Teenage Lying and Manipulation – How to Deal with it Effectively
If you’re here, you’re probably feeling the sting and frustration of dealing with teenage lying and manipulation. Your feelings are valid. Lying and manipulating is disrespectful, infuriating, and hurtful. And you’re not alone. Every teenager lies, even though they know it’s wrong. What they may not grasp is the damage it does to relationships and how much of a risk it is to their safety.
If you want to be successful at dealing with teenage lying and manipulation, it’s important to consider what your end goal is. Do you just want to make sure they know the damage they’ve done or how you feel about it? Do you want to have a more open and honest relationship or are you more interested in getting to the bottom of the current situation? These five tips will help you sort that out and move you and your teen towards a more honest relationship.
Teenage Lying and Manipulation – Why It Happens
Teens lie because it serves an unspoken agenda. Most often, teens tell lies to protect themselves or someone they care about. For the most part, teens lie for the same reasons we do.
They do it to be polite, to avoid conflict, to save face, and more. Sometimes they like to exaggerate a little to get attention or make a point. Maybe they’re insecure or afraid of what will happen if the truth gets out. Maybe they want privacy.
Manipulation is a tactic used by those who either don’t understand or don’t care about the cost to others. It’s an attempt to feel in control of a relationship. It means that they don’t trust that open and honest communication will help them to get their needs met.
Should I Punish My Child For Lying?
Research tells us that if you become threatening, it’ll just reinforce their desire to hide. Lying is usually based on fear. You may want to ground them for lying, but it will likely result in their redoubling efforts to lie better next time.
Dr. Nancy Darling, professor, and chair of the psychology department at Oberlin College has researched teens and honesty for 20 years. In this Great Schools article, Dr. Darling says the key to honesty is, “rule-making plus warmth.” She continues, “They need to respect you and believe you will be warm, accepting, and non-punitive.”
It’s absolutely justifiable to be angry and hurt. But consider what is more important to you. Is it to express your anger and punish or to get to the real issues behind the lies and figure out how to fix them?
Five Tips To Effectively Deal With Teenage Lying
So now that we understand a little of what’s behind teenage lying, how do we deal with it effectively? We’ve got five tips to help you.
Tip # 1 – Stay calm.
Knowing that lying is usually based in fear, acting in threatening ways will only push your child more into hiding. As much as lying may be triggering, it’s important to approach your child calmly.
Getting to the truth means working to help get their defenses down. Find a way to calm yourself and do your best to approach your child with a peaceful demeanor. Create a safe space for truth-telling.
Tip # 2 – Find out what they’re protecting.
As mentioned above, one of the top reasons teens lie is to protect themselves or someone else. Maybe they are embarrassed or afraid they’ll be rejected. They could be protecting someone else or be afraid of getting into trouble.
For kids who’ve faced trauma, like those in foster care have, lying may have become an instinctual defense mechanism. Most often, children have been literally taught to lie. When you’ve been lied to by people in authority – it creates a sense of mutual distrust. They lose faith in the position they represent.
In “How to End Lying: The Cliff Notes Version,” child behavior expert, Bryan Post says, “The lies will not stop until the fear subsides.”
We all tell lies
If we’re honest about it, we parents and caregivers lie too, starting when they’re little.
“If you cross your eyes, they’ll get stuck like that.”
“The tooth fairy must’ve had the night off.”
“I’m allergic to whining.”
Some people even lie to try to get their kids to stop lying. As a reader of Parents magazine confessed, ”I tell my son that when he lies a red dot appears on his forehead that only his parents can see. It only goes away when he tells the truth!”
According to the article, Childhood Trauma: How We Learn to Lie, Hide, and Be Inauthentic, “Adults prank or confuse children, or make up stories and justifications. Or lie to them for emotional and social comfort because it’s too painful to talk about certain things. Sometimes children see adults lie to others to get what they want, so they learn to do the same.”
While our white lies may seem trivial and laughable really, they are still lies. When we think we’re being helpful to someone else by hiding our true feelings, it’s lying. Our kids catch on to our lying patterns and follow our examples. “I’m fine…. I don’t mind… No, you’re not imposing.”
Tip # 3 – Consider external influences.
Maybe someone has instructed them to lie. Perhaps, they’ve picked it up – copying the behavior they see in someone else. Maybe they need to filter the kinds of peers they are spending time with.
Does your teen have an environment that welcomes honesty, even if it’s uncomfortable?
Be a good example. Be open and honest, even when it’s uncomfortable. Keeping a calm, non-judgmental atmosphere welcomes honesty and openness.
Tip # 4 – Help them to connect with the truth.
The other main cause of lying is wishful thinking. The kid wishes something were true so much so that they actually may start to believe it. They may not even realize they’re lying.
It may also be that the child is stuck in the developmental stage where fantasy & fact are hard to distinguish. While most kids grow out of this around 5 years of age, kids who have faced trauma, such as those who have been in foster care, may still be stuck there.
Place your focus as helping a kid learn how to say things more accurately.
Help them acknowledge their wishes for the best, while also being truthful.
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In her article, Not Lies: Wishes and Dreams, Donna Bryant Goertz, founder of Austin Montessori School in Austin, Texas, recommends avoiding direct accusations, confrontational questioning, and angry cornering.
Instead, she recommends that while “children are still reaching for attachment to the truth” to re-frame what we say in a way that helps a child differentiate between what we wish was true and what actually happened. An example she provides is, “I wish I could say the cat opened the door herself and got away, but what really happened was I was careless and let her get out.”
Help your child to see that their lying has natural consequences. Let them know it destroys trust and hurts your relationship.
Tip # 5 – Reinforce the relationship.
It’s up to you, as the adult, to lead the way in building a strong and meaningful connection with your teenager. Talk with your teen about how much you value them and how important trust is to your relationship.
“The recipe for honesty,” according to the aforementioned Great Schools article, “turns out to be cultivating warm, strong relationships with teens so they respect your rules and value your advice.
Research suggests that teenagers lie less when they have this kind of relationship with their parents, in part because they don’t feel like they need to, and in part because they don’t want to risk losing their parents’ trust.”
Some Final Thoughts on Dealing with a Lying Teenager
Be patient, but don’t be afraid to get help, if needed. And just because we don’t recommend punishments, doesn’t mean forgoing natural or logical consequences. Maybe from now on, they have to offer extra accountability or proof of their truth-telling. Trust has surely been eroded.
Forgiveness is free, trust is earned.
Not only this, but after you’ve gotten to a place of safety and honesty in your communication it’s important to lay out the external consequences of lying. For instance, if your teenager is lying about their whereabouts, it could be very dangerous. What if something happens to them and you have no idea about it or how to even find them? It’s important to help them see the risks that lying to you presents.
Professional Child Counselor Arleta James of Adoption and Attachment Therapy Partners says honesty is a developmental process and a progression. It takes time.
How To Deal With A Compulsive Lying Teenager
If the lying still continues and it appears your child is a compulsive liar, it may be a sign of a more serious issue, like mental illness.
Professional, Arleta James warns, “lying that continues month after month is a sign of a developmental delay or a trauma-related issue. Ongoing crazy whoppers can swallow the happy, peaceful atmosphere of the family! Don’t wait! Instead, lessen your intake of these tall tales by seeking professional help.”
You can find trauma-informed, adoption-competent professionals at the Association for the Treatment and Training in the Attachment of Children.
One purpose of this blog is to help parents of teens navigate the challenges of preparing their children to be successful independent adults. The mission of Finally Family Homes is to provide the same kind of support for those teens who don’t have a family or home to help them transition into adulthood.
If you’d like to know more about helping your teen, check out:
Great post! Point #5 resonates with me. As a retired educator I tried dutifully to work on developing trustworthy relationships with students particularly high school students. This was a critical relationship-building attribute. Thanks!
Thank you Claudio! Yes trust is absolutely critical to trust and a truthful relationship!
Thanks Deb! I don’t think they are our natural responses… at least not for me. But in terms of building honesty, they are powerful.
Thanks for your insight. Sometimes I get so exasperated at my sixteen year old and don’t know how to discern truth from fiction.
I hear ya Candice! Lying is so triggering for me.
The first tip – to stay calm – is probably the most challenging!
Appreciated your article. For while we can feel challenged by teenagers and feel frustrated or threatened by some of the choices they make – I totally agree that it is up to us as the adults to lead the way. And as you share – this includes remaining calm, seeking to discover the truth, try to understand what has cause them to try to hide something, having patience combined with persistence, and building a strong and trusting relationship. As a counsellor and former educator I have also found it to be true that trust, good communication, and respect are part of building a good relationship. Because teenagers seem to be particularly aware and alert to whether they can trust an adult, as adults we need to lead the way with being genuine, authentic, transparent and in having integrity., Our words and actions must match, and be consistent, and we too must accept responsibility when we mess up and make poor choices. Kids watch us and reach conclusions and they quickly assess whether they can trust and respect us. Parenting is so complex isn’t it? It is one of the most sanctifying tasks I have ever undertaken. Thanks for writing about it!
Yes! For me too Anne – parenting is SO sanctifying! And this topic is one of those that draws every bit of that out… my patience, kindness, peace, self-control…
But, and I may have not emphasized it – as you said – we are to be the example. Telling the white lies & avoiding conflict myself sets a bad example.
Modeling truthfulness is so key – thank you so much for sharing!
This is great! I’d love to have had this advice in the 1990s when my first teenagers emerged from their pre-teen years. It was trial and error at that point. Not many meaty, helpful, and trustworthy resources then. There’s a lot of wisdom in this post, Christian.
I do think there is so much more info out there now for us – helping us to figure out what’s underneath the surface.
Some of my sweet friends who have gone through foster care have really struggled with lying – they even said they didn’t want to but found themselves lying often. I think the system kind of sets them up that way – and/or the people who abused them. Of course they directly ordered to lie and lied to often.
Whatever the case, as we have been shown mercy so we ought to show mercy – even though it is so offensive to be lied to.
Christina, this is an amazing post! I am thankful for the links and the wisdom and the resources you’ve provided. Both of our boys lie regularly. We’ve been trying to get to the bottom of it, and honestly? It’s tough. But, I can do more reading with what you’ve provided here. Thank you!
Thank you Jeanne!
I hope this is helpful.. it’s not a quick fix – but I think the best way to deal with any bad habit or behavior is to pull it out form the roots…. like a weed!
Such a great post, Christina! You are right that lying usually stems from fear. I appreciate the insight. My oldest has just turned 13, and I know we’ll be facing this issue with all our kids.
Thank you Jessica!
It’s certainly not based on how I do things… ha! Just what I am striving towards.
Lying happens at all ages- but I think that struggle for independence and privacy, as well as the predilection for risk-taking that happens in the teen years can really amplify it.
Pinned this for later- what a concise and informative post! Wish I had known these things when my kids were younger. Great post!
As Maya Angelou said so beautifully, “I did what I knew. Then when I knew better, I did that.”
We are all a work in progress 🙂
Christina, I saw your response here with the Maya Angelou quote and want to say “thank you for that.” I felt inept at times when my kids were teens. They are both married with beautiful kids. I have had that feeling, “I wish I had done this or that as the parent of a teen,” but as Maya’s quote comforts us, “you do the best you can until you know better.” This wonderful post helps us to know better.
Thanks Pam. You’re definitely not alone in the “I wish I hads..” there’s a reason they call the first born the “burnt pancake.” I find Maya Angelou’s quote comforting too – very full of grace. 🙂
Christina, thank you for these great tips! Teen lying isn’t yet a problem in our home because our kids aren’t teens yet. However, it’s not that far off, and we deal with lying from time to time with our younger kids. Each of these 5 points are helpful and promote an intentional response instead of a reaction which is one of my goals as a parent. I especially appreciate the consideration of external influences and the importance of asking questions and knowing what our kids are facing and experiencing in daily life as they are influenced by others and the culture. This is sure to help many, including me! Thank you.
You’re welcome! I’m glad you found them helpful, Elaine!
And yes!! Intentional and prepared parents are better equipped to handle problems like lying when the time arrives!
I think it can be so critical to be gentle in coaxing out the truth – especially if a predator or someone with ill intent has been coaching a child to lie. It’s imperative that they feel safe.
There’s so many things behind lying – it’s important to consider more than just the breach of trust and wrongfulness of it.
My kids are still in the toddler/preschooler stages so teen lying isn’t an issue for us at this point, but my oldest has started lying once in awhile, and, honestly, a lot of the tips you share could work (in a modified way) for him! Thanks for this! I’m pinning it for use now AND a few years from now!
Yes! There really is something for every age, even though the article is focused on teens.
Around 3-6 there is also a developmental stage where kids truly get confused between reality and what they WISH were true.
In fact.. I’d say in social media that still goes on! Can we say photo filter? 😉
I am so glad you talked about teen lying today. I do not yet have teenagers, but my nephew is living with us permanently and I have been working on him telling the truth. I can use these tips for him even though he is 7. Thank you for covering this topic.
Brittany – I’m happy to hear that these are helpful. It’s definitely some nuanced ideas for dealing with it.
And it makes sense – he is learning whether he can trust you or not. I hope he feels safe enough to be honest soon!
Any lie, even the smallest ones are sinful in the eyes of God. But major lies from a teen can be hurtful and hard to forget once its out in the open. Rebuilding trust is hard but it’s critical. That’s where forgiveness comes in. Thank God for his forgiveness and for giving us the tools that we need.
Forgiveness is essential. And just because they’ve been forgiven, doesn’t mean they get a clean bill of trust. That’s one of the natural consequences – everything someone who has lied says from then on, is suspect.
But condemnation does not bring change. Lying is almost always a secondary problem – a cover-up for deeper issues – even from the beginning of time!
Christiana, this is packed full of such wisdom and fresh insight. It makes sense for us to first evaluate what our end goal is. And hopefully it’s to help our teens (and all of us) speak the truth more and more often and let lies eventually die a timely death. Knowing the reasons behind lying such as fear, protecting someone or influences, helps us learn the best way to approach it. It’s just like our kids asking “why?” after we say something or give out a rule we want them to obey. If we explain the why, it sometimes increases the desired behavior or outcome. So if we the the why behind lying, there’s more hope for our tactic to increase the desired behavior and outcome, too.
I did my research.. It’s definitely not how I naturally respond… more like a goal! LOL. I tend to get real mad.. let them know I’m real made and “how dare they” lie to me… I used to think I could intimidate my kids into being truthful, but I now know that’s not how it works. Usually, intimidated kids just get better at lying 😛
Plus – the why can be more serious than the lie! Better to get to the why & root it out. 🙂
Thanks for the encouragement Karen!
I apologize for not providing my name, but I feel uncomfortable sharing my personal information online, so sorry! I’m not a parent, but a teen myself. And I definitely agree with all your points here! Actually, I also struggle with lying, and I’m ashamed to say the only one I’m (usually) protecting is myself. I hate myself for that. I have ADHD and I am a homeschooler, so I get bored with my school a lot and start playing online, and when my mom confronts me about what I’m doing, I lie. And it’s always something innocent; with me, it’s usually something about psychology since that’s a passion of mine. But I lie about it. I lie that the lesson was just hard that time and it took a while to figure out, but my mom isn’t stupid, I shouldn’t be taking as long as I do. My mom is always reminding me about how much I’m ruining our relationship and I want to fix it because I always feel like I don’t deserve to live because of crimes after that. “I’m such a horrible horrible human being.” She never says that to me, and in fact says the opposite. But everytime she tells me I’m ruining her trust, that’s all I can hear. Lying has become such a habit for me now. For no reason at all, I lie about what I ate for lunch. I lie about how much sleep I get every night. Maybe I’m being dramatic, I probably am. But now I’m just looking for answers. A solution. This post has really given me some things to think about, thank you.
Hi – no problem. It’s totally OK to comment anonymously – especially when sharing such personal information. Thank you for being so honest (is that ironic? ha!).
I’m so glad this post has been helpful.
If it’s any help, I had a friend (former foster youth) who got stuck in that habit, and also came to a point where she felt like you described… she was lying all the time w/out even really wanting to. So you’re not alone!
As much as lying is harmful, try not to judge yourself harshly. It won’t help. Clearly you are doing some searching for answers and you’re being honest about having a problem and those are two big very important things! Good choices.
Considering what you’ve said, I think it’d be a very good idea to seek some counsel from a therapist. Chronic lying and not even understanding is a sign you could use extra help. Plus it sounds like you’d like to start lying less yourself and aren’t sure how to get out of it. I really do wish you well and hope you can get it worked out. If I can be more helpful, please let me know. 🙂
not sure if you will see this reply but I have an adopted teenager who they say is 5 years behind emotionally. She has ADHD and has had problems with lying. She is now 18 and almost every other day gets caught in a lie. Her lies are very elaborate too. It has been awful. We as parents never know if we are doing the right thing. I am reaching out to see where we should go from here?
Sounds like there’s a compulsive lying issue possibly. I would encourage you to seek additional support from a licensed psychologist. You may want to invite your daughter in the context of wanting to improve your relationship and communication with her – so it doesn’t come off as criticism.
I am 16. I was adopted at age 9. I have issues trusting people because of the abuse for several years. I love my adoptive parents so much. But often when I have done something wrong or even if it wasn’t I get really scared. I don’t want to lie nobody does. But I don’t want to get hurt eaither. If I don’t lie I lash out in fear. It’s a huge problem. I am working on it and have been for so long.
Thank you for sharing your story. You are not alone! I hope you found some helpful tips and insights here. I think it’s also a great idea to discuss it with a therapist. I suspect as you work through recovering and healing from the abuse and trauma that the fears will subside and so will the lying. Keep pursuing healing and hold on to hope. Change will come.