One day something will happen that might keep niggling at the back of your brain for a while after it does: you will catch your typically obedient and trustworthy child in a lie.
It might not be the first time it happened, and it definitely will not be the last, but it is certainly the first time you will have noticed it.
From the moment your children realise you aren’t a mind reader, they may regularly experiment with small and even humorous untruths to test what deceptions they can get away with without your knowledge. By adolescence, most children regularly tell white lies to spare other people’s feelings.
However, as children transition into teens, their desire to seem more adult and attain more independence might see them lying to parents and caregivers more frequently and about more serious subject matter than most guardians would be comfortable with.
“There could be many reasons why teens lie but the most common would be fear of being punished or judged by the parent or else feeling embarrassed to disclose certain things,” Stephanie Bartolo, a counselling psychologist who works with children, says.
As teens begin to grow into their own, forming new interests, friends and social circles, the scope of what they feel comfortable sharing with their parents begins to narrow as they may also begin to delve into areas and activities that their parents may not necessarily approve of.
“It really depends on what the teen would perceive their parent would be angry or judgemental about,” Bartolo says. “It could range from getting a second piercing to something as simple as catching a bus with friends.”
Teens also begin to experience more serious issues for the first time, such as bullying, thoughts of self-harm, poor mental health, exposure to substance abuse and even broaching their first sexual relationship.
As it becomes increasingly difficult to shelter children from things that may harm them, judgemental attitudes and reluctance to discuss difficult subjects may lead children to withdraw and perhaps make more omissions and tell lies to keep knowledge of their participation in such activities away from their parents. It can be a difficult act to juggle − for both child and parent − to keep a handle on transparency and healthy boundaries within the relationship.
“I think trying to keep an open mind and open communication with teenagers is key while also understanding that they may prefer to discuss certain things with their peers,” Bartolo says.
“Let them know that that is okay, however, also make them aware that at times they may get good as well as bad advice and should they wish, you will be there to lend a listening ear and help guide them. Maintaining a non-judgemental attitude usually helps because they feel less of a need to bend the truth, so to speak,” she continues.
Testing new boundaries for teens might also mean questioning rules and conditions in the family that previously were obeyed unchallenged. As they mature, children may also feel they have aged out of conditions put in place for their well-being, and it may be time to revisit your teen’s restrictions with a more nuanced conversation about why you feel these rules are important.
“Sometimes parents feel as though children should just ‘do as they’re told’ simply because they are children, but that doesn’t work,” Bartolo points out.
“I think that if you have a rational conversation as to why you are not happy with certain things, for example, drinking, lying about their location etc, they are more likely to comply with telling you the truth because they can understand the logic behind it. Trying to find a compromise is always a good idea when possible; this way, both parties feel as though they have some form of control over the situation.”
Bartolo adds that there are some instances in which one cannot reach a compromise for the sake of the child’s safety.
“In that case, I would suggest trying to explain logically why this cannot happen and see if a compromise can be reached about something else. At times, the child’s maturity and level of responsibility needs to be taken into account because every child is different,” she says.
At the end of the day, parents may also benefit from remembering how it was when they were on the other end of the tracks and how they would have liked to be treated in their adolescence. While loving and caring for your child sometimes means making those unpopular decisions, keeping the lines of communication clear and open may go a long way in building trusting relationships with your teens.
“I think that by trying to get down on their level and remembering what it was like at their age and trying to use logic to reason things out with them rather than taking an attitude, they should listen because you are the adult,” Bartolo notes.
“Having open communication about emotions, not being dismissive of what they are going through, very often helps. If they feel heard and understood, they will come back time and time again. This is what parents should strive for while also maintaining boundaries to keep them safe.”