Teens and dishonesty

Parents often desire emotional closeness with their teens, which should cultivate honesty in their relationships. But research shows that a shockingly high percent of teens lie, and not always for the reasons you may think.

In their 2009 book, “Nurture Shock,” authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman summarize the findings of Dr. Nancy Darling as they deconstruct the science of teen rebellion in an eye-opening chapter about lying.

One of the most shocking statistics revealed is the sheer number of teens who lie: 96 percent!

Does that mean parents are misjudging the quality of the relationship or love shared with their teen? Probably not.

To understand the discrepancy, we must understand a little more about why kids are lying and what — if anything — parents can do.

Why they lie

Darling, of Penn State University, studied high schoolers and learned that 96 percent of them hid the truth from their parents. What were they lying about? She found that teens lie about what they spend allowance on, whether their homework is done, whether they are dating, the clothes they wear away from home, the movie they’re seeing, and with whom they’re spending time. They also lie about drinking and drug use, what music they listen to, how they spend afternoons, whether a party is being supervised, and riding in a car driven by a drunk teen.

Are you thinking that your honor student probably lies less? Well, it turns out that kids who lie don’t fall into one demographic — honor students, overscheduled kids — they all reported deception. Of 36 potential topics, the average teen lies to his parents about 12 of them.

Bronson and Merryman report that:

• Teens reported telling an outright lie 25 percent of the time.

• Teens reported avoiding the topic 25 percent of the time.

• Teens reported simply withholding relevant details about 50 percent of the time.

Before her research, Darling admits that she believed kids probably lied to avoid getting into trouble. So, she says, it was surprising to learn that the most common reason for the teens’ deception was actually: “I’m trying to protect the relationship with my parents; I don’t want them to be disappointed in me.”

They do love you. But in their mind, loving you might mean protecting you — by lying.

And Darling says she was surprised by the number of parents with anxiety about pushing their kids into rebellion.

“Many parents today believe the best way to get teens to disclose is to be more permissive and not set outright rules,” she indicates.

However, being permissive does not open the door to learning more about a teen’s life! When parents lower their standards, teens interpret the lack of rules to mean parents don’t care and don’t want the job of being a parent. It definitely does not pay to be permissive.

Should you be worried?

For many parents who fear that their already rebellious tweens will be more rebellious in their teenage years, you may actually not have to worry.

Research in Bronson and Merryman’s book suggests that teens objecting to their parents’ authority peaks at around age 14 to 15. What is shocking is that this need for autonomy is stronger at age 11 than at age 18! So if you’ve been thinking the high school years are the high-risk years, think again.

Most parents get stressed out by arguing with their teens, but Bronson and Merryman note that it appears that in families with the least amount of lying, there is a higher ratio of arguing or complaining. Why? Teens don’t necessarily see arguing and fighting as harmful or destructive.

The authors suggest the flipside to arguing for many teens is lying! So, a teen can lie to the parent and then go do what he wants behind the parent’s back, or argue — in his mind, negotiate with his parent — and avoid lying. More than anything else, it seems to be most important to the teen how an argument gets resolved and whether he feels heard.

Encouraging honesty

The research suggests teenagers are destined to lie about some things, but there are some ways parents can create a climate so their teens lie about less.

“The parents who are the most consistent in enforcing rules are the same parents who are most warm and have the most conversations with their kids,” indicates Darling. Such parents set a few key rules (it’s too unrealistic and impossible to enforce 20 rules) and explain why the rules are in place. By doing so, these parents demonstrate flexibility.

This spirit of collaboration encourages teens not to lie. Extend freedom to your teen so he can make his own decisions. Instead of hiding 12 areas from you, he might only be hiding as few as five.

Michele Ranard has a husband, two teens, and a master’s in counseling.


Bronson, Po and Merryman, Ashley. “NurtureShock.” Hachette, 2009.