mother discussing lying with teen sitting on couch

How Can I Get My Teen to Stop Lying to Me?

The first thing all parents need to understand about teen lying is this:

Almost all teens lie to their parents at some point.

That’s not an exaggeration. To make our point, we’ll first ask any parent reading this – or anyone, really – to think back to their teenage years and ask themselves if they ever lied to their parents. The answer for almost all of us is yes: almost all of us lied about something at some point.

That’s the anecdotal, experiential confirmation of that statement about teens and lying. But that’s not the only type of confirmation we have. Dr. Nancy Darling conducts research on lying among teens. Over twenty years studying teen lying, Dr. Darling concludes that 98 percent of teens lie to their parents. She and her research team identify the three most common types of lies teens tell:

  • Avoidance: When teens lie by avoidance, they intentionally distract their parents from specific topics, events, or people they don’t want them to know about, or guide the conversation away from details about topics, events, people or things in their lives they don’t want their parents to know about.
  • Omission: When a teen lies by omission, they intentional leave out, forget, or minimize information they know parents want to know, but might get them in trouble, lead to more questions, or have other unforeseen negative consequences in their lives.
  • Commission: Lying by commission is what most of us consider the most fundamental form of lying: it’s when a teen intentionally says something that’s not true.

Dr. Darling indicates the last type – lying by commission – is the most basic form of lying, but it’s also the least common type of lying among teens, and the type that can cause the most damage in parent-child or family relationships.

Why Do Teens Lie?

In most cases, the lies teens tell are not malicious or designed to harm someone. Rather, teens lie most often to avoid experiencing consequences for behavior they know their parents wouldn’t approve of. Let’s look at the most common reasons teens lie, according to Dr. Darling and other mental health professionals:

The Six Main Reasons Teens Lie

1. To Avoid Punishment.

This is the same reason they lied when they were three years old and caught with a face covered in chocolate cake: they lie when they do something they weren’t supposed to do – like eat the cake – and don’t want to get in trouble for it.

2. To Avoid Humiliation.

If a teen does something they think makes them look bad, or not cool, they may make up an alternative version of what happened to minimize shame and embarrassment.

3. To Help Their Peers.

Teens will lie to help friends. If a friend gets in trouble with their parents, at school, or even with the police, their peers will often lie in whatever form it takes to help them avoid getting in serious trouble.

4. To Feel Independent.

Sometimes teens lie to establish or maintain control over their lives and bolster their emerging autonomy. They want to be the authority in their own lives, make their own decisions, and feel mature enough to do so without asking for permission or consulting the authority figures in their lives.

5. To Hide Feelings.

Parents, teachers, and therapists know teens aren’t always willing to talk openly and honestly about their feelings. Rather than talk about feelings they don’t understand, make them uncomfortable, or may embarrass them, they’ll lie to cover up what’s really going on with them.

6. To Boost Their Social Standing.

Teens may lie about things they’ve done in order to make themselves look better, cooler, or smarter than they feel like they are. They may lie about how much money their parents make, about their grades, or about achievements outside of school. The goals of this type of lie are simple: impress others, and boost ego.

So far, we’ve discussed the fact that almost all teens lie to their parents at some point during adolescence, the types of lies teens tell, and why they tell them. Before we share our advice about how to get your teen to stop lying to you, we’ll share a quick list from this article by Dr. Carl Pickhardt, an expert on parenting adolescents.

The Top Ten Teen Lies

  1. “I already did it.”
  2. “I didn’t do it.”
  3. “I’ll do it later.”
  4. “I didn’t know.”
  5. “I forgot.”
  6. “I didn’t think you’d mind.”
  7. “I didn’t know that’s what you meant.”
  8. “I didn’t think you were serious.”
  9. “It wasn’t my fault.”
  10. “It was an accident.”

Recognize any of those?

We took an informal poll of our staff and clinicians who currently have teenagers or have parented teens the past. When asked if the recognize the statements on this list, all of them said, “Yes, I’ve heard every single one of those – more than once.”

What You Can Do About Teen Lying

The first thing to remember is to not take it personally – because it’s not personal. In most cases, teens lie for selfish reasons, not malicious reasons. Their lies are meant to protect themselves or their friends, not harm others. However, parents do need to learn how to distinguish between consequential and inconsequential lies.

An inconsequential lie may be something like “Yes, I cleaned my room,” while a consequential lie may be something like, “No, I didn’t get in the care with those kids who were drinking.” While no lies are good, the second lie is clearly more dangerous than the first, and parents need to learn how to respond to each type appropriately.

How to Get Your Teen to Stop Lying to You

1. Model Honesty.

Remember that your kids are far more likely to do what you do than what you say, and that your kids are always watching and listening to what you say and do. Therefore, when you’re on the phone, or talking to other adults in front of your kids, or talking to your kids, avoid setting the wrong example: model honestly, and avoid lying – even little white lies, fibs, or half-truths.

2. Reiterate the concept that honesty is the best policy.

Remind them that if we want people to think we’re reliable, capable of making and keeping commitments, and the kind of person who comes through when it matters – in other words, the kind of person you want as a friend, want to work with, or just be around – a great way to lay the foundation is by being honest at all times and in all situations.

3. Tell them lying harms friendships.

When you lie to a friend, it automatically degrades their trust in you and reduces the likelihood they’ll confide in you in the future. This is true with parents too: you can tell you teens that if they lie to you about small things, you’re less likely to trust them with big things.

4. Teach them lying harms people.

Being on the receiving end of a lie can hurt. Remind your teen how it feels to be lied to, and ask them if they want something they do – i.e. like telling a lie – to make someone feel that way. Teens are capable of empathy, and this tactic can help them understand the consequences of lying.

5. Teach them lying makes life harder.

One thing that happens when you lie is that you have to keep track of your lies, and sometimes lie more, and more often, to support the initial lie. This gets complicated, and teens who tell multiple lies often end up experiencing far tougher consequences than they would have if they’d come clean in the first place.

If you let little white lies and fibs slide up to this point, it may be difficult to establish consequences for lying, but it’s important your teen understands telling small lies makes telling big lies easier, and being comfortable lying is not a positive character trait, but rather something to understand and correct as they move from adolescence and into young adulthood.

When Lying is a Symptom of Something Serious

Most teen lies are harmless, and most teens move past the lying phase as they near late adolescence and early adulthood. However, in some cases, teens lie about behavior that’s dangerous, risky, illegal, or all three at the same time. If your teen lies about drinking, drugs, or riding in cars, or any type of illegal behavior, then you should absolutely do your best to get to the bottom of it. In some cases, lying may cover problems with alcohol or drugs, and in other cases, chronic, persistent lying may indicate the presence of and emotional or behavioral disorder.

If your teen lies consistently and constantly makes things up – from the outlandish to the mundane – with no indication they know lying is wrong, and no concern for the harm their lies may cause, then we recommend seeking a full psychiatric evaluation administered by a mental health professional.