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Why Do Teens Lie?

By Klaus Klein MA, Registered Clinical Counsellor

Teenage girl lying to her mother

Now that's a big topic. 

Sometimes when working with parents there can be this idea of some deep sinister reason why teens lie.

Or specifically why their son or daughter won't tell the truth.

Then there is the image that their lying son or daughter will grow up totally flawed as an adult liar committing horrendous crimes etc.

Rest assured this is usually NOT the case.

In the years working with teens and parents, one specific theme emerged about lying.

The theme of FEAR.

Fear of:

  • Anger
  • Judgement
  • Losing connection because of disappointment
  • Vulnerability 
  • Exposing low confidence
  • Exposing the belief 'I'm such a loser' 
  • Exposing the belief 'I'm no good'
  • Exposing the belief 'I'm not worthy' 
  • etc.

To counter this we have to create a level of 'Trust' and 'Safety'.

Trust comes in many forms in different situations. 

The biggest block to telling the truth often comes from not feeling safe and trusting enough of the parent or adult.

As Jack Nicholson's reactionary character shouts in the court room:

"You can't handle the truth!"

There can be enormous fear for telling the truth.

Fear can cause a person to Fight, Flight, or Freeze.

With lying it often goes like this:

1) First Freeze – Comes from the moment the fear takes over the mind when facing a possible emotional reaction from a parent, or fear of experiencing judgment whether actually or perceived, or fear of disappointing a parent to such a degree that the parent could disconnect.

2) Fight – Telling a lie in the moment as a defense reaction avoiding a possible emotional reaction from a parent/adult. The logical brain is no longer in charge. It's all about surviving and saying whatever needs to be said in the moment.

3) Flight – After telling a lie it's about wanting to end the conversation and get away from the situation as soon as possible. 

After several experiences of this Freeze, Fight, and Flight cycle, it can become a habit pattern. 

Working with teens I find that getting to the underlying fear that 'freezes' a teen and leads to lying is essential to breaking the pattern of lying.

For a teen to be more truthful there has to be a level of trust that:

 'You Can handle the truth.'

In other words it's safe to screw up and let themselves be vulnerable with the parent.

By the way this is not easy stuff! – Even for adults.

This is a growing up process that takes time, practice, and patience. 

I remember a time when a group of teen boys in the school program had taken some actions that needed to be dealt with by our program staff.

One by one we sat each student down and asked them what happened.

Now, these were smart, savvy, and seasoned teens that were well
experienced in lying.

It took some time but eventually even the most stubborn boy told the truth.

Anyway, in the end we got to the bottom of the situation and there were
consequences for their actions. 

I then asked the boys 'what was it that made it possible to tell to truth?'

The overall answer was 'You guys weren't yelling at us like our parents would.'

And – 'We're willing to do the consequences, just don't yell.' 

So, we were able to create enough 'safety' for the 'Freeze' to thaw out enough
to allow the change from 'Fight/Lie' to 'Trusting' enough to tell the truth.

That we 'can handle the truth', and there is no need for 'flight' or run away or avoid.

We'll handle the truth in a respectful manner and deal with the situation.

Mother consoling teenage daughter

There are a lot of variables to why teens lie. But it mostly comes to some kind of 'fear'.

And to be honest and fair, adults are far from saintly either.

How often do adults lie to their boss or superiors or their spouse?

I've known parents that have even lied to their teen son or daughter. 

To avoid a reaction.

So it can go both ways at times!

The 'Fear' and 'lie pattern', whether big or small, is something we all deal with at times. 

This is a growing up process that takes time, practice, and patience for us all. 

All The Best In Your Parenting,
– Klaus


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Klaus Klein, MA, RCC
Phone: 604-786-0709

KDK Counselling services for the Burnaby area.

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