teens.