July 09, 2015 —

Teens and lying is difficult mix.  As parents, we hope our teens don’t lie (particularly to us), but as former teens ourselves, we know this is wishful thinking.  Research shows that while the majority of teens do not approve of lying in the abstract - when we ask them whether it is right or wrong - most will lie at some point or another.

In The Ethics of American Youth 2012 survey, The Josephson Institute asked questions of more than 20,000 high school students on issues of character, lying and cheating. The vast majority of the teens surveyed agreed with the statements such as, “In personal relationships, trust and honesty are essential,” as well as “It's important to me that people trust me.” However, smaller studies have shown that when teens are asked about a series of six topics, which included drugs, alcohol, friends, parties, money, dating and sex, 82% admit to having lied to their parents on at least one topic during the previous 12 months.

Teens lie for a wide variety of reasons – some of which they find easier to justify than others.  They lie to protect their privacy or to avoid punishment when they have violated their parents’ rules. They lie to assert their independence and to cover up for friends or siblings. They also may lie because they do not agree with the rules that have been made for them or they are hoping to protect others feelings.

What does this mean for parents of teens?  Do we trust our children until we find they are lying? Do we check up on them, assuming that at some point they will not tell us the truth? And how do we encourage them to be honest with us?

Nancy Darling, a professor at Oberlin College who has studied teens and lying, suggests that one of the ways to raise trustworthy kids is to trust them. She explains, “…feeling trusted seems to inspire kids to behave in ways that will maintain parental trust. Good kids are trusted. The more they're trusted, the more they try to live up to that trust, and the more trustworthy they become.”

What does this mean for parents? Ultimately, it’s up to us to create a home environment where our teens feel that they can express their opinion about the rules we have established, and have the ability to make their case when they disagree. We owe it to them to listen – even if we don’t change our minds about a given rule or issue. The more we can let our teens know that we value and trust them, the less likely they will be to prove us wrong.

Lisa Heffernan writes about parenting during the high school and college years at Grown and Flown. You can follow her on Twitter.