How to Deal with a Lying Teen

Lying amongst teenagers is not only developmentally appropriate but nearly universal. In fact, research conducted in the U.S., Philippines, Chile, Italy and Uganda by Dr. Nancy Darling, professor and Psychology Chair at Oberlin College, indicates that 98% of teenagers worldwide lie to their parents. Another study posted in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence concluded that parents were not told the truth by their teen on at least one important matter during the past year and 82% admitted to lying to their parents in the previous year.

Why is the incidence of teen lying so high? According to Dr. Darling, the causes are numerous: “they think they will get in trouble, they think their parents will be disappointed in them, and they think their parents will stop them from doing something they want to do in the future.” This leads to lying about how they spend their money, where they go with their friends, what they’re doing, who they’re dating, and their alcohol and drug use. Other reasons involve protecting each other’s feelings or shielding friends or siblings. Teens will also lie when they believe the behavior they’re engaging in is harmless, or the rules they’ve been given are arbitrary or unfair, or, that the adults around them don’t understand their lives or what they’re going through.

It’s important too that parents understand the difference between lies that cover up dangerous or risky behaviors and more benign, everyday lies.. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, you may need to consult with a mental health professional if your child lies and is experiencing one of the following problems:

  • Weaving elaborate and convincing stories. Young children tell tall tales before they know the difference between reality and fantasy; it’s a normal phase in their development. But when an older child exaggerates or embellishes nearly everything, it signals a need for attention that is cause for concern.
  • Chronic lying. If your child lies repeatedly, it may just be a bad habit that they need help in breaking, or it may be a sign that they can’t tell right from wrong. A therapist can work with them on developing a conscience as well as help them with any family or socialization problems that might be hampering their emotional development.
  • Lying to cover up a serious problem. An adolescent who’s drinking or using drugs is apt to lie repeatedly to hide the truth. The best course is to address the emotional problems at the root of this reckless behavior.
  • Lying without guilt. In very rare cases, children neither think twice nor feel sorry about lying or taking advantage of others. You’re right to worry if your child seems to have no qualms about deceiving people.

You can establish a positive and trusting environment by giving your child an age appropriate, reasonable amount of privacy. As parents, we learn to parent based on how we were parented.

Some modification to the parenting techniques or rules that we’ve learned might be required. The goal is to support our children by showing genuine interest in their activities and friends, not in micromanaging or butting in. Holding family meetings to discuss family rules and determine reasonable limits and consequences for behavior can be helpful in this. Setting limits signals to your teen that they can handle some freedom but that you’re still there for guidance, support, and love.

Since we know that one of the main reasons teens lie is to preserve or establish their autonomy, our teens should also be taught that disagreement is acceptable in our homes. Research shows that having an environment in your home where teens feel they can disagree with individual rules, while not with the authority to make those rules, is a parent’s best way to obtain the truth. Dr. Darling found that allowing teens input into setting rules for their behavior both increases the likelihood that they will agree with parents and increases the likelihood that they will share information with their parent, even when they disagree.

When you catch your teen in a lie, don’t take it personally. As a family therapist, I reiterate to parents of teens over and over to not take things personally. My own experience parenting teens was a constant debate in my head over what was reasonable and what was too restrictive. I frequently explain to parents that if their responses are excessive, their child may dig in and really rebel, encouraging them to go underground with their behavior. When behavior is undesirable, we want to make sure that it doesn’t become irrevocable.

If your child does tell you the truth, even though it might be upsetting, try to remain calm, respectful and non-judgmental. The truth, although painful, is always better than a lie and should be treated that way. While there may need to be consequences for the behavior, give your teen credit for telling the truth and he or she may do so more often.

Lastly, it’s vital that if we tell our children not to lie, we in turn model honesty. Sometimes parents tell white lies to soften the blow of reality or to protect their children. Children see through such lies. In her book, Shame Proof Parenting, Mercedes Samudio, LCSW, maintains that the most effective way to maintain shame proof parenting is to be honest – about feelings, events, ideas, successes and things that affect the family.

If you are concerned about your child’s excessive lying or any other mental health issues, So Cal Adolescent Wellness is available to provide support for your family. We are an after school, early intervention teen program located in Orange County. We would be happy to verify your insurance benefits and schedule a free confidential Assessment with our specially trained Adolescent Treatment Team. We can be contacted by telephone at 714-465-5583 or

Susan Ferren, LMFT, Clinical Director, So Cal Adolescent Wellness