Part 2 – Approaches to Dealing with Teen Lying
Last week we talked about the top 3 ways teens manipulate their parents:
3. Acting really good temporarily
This week we provide some examples for how parents can deal with lying.
These manipulative techniques work well together. For example, if you lie and your parent does not believe you, then quickly revert to technique number two and guilt them. Say something like, "I knew you wouldn't believe me- you never believe me- you don't trust me. Why would I lie about that? Do you know how being called a liar makes me feel? I have feelings too." Or try this one, "you only see the bad stuff I do, you never see the good stuff."
These techniques work so well because as parents we want desperately to believe them and to be able to trust them. We are also afraid that we will find out that all the trouble our teens have is our fault.
The real consequence for lying is that no one will be able to believe them, even when they are telling the truth. That's what they need to learn. The consequence for lying is that you aren't believed. And we don't have to waste a lot of our hard-earned guilt on not trusting them. That is their problem. If they don't like that they aren't trusted then they should do something to change that- like start being honest- but don't expect it to happen overnight. It takes time.
Reinforce your teen when you discover that he has told the truth: Its' OK to make a big deal out of them telling the truth. One might argue that they should tell the truth, therefore don't make a big deal out of it. For teens that are honest this might be true. But for our kids who have made a habit out of lying, we can and should make a big deal out of catching them telling the truth.
For example, an 18 year-old girl has been manipulating her mother to let her out even though she is grounded to the house. Her mother thinks that she has been attempting to contact someone to get drugs. Consider how we can reinforce it when she tells the truth about something:
Me: You're mother tells me that you have been on the phone contacting boys to get you drugs.
Teen: No- I have not been.
Me: That's what I have been told.
Teen: Oh, that’s because I was contacting my boyfriend and my Mom thought I was contacting other people.
Me: Nevertheless, right now, you are not allowed on the phone.
Teen: Well I wasn't doing anything wrong, listen, I was blah blah blah.
Me: Hold on. You know that if you were trying to get someone to get drugs for you, you wouldn't tell me the truth about that, would you?
Teen: That's not what I was trying to do...
Me: Regardless, answer my question please. Would you lie if you were planning to get drugs?
Teen: [pause] Yeah.
Me: Yeah, what please?
Teen: I would lie to you if I was going to get drugs.
Me: THANK YOU! I'm so glad you told the truth about THAT!
Teen: OK, [seems a little taken-aback.)
Me: But you can see that telling me this story now doesn’t mean much because even if you were telling the truth now, I would have a hard time believing you.
Me: If you are planning on having someone get you drugs just stop it. Don't get drugs. You can't afford going in front of the Judge again.
Teen: OK, [sounds like she still doesn't know what to say about that.]
Me: Once again, thanks for telling the truth back there, and remember no rides with peers to meetings, and don't get drugs off of anybody, OK?
In this example, you will see first I did not allow her to tell the story. Secondly, I reinforced that she told the truth when she admitted that she would lie to me about that. Third I just encouraged her to stop it if she was planning to do something wrong. Finally, it gave me an opportunity to remind her that the consequences for lying are that people don't believe you even when you are telling the truth.
This last bit is important. It is the counter-point for the guilt that your teen is trying to make you feel because you don't trust her. Your teen says, "You don't trust me." You agree, "Yes, when you lie sometimes people don't believe you even when you are telling the truth." Just state that matter-of-factly as though it is not a big deal it just is what it is. It helps us as parents to not feel guilty because we don't trust and it helps frame the subject for the teen in the context that they can understand.
Parent: How's that going, what we talked about?
Teen: Talked about what?
[They may not be playing dumb. We tend to repress things that bother us.
Parent: Yeah, it is hard to keep remembering that- you know - how challenging it is for you to tell the truth sometimes.
Teen: "Yeah, oh yeah, that's going fine."
Parent: Well that's good; I was impressed you know with what you said yesterday.
Teen: What did I say?
Parent: You know, when you told the truth when I asked, 'If you were planning to get high, you wouldn't admit that to me.
Teen: Oh yeah
Parent: So you admitted that you would lie if you had to, that's being pretty honest. [Pause - This way you can revisit the issue in a positive way.]
Parent: "Now is there anything you would like to tell me that you haven't been honest about?
The same goes for stealing. Have you ever felt guilty because you misplaced something, accused your teen who has a history of stealing from you, and then found out where you put it and then felt horrible about it? How could you? Well, it's another teachable moment for your teen. "Yes, it's true” you say “that when you are known to steal that people will suspect you of taking things that you didn't even take.”
Quit feeling so guilty because as we just covered, making you feel guilty is the second most effective way for a teen to manipulate you. So, if you allow your teen to make you feel guilty, then you make it easy for them to manipulate you. If your teen persists in this "Why don't you trust me" mode, then it's sometimes a good idea to mention other consequences or traits of habitual liars. This tends to broaden the discussion so that things don't feel so personal. For example, habitual liars will lie even when they know that they will be caught.
Also, habitual liars lie when they don’t have to lie. Mentioning this can sometimes open up a conversation. Try to do this in a matter-of-fact way. Let’s not be too judgmental. Rarely, is anyone a 100 percent honest. Our teens have somehow allowed themselves to become very dishonest and we need to address that. However, we should save the holier-than-thou attitude because it’s counter-productive.
Habitual liars lie when they know that they will probably get caught. It’s helpful to point this out to your teen when they are trying to convince you that they are telling the truth.
Teen: Why would I lie? Do you think I want to get into trouble?
Parent: Why, I don’t think that would stop you.
Teen: What do you mean?
Parent: People who have a problem with lying often do it even though they know they will be caught! I don’t understand it, but I know it’s true.
While this approach won't cause an overnight change in your teen, it does accomplish some limited goals. The cherry on the cake for me is that I don't have to listen to the whole story. I believe that part of the motivation for lying is the pleasure of getting attention for telling the story. I want to take that reward off the table when I can. Anyway, if you're like me, those stories are so tiresome. It's part of how they wear us down. Of course, there are times when you need to listen to the story; but you can pick and choose.
One way to know if you need to listen to the whole story: As soon as the story under suspicion starts, one that you have a gut-level feeling is not the truth, point out that because of their past history of lying, you will have trouble believing it, even if it's true. Notice that we did not accuse them of lying at this point. Perhaps we really don't know. If at that point the teen says, "Oh yeah," and stops telling the story, then that is one that you can just take off the table. However, if after you point this out the teen persists in telling the story, and insists that you need to hear it, then you should give a listen as apparently something is going on that you might need to hear.
For example, sometimes there is a real point behind a made-up or exaggerated story. Perhaps your teen is telling you a tall tale about something that scared him at school. You don’t buy it and since it involves some pretty unbelievable stuff, you shouldn’t. However, perhaps the truth of this story is that your teen feels afraid. Maybe he wants you to know that. Sometimes a parent can reflect the emotional content of what is being said and side-step the details.
Parent: Wow that sounds pretty scary, you know, what you told me.
Teen: It is – I’m really scared sometimes.
Parent: Well, it sounds like you’ve done some things to make sure that you’ll be safe in school? Do you feel like you have? I mean you go to talk to Mr. Guidance Counselor man, and you stick with friends when you’re waiting for the school bus.
Teen: Yeah, well I guess I do.
Parent: Yeah, well I’m scared for you now that you told me some of this- is there anything I can do to help?
((This is the end of Part-two of a four-part series on Parent Manipulation. You can find the complete series and more information at http://gopsst.org - in the next part we discuss the manipulative technique of guilting the parent.)