When I was the headmaster of an east coast boarding school, one of my dorm parents confiscated a marijuana pipe, two lighters, and several ounces of marijuana that she found under a student’s mattress.
When I invited the student into my office to discuss the matter, I asked if there was anything she’d brought on campus that was not allowed. I promised that the disciplinary committee would be more lenient if she just told the truth.
“I didn’t bring anything on campus that’s not allowed,” she said.
I told her that we had pretty good evidence to the contrary but that I would prefer hearing about it from her. Still she insisted that she was innocent. She claimed she didn’t know what I was talking about.
Finally, I put one of the lighters on my desk—it was a Zippo with an ace of spades emblazoned on the side. “This was found between your mattress and box spring along with a few other items. Care to tell me what the other items were?”
“I’ve never seen that before.”
Then I put the other lighter on my desk; this one had her nickname, “Jez,” engraved on the side.
“So this isn’t yours either, Jez?”
At this point, she wasn’t even trying to convince me; her lying was perfunctory but firm. I put the pipe on my desk.
“This was with the lighters.”
“Not mine,” she said.
“Are you sure you don’t want to talk about this, Jez?” I asked as I placed the baggie of marijuana next to the pipe and lighters. “If you do, we can find a way forward, if not, I have nothing positive to share with the disciplinary committee and we may have to suspend or expel you. I’m trying to help you.“
“That stuff’s not mine,” she said flatly.
While Jez’s lying was memorable for its resoluteness in the face of nearly irrefutable evidence, it was certainly not unique in my experience as an educator. In my twenty year career I have come to understand that lying is virtually universal among adolescents. If you have a teen or work with teens, you’ve been lied to. Probably today.
In Jez’s case, she had told so many lies to so many people that she felt as if telling the truth would simply shatter her world. If she came clean about the contraband it might come out that she’d stolen the marijuana from another student. The girl from whom Jez stole the marijuana, now in trouble herself, would retaliate by telling us about other incidents involving Jez—like when she brought alcohol on campus after spring break and shared it with her dorm mates. Those dorm mates, now in trouble too, would attempt to distance themselves from the incident by exposing more of Jez’s secrets. And so on.
Jez’s social life and standing at the school was built on a foundation of lies; so much so that she found the prospect of expulsion preferable to coming clean and risking the collapse of her fragile, carefully managed social world. In Jez’s case, her lies were initially motivated by a simple desire to exercise freedom and evade consequences; she wanted to be the campus party hostess, providing her peers with the means to smoke and drink on campus. She wanted to be free which, by her adolescent definition, meant free to do what she wasn’t supposed to do.
But once she started lying to cover up her clandestine behaviors, she had to tell more lies to cover those lies. Lying became compulsive and automatic—a way to distance herself from the now dangerous truth, keeping people at bay and off track. She started lying about inconsequential things, regardless of whether they might help her avoid trouble or not. By the time I expelled Jez she had already been caught in dozens of pointless lies and had lost the trust of her friends and the school staff.
It was a relief for her, I think, to leave when she did, even though it meant going to a much more restrictive therapeutic school. She never came clean about the contraband.
Teens lie for several reasons, most of which stem from a single motive: the developmental urge to establish independence and freedom. Understanding this urge and the resulting motivations to lie is the first step to effectively engaging your child, student, or patient when she does lie.
In general, adolescents are dishonest—whether by commission (telling a non-truth) or omission (not telling or hiding certain things) or distortion (weaving together truth and lies so that the lie seems tenable)—for some combination of the following reasons, all of which initially stem from the developmental urge for independence:
To create a sense of freedom and autonomy
- By doing something forbidden
- By evading consequences that might further restrict their freedoms
- While avoiding conflict over personal choices
- By keeping others at bay to preserve personal space
- While avoiding disappointment to parents, teachers, or others
- By covering previous lies
If your child, student, or client is caught lying, the following principles and steps can help you forge an appropriate and effective, rather than reactive, response:
1. Create Safety: If young people feel that their relationship with you is based on unconditional positive regard they will be more likely to share openly, even when they know you might not like what they have to say. This kind of relationship takes time, attention, transparency, and honesty.
2. Clarify Consequences: Studies show that young people tend to respond to consequences that have been clearly articulated in advance as opposed to those that remain vague or murky. Be specific regarding the consequences for lying.
3. Consequences Should be Reasonable and “Natural:” Effective consequences should fit the scope and scale of the issue at hand; they should involve something outside of the young person’s comfort zone that is relevant to the offense. Confessing and apologizing to people impacted by the lie, working to repair any damage caused by dishonesty, and losing privileges related to the specific situation (e.g. losing car privileges if one’s whereabouts while using the car were lied about) are examples of reasonable and natural consequences.
4. Follow Through: One area where parents and teachers themselves stumble into “dishonesty” is when they threaten consequences but don’t follow through. This has a similar effect as other forms of dishonesty—it erodes trust, destroys credibility, and sabotages your relationship with the young person in question. Never threaten consequences in the heat of the moment that you don’t intend to follow through with. Instead, take time away from the situation to construct an appropriate response that you can effectively implement. Describe it to your teen and then follow through calmly and completely.
5. Express Yourself: It’s important to treat instances of lying as teachable moments. A good place to begin this teaching is with yourself; articulate your worry, sadness, frustration and whatever other feelings come up for you when your child lies. Help them understand the unintended consequences of lying—lack of trust, fear of being caught, feelings of shame, loss of friends, et cetera. Also help them understand the benefits of truthfulness—intimacy, friendship, less stress, more freedom, and less negative drama.
6. Tell the Truth: Teens can sniff out hypocrisy. They are unlikely to respect standards you uphold in word but not in deed. Even if you don’t lie outright, beware of dishonesty that takes more subtle forms— omission, half-truths, and a general lack of transparency.
7. Return Trust: Once consequences are completed, it’s time to start over and give your child a fresh start. This gives a teen the opportunity to learn from her mistake and change her behavior. It also ends the cat and mouse game that can exacerbate the cycle of mistrust, feeding an adversarial dynamic that will not foster honesty.
8. Start Over: Don’t despair if this sequence doesn’t cure your child or student of lying. It probably won’t! So when she lies again, just start the sequence over. This kind of moral instruction often requires time and consistency to take root.