Children's Hospital Colorado

When Teens Lie

A teenager with braces looks like she was caught lying.

Why do teens lie?

Teens lie for basically the same reasons adults do. They're trying to avoid trouble or get something they want.

But teens differ from adults in some crucial ways. One, their executive functioning is not fully developed. That's the part of the brain that mediates behavior in order to meet goals - and it's a big reason teens so often make dubious choices.

As any parent of teens knows, there's plenty of error involved. Teens are exploring their identity, pushing boundaries and trying new things. Just like adults, as they gain more experience, they'll stick with behaviors that work and discard behaviors that don't.

What "works," though, may be relative.

Avoiding a power struggle with your teenager

As the parent, you're in control, and teens like to test that. If your child can get you riled up, they're in control by controlling your emotions.

Parents often fall into the trap of trying to teach a kid a lesson by catching them in a lie. Certainly there's value to teaching kids honesty and integrity, says Romero. But a power struggle is not going to teach that.

"The more you accuse them of lying and try to force them to tell the truth, the more they're going to get defensive and hold their ground," she says. "That's probably not a good teaching moment. Disengaging may be the better move."

You mean I should let my kids lie?

If teaching values like honesty and integrity is the goal, then open conversation is key - but if kids are going to be open, they need to feel safe. Creating a safe environment doesn't necessarily mean there are no consequences for negative behavior, but it does require parents to be calm and supportive.

That's easier said than done. Lying can be frustrating, which is why it's a good idea to pick battles. Let a small lie go. Pretend to believe it. Or even announce you don't believe it, but you're still going to let it slide.

For example, you could say “That doesn't really make sense to me. Help me understand.” Once you take out that challenge or need to be defensive, it's interesting to see how they respond.