What to do with a lying teen?
If you understood the reasons your child lies to you, it would help you not to take it so personally and you would understand how to stop it. Most parents take dishonest behavior from their children personally, as if it is their fault, and they feel they have failed as a parent. Many of the parents that we work with feel betrayed by their kids because they know they have taught them better.
You did teach them better, but this behavior, although very frustrating, is not about you. Resist taking this personally and don't let your fear of not being a good enough parent be triggered. What we know through our specialized work with teens and young people is that lying is usually a result of frustration, panic and emotional pain. Teenagers don’t set out to lie or to be deceitful, and most of these kids do know better and were brought up with a strong moral compass. The teens who lie the most are the ones with a strong sense of right and wrong, but they also struggle with a terrible fear they are not good enough.
This fear of failure creates a need to embellish, exaggerate and portray details or situations in a way that makes them look good, and therefore feel more secure. We all know what it’s like to not feel good enough. We all compare ourselves to others too much and we feel we don’t fit or are somehow broken. It is really this fear that drives most of our bad behavior. It makes us do or say whatever we have to do to quiet the fear.
These kids are not broken or bad people. They have just lost their way and are making poor decisions and not living up to their potential because they have low self-esteem and little self-belief.
Here are some things you can do to help them turn their lives around, stop the cycle of lying and gain your trust in them again:
1) Create a secure environment where they can be themselves without judgment
Although it may seem difficult, create a space where your children can heal, feel and express themselves without judgment or criticism. You can do this. You may have to set your high expectations to the side for a little while though, so you can create a safer space where your teen will talk to you. You must create this space so you can really understand what is going on with your teen and identify where the low self esteem is coming from.
Many young people aim low in life because they are afraid of failure. They would rather aim low and fail than really apply themselves, become invested and risk the pain of failing. As adults, this doesn’t make sense to us as we know that life is about learning and often we fail on our way to success.
Unfortunately, teens don’t have this perspective yet. Young people are very literal, and their self image and fear of failure may dictate all of their decision-making, including the choice to lie. You can create a safe space for them by listening a lot more than you talk. You may want to learn our formula for validating conversations so that you learn to do this right.
2) Love them through their poor decision and bad behavior
No matter what their mistakes and poor decisions are, love them unconditionally. This does not mean you condone or accept their bad behavior. It means you make it clear their behavior is not acceptable, but that it also doesn’t change how much you love them.
Many teenagers we work with are immature and do not see their parents' behaviors clearly. They view their parents' anger and frustration as a lack of love for them. This is a scary place for a teen to be, as they feel alone and abandoned. Communicate clearly that you love them, but do not accept their behavior, and ask frequently what you can do to assist them.
3) Make the time and space to communicate effectively
With teens coming and going, there is often very little time for healthy and consistent communication. Before long, the only communication that is had is negative or fear-based. This can mean the idea of going home becomes scary or undesirable.
You can be sure if your child knows the difference between right and wrong, there will also be a lot of shame and guilt about their bad behavior and their poor decisions, including the lying. However, many teens at this stage are in too deep, and they don't have the skills to articulate how they feel. They are always afraid of further anger and rejection. This perpetuates the cycle of further lies, dishonesty and your teen being anywhere but home.
If you want to change this, you must create a rhythm and some rules about how often they are home. This gives you some control over the time you have with them so positive communication can happen. Despite all of your frustration and disappointment in their behavior, make a concerted effort to have fun, joke around and show them love. Listen to them (a lot) and make sure you honor and respect their right to their opinions and feelings.
Also let them know how much you love having them around. Love wins every time, so put in the time every week to maintain and build your relationship.
4) Encourage them to trust the journey
Everything happens in your life for a reason (to teach you something), including the lying and deceit experiences you are currently having. Adopting this perspective and trusting the journey gives you a healthier view of the experience. Know that this time and stage will not last forever and try to maintain an attitude of curiosity, asking every day, "What is this experience here to teach me?" instead of "I am a victim, this should not be happening!" or "I am failing as a parent."
Remember, tomorrow is another day and another opportunity to try again. That is how the classroom works. This attitude goes a long way for everyone involved. Trust that this child is in your life to help you learn and grow and gain greater compassion for yourself and others. They are your perfect teacher and you are theirs.
5) Forgive quickly but put in strong consequences
When the lying does occur, forgive quickly, but put strong consequences in place to prevent it from happening again. Take away car privileges, money, electronics and other luxuries to show you mean business. Lying is not acceptable now, because it’s not acceptable ever as an adult.
Right now, your teen is on training wheels, learning how to be an adult in the world. It’s important to keep your consequences strong now so they learn while the lessons are cheaper. But then also forgive them quickly and do not let the lie affect your love for them or their intrinsic value. This is the most effective way of preventing further dishonest behavior.We totally get why you feel scared, you are afraid that your kids are going off the rails, afraid that they are turning away from God, or won't live up to their potential. There may even be evidence of them dropping out of school, having an entitlement mentality or not being motivated. Don’t overlook these behaviors and get help by a well-trained and experienced specialist early on, especially if you have any suspicion of your child having low self-esteem, depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts.
To get more help for your teen, reach out to our teen and young adult specialist coach Nicole Cunningham or attend our free parenting workshop on Dec. 8.
Kimberly Giles is the president of claritypointcoaching.com. Nicole Cunningham is a master coach who specializes in working with parents and teens.
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Kimberly Giles is the president and founder of Claritypoint Life Coaching and 12 SHAPES INC. She is an author and professional speaker. She was named one of the top 20 advice gurus in the country by Good Morning America in 2010. She appears regularly on local and national TV and Radio.