Trying to figure out if your teen is lying to you can be tricky.
Researchers who study lying and truth-telling among children have found that parents often can't tell when their child is lying.
Since trying to catch your teen in a lie is probably a waste of time, family therapists say you're better off using a different tactic: Make it easier for your teen to tell you the truth.
"Punishing for lying just teaches children to be better liars," says psychologist Laura Markham, PhD, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids.
Ideally, you would help your child get comfortable telling you the truth from an early age. But if your child is already a teen, it's not too late to show her that she can be honest with you, if you’re ready to work at it.
“It can take a year of consistently shifting the way you approach lying for your teenager to trust you enough to tell the truth,” says Joe Broome, MA, a family therapist in Renton, Wash.
To start rebuilding the relationship:
- Spend time with your teen every day. It doesn't have to be a major event. Just share part of your day with them, one on one. Markham suggests doing something that your teen enjoys, such as getting a manicure or playing video games.
- Expect them to test you. "They won't immediately confide in you," Markham says. "They might tell you that their friend Robbie got in trouble because of XYZ. Robbie's a test. If you fly off the handle and say ‘Oh no, do Robbie's parents know about this?' they'll never tell you anything again. But if instead you say, ‘Wow, Robbie must have been so upset. I wonder how he felt. I wonder if lots of kids do this,' you'll encourage him to talk more."
- Don't overreact. When your teen tells you something that freaks you out, stop and breathe. Bite your tongue if you have to. "When your teen does start confiding in you, it's even more important to really regulate your emotions," Markham says. That doesn't mean that there aren't consequences. You need to clearly define for your teen, ahead of time, how you'll respond if they lie and how much you value honesty. Then you'll need to follow through. Just do it calmly, without flying off the handle.
- Help your teen problem-solve. Instead of telling him what you think about what he's just confided in you, ask him what he thinks. "If your teenager tells you that other kids are drinking and driving, the impulse is to freak out," Markham says. But taking a simple "Just say no!" approach shuts down the conversation. "Instead, you can say something like, ‘It must be so hard and scary when someone who's been drinking wants you to get in the car. It would be embarrassing to be the one to say something, wouldn't it? What can we do so you're not in that situation?'"
Every parent wants a silver bullet to deal with lying. But there is no such thing. "It's about building a relationship based on trust," Broome says. "You, as the parent, have to take the lead in that."