Every parent knows that teenagers fib. Lying is normal boundary testing that happens as children grow up (or “individuate” as an American dad once described the adolescent process to me). But even though I was prepared for my two adolescents being economical with the truth occasionally, I wasn’t ready for how their deceit would make me feel. I felt ashamed, a failure. Of all the people to lie to, why me? I harboured the illogical hope that undying maternal love would be a protective forcefield against such predictable teen behaviour.
As crimes go, my 14-year-old’s decision to go to a busy shopping centre in London with her friends when I’d specifically asked her not to was pretty tame. And it didn’t take long for my instincts to sniff out the truth on her return.
I was cross, but I chose to be curious rather than furious, acknowledging that bad decisions are to be expected from someone only just out of childhood. But I was still surprised by the lie. I had secretly hoped my teens wouldn’t fib, given how we’d brought them up — ridiculous, I know, but parents are always looking for proof that they have got it right.
- 49% of British people would like to be described as “honest” above all other traits, including “sexy”, “happy” and “hard-working” (YouGov 2016)
Afterwards, I read Shame-Proof Parenting by the parenting coach Mercedes Samudio, an interesting approach to the concept of parental guilt. This is something my generation feels acutely due to many of us being working parents, drowning under the weight of a thousand experts who claim that they have found the only formula for family perfection.
Samudio has a kind approach, acknowledging that we all have personal parenting styles and family set-ups. No one size fits all. Instead of heaping on criticism, her book advocates a flexible approach. It’s not going to resolve your issues overnight, but it may help you feel less useless. And Samudio is particularly helpful on how to deal with the teenage lie.
She recommends a calm, empathetic response that will help them understand the consequences of their actions. Create a safe space to talk about the lie, where you assure them you will listen without interrupting. Teenagers need to feel their voices are being heard and their thinking process acknowledged, whether you agree with them or not.
Ask for the truth and give reasons why you need to know. They could write the truth down or put it in a text message if that feels more comfortable than talking. Tell them how you recognised their lie — maybe their body language changed? — this shows them how much you care and notice them. Wait to hear the whole story and make sure you have all of the truth before you start discussing solutions and the consequences if they lie again. Avoid shaming and insulting them — it isn’t helpful, however angry you are, and may lead to them being fearful of telling the truth next time. Instead, deal with the situation logically.
And remember, you won’t always get this right either — you’ll make mistakes learning to be a parent as often as they make mistakes learning to be an adult.
Parenting Hacks: How to encourage honesty in a child
Spot the difference
A young child will always fib. Accept this, but be firm in distinguishing between harmless fiction and lies that could harm another person.
Be a role model
Be honest yourself. It might feel easier to say “I’m not in” when your mother-in-law calls, but many kids do not have the emotional nuance to detect a white lie.
Be kind, not cruel
Labelling your child a liar can erode self-esteem. Try instead to reward honesty in everyday difficult moments, such as owning up to breaking or losing something.
Get to the root
Try to understand why your child is lying. They may fear their true behaviour will lead to judgment. Talk through the problem and explain that lying isn’t useful.