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Why Teenagers Lie About Stupid Things: The Science of Teen Truthfulness

teenager caught lying

Nearly every teenager on the planet admits to lying about something—and the ones who don’t admit it are probably lying about that. But what do teens lie about most? Studies show the number one thing teens lie about is where they were (65%, Knox). Also, about half of teens (49%) say they’ve lied about their sexual experiences, 41% are have lied about who they were with, and 42% have been untruthful about their alcohol consumption (Knox).

Here’s the science behind why teenagers lie. I’ve broken it up into three main categories based on the research literature: age, home environment, and independence.

Three Fib Factors

1. Age

Children learn early on that they can avoid consequences, like time-outs, by misleading adults. These deceptive strategies evolve into lying as the children grow older (Halpert). However, not all lying is malicious. Kids often lie for altruistic purposes, like to save a friend from getting in trouble (Lee). In fact, children may not even see this type of lying as “bad” because it’s done in the name of truth.

Researchers have found that lying is highest around ages 13-15, with teens lying more than younger kids. After age 15, teens usually lie less as they get older and start to spend less time at home (Knox). This means that, because of some changes in the teenage brain, lying peaks in the early-mid teen years and then starts to fall. If your teen is experiencing an urge to lie, their age may be a key factor. Try getting them out of the house more to let them have some space. Also, remind yourself that lying swiftly drops off as teenagers leave for college.

2. Home Environment

Scientists who study the home and its relationship to truthfulness agree that warm, close-knit families have fewer issues with lying (Kashy). Conversely, when parents attempt to exercise greater control over their children, the kids are more likely to lie (Jensen). Also, teens with married parents lie more often than teens with separated parents (Knox).

Overall, teens are more truthful in environments where parents have less control. When teens don’t feel like their freedom is being threatened, they don’t lie as much. Teens who divide their time between two homes often don’t feel as controlled by parents, so they tell the truth more often.

3. Independence

Teens crave autonomy and will avoid truth in order to get it (Allen). Using dishonesty can allow teens to make certain knowledge unattainable by their parents. This makes them feel powerful and more in control of their life. I’ve found the needs for power and independence are among the biggest factors in teenage defiance.

Another consequence of these needs is that teenagers desperately want to take a stab at handling their own problems. Sometimes they will use deception (“Everything’s fine, mom”) to inhibit parents from intervening (Jensen). For teens who want to solve their own problems, opening up about what’s wrong can actually pose a threat to their autonomy because they don’t want you to swoop in and fix it for them.

So What Can I Do?

Have a talk with your teenager and tell them you want to give them more space and let them solve more of their own problems. Talk to your teen about their “zone of privacy”. Say your teen is always free to tell you they don’t want to talk about something and you’ll stop asking. Promise to honor these requests when your teen makes them. Anything you can do to give your teen space and make them feel like you aren’t controlling them is great. But also keep in mind that if your teen is 14 years old, they’re at the highest levels of deception of their entire life. Some lying may be unavoidable.

References

Allen, J. P., Hauser, S. T., Bell, K. L., & O'Connor, T. G. (1994). Longitudinal assessment of autonomy and relatedness in adolescent‐family interactions as predictors of adolescent ego development and self‐esteem. Child development, 65(1), 179-194.

Backbier, E., Hoogstraten, J., & Terwogt‐Kouwenhoven, K. M. (1997). Situational Determinants of the Acceptability of Telling Lies 1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 27(12), 1048-1062.

Engels, R. C., Finkenauer, C., & van Kooten, D. C. (2006). Lying behavior, family functioning and adjustment in early adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 35(6), 949-958.

Stouthamer-Loeber, M. (1986). Lying as a problem behavior in children: A review. Clinical Psychology Review, 6(4), 267-289.

Halpert, E. (2000). On lying and the lie of a toddler. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 69(4), 659-675.

Jensen, L. A., Arnett, J. J., Feldman, S. S., & Cauffman, E. (2004). The right to do wrong: Lying to parents among adolescents and emerging adults. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 33(2), 101-112.

Kashy, D. A., & DePaulo, B. M. (1996). Who lies?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(5), 1037.

Keltikangas-Jarvinen, L., and Lindeman, M. (1997). Evaluations of theft, lying, and fighting in adolescence. J. Youth Adolesc. 26: 467– 483.

Knox, D., Zusman, M. E., McGinty, K., & Gescheidler, J. (2001). Deception of Parents During Adolescence. Adolescence, 36(143), 611+. Retrieved from https://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A82535331/HRCA?u=indi36682&sid=HRCA&xid=42c06e4e

Lee, K., and Ross, H. J. (1997). The concept of lying in adolescents and young adults: Testing Sweetzer’s folkloristic model. Merrill- Palmer Q. 43: 255–270

Co-Founder of talkingtoteens.com

Andy Earle is a researcher who studies parent-teen communication and adolescent risk behaviors. He is the co-founder of talkingtoteens.com and host of the Talking to Teens podcast, a free weekly talk show for parents of teenagers.