On Lying in Adolescence -
by Jean Walbridge, ACSW, LCSW
Several questions submitted recently to my web site,
http://www.parentingadolescents.com/, are from parents concerned that their children have lied to them.
For instance, a mother writes in to complain of her
13-year-old's having invited a friend over after school instead of practicing his piano while the mother was at work. It isn't
even that he skipped piano practice that the mother minds so much, as that her son lied to her about it.
She says, "My son is transforming into a new creature." And, by implication, she's not so sure she likes the
new creature he's becoming. He never used to lie - or so it seems. And he seldom disobeyed when he was younger. So what's
Adolescence is what's going on. During adolescence, kids experience a developmental
Beginning in the pre-adolescent years, kids will do
nearly anything to achieve these goals - including lying to their parents, if need be.
I think the reason the mom we mentioned above was
more hurt by the lie than by the disobedience was that on some level she realized that her son had chosen his relationship
with his friend over his relationship to her.
The lying cost him something in terms of his relationship
with his mom. But giving up the opportunity to be with a peer would have, in his scheme of things, cost him far more &
in an area where he's far less certain of his standing.
Parents, in other words,
get their feelings hurt by their children's not telling them the truth because at bottom the parent realizes it's a sign that
her child is pulling away from her & there's some pain in letting go.
It hurts your
feelings when your preteen lies to you, but unlike when she was younger, your teenager isn't so powerfully motivated
to avoid eliciting your anger or disappointment.
In your teenager's eyes, your feeling hurt or angry
may be "a good sign," in that it proves to her, at least in the moment, that she isn't being controlled by you, that you aren't
running her life... look, here you're hurt & angry. Doesn't that prove that she decided
to do this thing on her own?
That she wasn't allowing herself just to be your 'toady'?
If it takes breaking an agreement with parents to do what
the kid feels, in the moment, that she MUST do in order to move towards autonomy & identity, the kid chooses to break
the agreement. He chooses himself & his peers over the relationship with the parents.
This is what the parent's deepest experience of hurt is about & it comes from not
realizing the power of the developmental challenge of adolescence: the child really MUST separate from the parent & MUST
find his place among his peers.
Not that he knows how to do it! Not at all. There are many false starts and painful
lunges toward proving himself autonomous & building an identity. Yet these attempts at growing up, however awkward &
painful for all concerned, are necessary steps in learning to become an adult, in learning who he is.
If he's truly to become autonomous, he has to risk hurting & offending you &
actually needs, at least once in a while, to do something he's sure you disapprove of.
It's not that your preteen or
teenager is becoming a moral cretin, or that you forgot to emphasize truth-telling during her childhood. It isn't that the
adolescent doesn't know it's wrong to break her agreements with parents, when she breaks a rule in order to prove her autonomy
or to connect with peers, but she may not experience the same remorse as a younger child because the adolescent's sense of
imperative need weakens the sense of guilt.
It's as if "he had to" do what he did, sometimes precisely because he knew you had a
rule against it.
Because of the different function of lying during adolescence, I
don't think it works to assign consequences for the lying itself. The problem with giving consequences for lying per se is
that it comes too close to demanding that the child hold the relationship with the parent & the parent's values first
in her heart, at a time when it isn't normal to do so.
Besides which, it focuses the child's attention on
what she said, rather than on what she did or didn't do. This can really backfire, as when you find out that she had a party
at the house when you were not home, which you have a rule against & she tells you the truth about it.
"Yes," she says, "I did have the kids over while you
were gone. I'm sorry. (Probably itself a lie.)" - then expects the
consequences to be waived because she told you the truth!
I'd even argue that sometimes
an adolescent's resorting to lying about her behavior (which very often involves a peer
situation) is a "good sign"! - Because, if she's taking the trouble to lie, it must mean she still cares about
your reaction & hasn't had to go so far as to simply defy all rules to your face.
The lie is a signal that there's conflict: do I do
what I want to here & risk disappointing & angering my parents, or do I obey Mommy & Daddy?
There's a pull towards dependence & obedience,
but often an even stronger pull toward independence & acceptance by one's peers. The occasional lie facilitates the establishment
of a private space, an area of her life in which she's sure you don't have control.
simply, unreasonable to expect adolescents always to tell you the truth. Believe me, you don't really want to know everything
your adolescent is doing!
And unless they get caught, you can't implement consequences
anyway. What we as parents need to realize is that in fact our children have control over this aspect of their lives &
They'll tell you the truth or not, as they see fit.
When you catch them in a lie & it involves behavior that's important, that you have a rule about - you said they couldn't
entertain in your home friends who use drugs & you find clear evidence that the rule has been violated - attention
needs to go to your kid's having broken the rule, not to what he says or said about it.
aware that this topic leads to another: our next article will be on "Trust."
ACSW, LCSW, parentingadolescents.com
1/14/99 Copyrighted, Jean Walbridge; all rights reserved.
Be sure to click here to open a window at "the layer down under," another site within the
emotional feelings network of 28+ sites! The article is very insightful and is helpful for new parents as well as parents
with teenagers! It's at the bottom of the page once you click on the above link - scroll down to the bottom of the left hand
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