Now Is the Right Time!
Trust is an essential foundation for healthy relationships. As parents, you play an essential role in your teen’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-teen relationship, and understanding how to promote a trusting relationship with your teen, one in which they tell you and others the truth, is key.
Teens and emerging young adults ages 15-19 are in the process of exerting their independence and spending more time with peers. They are working on understanding and making predictions about others’ thoughts and feelings. As they do, they also may seek to hide the truth particularly if they fear harsh judgment from respected adults or peers. They are also testing boundaries and taking more risks socially and academically. Often that risk taking can lead to mistakes, misbehaviors, or even failure. The most common type of lying done by children as young as four is covering up a misdeed.1 Similarly, our teens and emerging young adults may be tempted to cover up their failures or desire-taking risks their parents may not permit.
Though younger children cannot distinguish between the subtleties of deception, teens and emerging adults can understand the differences between honest mistakes, guesses, exaggerations, and sarcasm and irony. A full understanding of lying and its consequences continues to develop (not fully formed) throughout childhood and adolescence as part of their cognitive and moral development.
The key to many parenting challenges, like raising teens who grow in their understanding of the value of truth telling, is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your teen’s needs are met. The steps below will prepare you to help your teen learn more about your family values, how they relate to lying, and how you can grow and deepen your trusting relationship.
Whether it’s your fifteen-year-old lying about where he went after school or your seventeen-year-old lying about failing a class, our teen’s ability to tell the truth can become our regular challenge if we don’t create plans and strategies for dealing with them along with input from them.
Today, in the short term, honesty can create:
- greater opportunities for connection and enjoyment;
- trust in each other;
- a sense of wellbeing for a parent and teens; and
- added daily peace of mind.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your teen:
- builds skills in self-awareness;
- builds skills in social awareness, perspective-taking, empathy, and compassion;
- builds skills in self-control; and
- develops moral and consequential thinking and decision making.
This five-step process helps you teach your teen about honesty. It also builds important skills in your teen. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your teen thinking about honesty by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your teen’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to honesty so that you can address them. In gaining input, your teen:
- has the opportunity to become more aware of how they are thinking and feeling related to lies and truth;
- can begin to formulate what it means to be in a trusting relationship;
- can think through and problem solve any temptations to lie they may encounter ahead of time;
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themself (and with that sense of ownership, comes a greater responsibility for implementing new strategies and taking responsibility for their own relationships);
- will have more motivation and courage to take responsibility for their actions; and
- will be working with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their life.
- Ask questions and listen carefully to your teen’s responses since they will shape how you will talk about lying and honesty. Questions you could ask include:
- “Who do you trust and why?”
- “What’s important to you about honesty?”
- “Have you ever been lied to? How did it feel?”
- “When are you tempted to lie?”
- “How do you feel when you get away with a lie? How do you feel when you get caught in a lie?”
- “What’s the worst thing that could happen if you tell the truth about a misbehavior?”
Teens don’t want to be in the spotlight. And, at times, questions can feel like an interrogation, so look for comfortable windows of opportunity to introduce the questions. For example, is your teen telling you about a friend who lied to her parents? Or, are you watching someone lie on a reality television show together? Those are ideal moments to move into these kinds of questions.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Being honest with ourselves and others about our motivations, feelings, limitations, and choices can test adults. It’s no wonder teens struggle to figure out when, how, and why honesty is important. Learning about developmental milestones related to honesty and moral development can help parents know how to help their teen.2 Here are some examples:
- Fifteen to nineteen-year-olds are striving to figure out their adult identity and may be pushing parents away as they attempt to gain independence. If your early teen was not exposed to substance use, sex, or violence, it’s more likely that they’ll be tempted by new and greater risks in these years. Lying fits into this equation if they are experimenting in dangerous areas and don’t want parent intervention to end it. Older teens have a much greater sense of logic (though their rational brain capacity will not fully form until their mid-twenties) and fairness in larger social contexts. They can wrestle with ethical dilemmas (and may enjoy it) and think them through in a much more sophisticated way than ever before. This helps them exercise their responsible decision-making skills.
In addition to these milestones, you’ll also find clues on where to focus your teaching as you examine their challenges with honesty. Reflect and ask yourself, “In what circumstances have I noticed my teen lie?” If it involves several areas, write them down and think about how you might use one or several of the following teaching tools to help your teen learn.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems. This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences for when expectations are not met.
- Model honesty. Modeling honesty can mean sharing aloud what you might be thinking when you are saying how you feel since this is an area where adults tend to not fully share their honest feelings. For example, you could share the opposite of the truth first and then share what the truth for you really is. This shows your teen the contrast and makes apparent your own internal debate. For example, “I am tempted to say that I feel just fine in response to your ‘How are you?’ but the truth is that I am upset about a conversation I had at work, and I can’t seem to get it off my mind.”
Teens who fear punishment when they misbehave are prone to lie to cover up their mistakes. Part of our modeling as parents requires learning more about how to teach responsibility and self-discipline through alternative strategies.
Teens who are left alone frequently and whose needs are neglected often turn to lying to find attention, take unhealthy risks, and meet their needs in ways that can be self-destructive and potentially destructive of others.
- Teach your teen to take a breath before answering. It gives your teen a moment to allow their thinking brain to catch up with their reactive/emotional brain and allows them the opportunity to share a more honest response.
- Help set your teen up for success by asking the right questions. Instead of “Did you do this?” ask, “Tell me what happened?”
- Talk with your teen about the impact of their lies on you. You could say, “I am sad that there is something about our relationship that isn’t safe enough that you need to lie to me.”
- Ask your teen about the lie they just told. You might say, “What happened just now that made you lie to me?”
- Catch your teen telling you the truth especially when it is difficult for them. You can say, “I know it was hard to tell me the truth, and I so appreciate you taking the risk.”
- Talk about trust and how it is built slowly but can be broken quickly. Help your teen understand that lies today lead to a lack of trust that will then have a large impact on them tomorrow. For example, if you can’t trust their word about whose house they are going to today, you will not trust them about whose party they are going to when they are older.
- Learn about moral development. In understanding how moral development emerges in our teens, Carol Gilligan proposed three stages she called “The Stages of an Ethic of Care.”3 These help you understand and empathize with your teen’s point of view and also help you set goals for guiding them forward. The stages are:
- Every person’s worldview begins with a survival perspective focused only on themselves. This worldview, from infancy through nine-years-old (varies as all developmental milestones do), assists young children in focusing on secure relationships and establishing their own supports for survival so that they can open their minds to other possibilities later in life. That focus on a secure attachment allows children to form healthy relationships and gives them the confidence to explore school and their world beyond home.
In this worldview, rules are given by authorities, not questioned but obeyed, and taken literally. If they are disobeyed, there is punishment. But, if a person remains stuck in this survivalist worldview, it limits their growth and ability to demonstrate care for themselves and others. It also limits making decisions that taking responsibility for one’s role in a larger community. As a person moves out of this phase, there is a questioning of authority, which is necessary to move from a sense of selfishness and survival to responsibility.
- This is the phase your teen ages 15-19 is likely in. In this phase of moral development, caring for others takes primacy. A core sense of responsibility is established, an awareness of others around the individual, and the impact they have on those others takes focus. In this stage, self sacrifice is good. Individuals may care for others while ignoring their own needs. They may even do harm to themselves (perhaps inadvertently) in an effort to help others. In this stage, the individual becomes aware of the rules of the wider society and obeys them to avoid guilt. This is where most of our teens will be in their development.
- Moving out of this phase into the final phase, the individual moves from goodness to truth, from responsibility in order to gain approval to an internalized compass for not hurting self or others in concert with or despite societal rules.
- Most people never evolve their worldview to this place though this is the final stage. In this stage, the person’s thinking evolves to valuing nonviolence and making decisions, however complex the situation, relative to doing no harm to self or others. Though this kind of thinking and the actions that follow is a rarity, it certainly is a level to pursue and promote with our teens.
- As with all stages of development, individuals can dip into former stages depending upon the circumstances. The previous stages are always a part of a person.
Tip & Trap
Moving forward in development is a human need. But, parents or other influencers in a teen’s life can halt development through fear, guilt, or shame. These teens are the most at risk for depression, anxiety, and suicide. Parents who offer support, understanding of development, and independence within boundaries balanced with taking responsibility for actions ensure that a teen moves forward in their development.
- Teach positive behaviors when you identify misbehaviors. Teens are most tempted to lie when they make a poor choice or mistake. With that knowledge, each time your teen breaks a rule, consider the question: “What positive behavior can I teach my teen to replace what I’ve told them not to do?” Use the following simple process called interactive modeling that teachers use that can become a powerful teaching tool for parents.4
- Say what you will model and why.
- Model the behavior.
- Ask your teen what they noticed.
- Invite your teen to model.
- Ask what they noticed with their own modeling.
- Practice together.
- Provide specific feedback starting with strengths using “I notice…”
- Share your family values and need for trust.
At a family meal, share a personal story about how trust between family members has been critical in a safety or other important situation. Talk about how you come up with alternative solutions when you are tempted to lie.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of cooperatively working together or trying out a new skill with you as a coach and ready support. Practice is not only nice, it’s necessary in order for teens to internalize new skills. Practice makes vital new brain connections that strengthen each time your teen performs the new action.
- Use “I’d love to see/hear…” You may want to offer your teen practice in truth-telling when it’s tempting to lie. When you notice a misbehavior, before your teen can attempt to cover it up, you might say: “I imagine that there’s a part of you that is worried about getting into trouble, so I would love to see you take a risk and try truthfully telling me what happened.”
- Recognize effort. Frequently, we offer feedback on what teens are not doing right but how often do we recognize when they are working on their behaviors? Recognize effort by saying “I notice…” statements like, “I notice how you told me when you went to the movies with your friends instead of staying at your friend’s house. I appreciate your honesty!”
- Focus on the logical consequences of dishonesty. If your teen lies about where they are, show them the logical consequences. You may have a difficult time trusting what they are saying. This may translate to you saying no the next time they ask to go out. Or it may mean they are chaperoned next time.
- Discuss characters in stories. Courage to be true to self is a universal theme that is used in literature time and again. Find these heroes, particularly those who are flawed and human. Point out their faults and frailties, and then learn together how they triumph. Be sure to discuss how the conquering hero has to make choices that do not align with what others want.
- Proactively remind. So often parents have a sense of when a teen is tempted to lie. Just before they do, you may whisper in your teen’s ear, “Remember to tell the truth even when you make mistakes, and then we’ll figure out the rest together.”
The best way to turnaround a misbehavior that may be taking place is by recognizing when and how your teen makes good choices and acts positively in similar circumstances. They need to learn what to do as well as what not to do.
Step 4. Support Your Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your teen some strategies for telling the truth and also, understanding why lying is destructive. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and when appropriate, applying logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions before jumping to responses or decisions for action. Parents are often in a position where they have to direct their teen’s actions, but jumping in and directing our teen’s actions can become the default if we are not careful. Look for chances to ask questions before stepping in with directives. Good questions promote thinking and help teens internalize the evaluative process of responsible decision making – thinking through the action to consequence sequence before they act. Examples might be, “How do you feel about making that decision?” or “What does your heart or inner voice tell you?” or maybe, “What are some options if you break a rule?”
- Learn about development. Each new age and stage will present differing social challenges. So, becoming informed regularly about what developmental milestones your teen is working toward will offer you empathy and patience.
- Reflect on outcomes. “Remember when you broke the neighbor’s lawn chair? You told her you were sorry, and she said she knew it was an accident and had it repaired. It was all okay, and we appreciated your honesty.”
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for ways to respond to mistakes and poor choices can help offer additional support and motivation for your teen when tough issues arise.
- Engage in further practice. Create more opportunities to practice when all is calm.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after the negative behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own emotions in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your emotions are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your teen into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2. Third, if you feel that your teen is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
Though adults tend to forget, our attention is our teen’s sweetest reward. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and business of getting tasks accomplished. But if your teen is working hard to be honest with you and take responsibility for their choices, it will be worth your while to call it out. After all, your recognition can go a long way to promoting more of the same positive behaviors and expanding your teen’s sense of social competence. Add to their motivation with the following actions.
- Notice! It may seem obvious but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When your teen is telling you the truth when they make a mistake or a poor choice, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I notice you told me when you forgot your laptop at school. I appreciate you telling me.”
Be specific. “Good job” seems to not carry much meaning. However, a specific compliment about a pointed behavior – “You admitted when you were wrong, and I know how hard that can be” – can promote more of the same.
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments in order to recognize. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. They need to happen along the way. Find small ways your teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. Encourage opportunities for fun and further connection.
Avoid gifts or other physical rewards for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on teens. When you remove the money, for example, have they internalized the skills and also the sense of responsibility for performing them? There’s less of a chance if you’ve offered a “bribe.” Focus on your attention as the best reward. Your attention and recognition add to their feelings of competence. This is an essential strategy in discipline for skill building.
Engaging in these fives steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for teens to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.