Dear Dr. Wes & Kelly: My 13-year-old lies constantly. He’s had this problem somewhat for several years, but its gotten worse since junior high. Sometimes I can understand why he lied, but other times it just seems kind of like it can’t serve any purpose. Either way it’s not something I want to have my child doing, and it makes it hard for us to trust him or let him do anything.
Kelly: Your child’s constant lying does pose many problems. When it has become habitual and frequent, there may be a slight psychological undertone. Whether you are raising your child in a permissive environment or a strict environment, your child will continue to lie. Your response can either improve the problem or cause it to become worse.
From a very young age, we’ve been taught that it is bad to lie, yet we continue to do it. Some of us do it to get attention, while others do it prevent ourselves from getting into trouble. Is your child’s chronic lying a cry for help, or is it due to delinquent behavior?
Typically when people lie, they view it as a way to protect themselves from harm. Either your child is trying to protect his privacy or attempting to avoid being punished. If this has been going on for several years, it is likely he has incorporated lying into a daily routine. However, do not be fooled into thinking that your child doesn’t know what he’s doing is wrong.
Let your son know what you expect of him. You should stress the importance of honesty. Tell him that it is not OK to lie and that you value the truth more. When your child does lie, do not ignore it. There should be consequences for his actions. But before you badger him with questions, give him a chance to confess to his lying. Discuss his reasons for lying, and let him know that it is not OK. Be sure you are playing the parenting role and that he is the child. Do not accuse him of lying or label him a liar. By labeling your child a liar, there is a chance he will identify with his behavior and continue to lie.
Wes: As Kelly suggests, most people lie either to get something or to get out of something. You didn’t tell us which is more applicable, but from your letter it sounds like it may be both. A small number of people lie as a sort of entertainment or to enforce a harmful relationship with others. Even more rarely you find people who are “compulsive liars,” which means that they literally cannot control themselves. I doubt either of those is the problem here.
Lying to get OUT of something is probably the most common form of dishonesty among teens, resulting from the desire to avoid conflict, consequences and/or discomfort. For your son you’ll have to elevate this kind of lying to the level of the “greatest sin of all.” Regardless of what he tells you, he should always be punished less for telling the truth than he would be if he tries to lie his way out of a scrape. This has some risks, because if he tells you the truth about his shoplifting habit or frequent drunkenness, you can’t simply praise him for his honesty and then lower his consequences. However, unless you punish the lying worse than the crime itself, you’ll never increase the cost enough to break him of it.
Lying to GET something suggests a more manipulative young person. Here you’ll have to find ways to disrupt the potential for positive outcomes that lying can bring. So if he’s telling you that he’ll be at a friend’s house to spend the night, you should assume from history that this may be not be true and double-check the facts. Only when you’ve had a conversation with a responsible parent that verifies the story should you believe him. You have to do this every time, which brings us to the issue of trust.
I think one of the hardest things for parents to let go of is the idea that teenagers are trustworthy. I like them a great deal and enjoy my work with kids, but I have rarely met a teenager who, when asked privately if he or she believes kids are honest with their parents, says that they are. Only parents hold this view, and too often that’s because it’s a lot easier to just trust and hope for the best than to do the work necessary to verify what you’re being told. I call this the fundamental dilemma of adolescence. If your kid tells you the truth, you’ll stop him, and if he doesn’t, you can’t help him. At times you have to balance this out with the wisdom of Solomon. In your case that sounds pretty exhausting, but until your child feels that the cost of lying exceeds its many benefits, he’ll keep it up and probably grow more adept at it.
Finally, I should note that habitual lying can signal more serious underlying problems, and if consistent behavior modification doesn’t bring it under control, you should check out a good therapist. This is especially true when, as you suggest, the lying seems nonsensical or if he keeps it up despite the fact that he never seems to benefit from it. When one keeps doing the same thing over and over again and still gets a negative outcome, something more fundamental may be wrong.
Next week: Home for Christmas with a romantic partner: A perennial problem from the parent’s perspective.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Kelly Kelin is a senior at Free State High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.