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How to Deal with a Teenager that Tells Lies

Dr Melanie Turner is a child and adolescent psychiatrist who works in Norwood South Australia.  She is the director of her practice MyChild Psychiatry and Psychology, is a senior clinical lecturer at The University of Adelaide, works with the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatry in training and assessing our future psychiatrists and completed her PhD at the University of Adelaide in 2015. She is passionate about family and child mental health, building strong foundations for adulthood and recognising the needs of children for a loving, accepting and patient world.

How to Deal with a Teenager that Tells Lies

‘What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive’

Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field, 1808.

This may have been written 210 years ago, however it is still true.  That once we begin to lie that we must keep the lie going so that our deception isn’t discovered.  We have all done this at some time, when we lied about not doing homework, turning down a party invite or larger lies around relationships or money.  However hopefully, we learn from our lies when we are young so that when we are older we feel stronger in telling the truth and sticking to it.

Lying is a part of developing language, story and the idea that others may see things differently than what we see.  Young children will lie about things that to adults will be clearly obvious.  This may be that they lie about eating cake but have a face covered in icing; lie about having done homework which you can see lying incomplete on the bench etc.  As children get older they generally develop a keener sense of what will be believed (ie what they can get away with) and what they are likely to be questioned about.

Often the lies are to hide or lessen feelings of:

  • shame
  • inadequacy
  • disappointment
  • losing face with peers or respected others (i.e. teachers and parents)

As children get older they may lie to:

  • do activities that they feel are risky
  • to protect someone’s feelings
  • impress or please others

Lying is common, and most children lie in a way to impress or ‘not upset’ others.  It is a larger concern if a child lies about harming others, threatening others, stealing or other harmful behaviours.  Open dialogue and a weight on honesty in the home helps kids be more truthful.  Fear of punitive or hurtful punishment or complete adherence to rules even when they may not be helpful causes more lying in many people.  Although lying is common it is important that kids remain safe and feel able to talk to their parents honestly.  It can help to explain to children that many liars have unpleasant feelings of guilt; become anxious about their lie and maintaining its integrity; often have broken friendships from lying and that if we can being truthful is often, in the end, an easier way to move through life.

We can do this by:

  • Encouraging honesty and showing this as parents which means we should try and be honest but kind when talking about things we dislike or are frustrated about
  • To try and keep calm when we suspect our child is lying to keep the conversation open
  • Be prepared to hear their honest reply and a response that recognises the honesty even if the behaviour was not appropriate. ‘I am really glad that you were honest, but we have to talk about you not actually telling me where you were yesterday.’
  • Reinforcing that honesty is needed for increased independence ‘I know that you want to go away on the weekend, to do that I need to know who you are going with, how to contact you and that you will answer if I call. If we can’t agree on that then its not a deal.’
  • Keep the ‘unbreakable rules’ to ones that really count, such as honesty about where your child is, who they may be hanging out with and honesty about substances and their use.
  • Build a good warm relationship that allows children to feel safe to admit problems and untruths is a good way to keep honesty happening.



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