Something’s Burning and I Think it’s Your Pants!


If you’re expecting a blog about a Viagra overdose, sorry to disappoint. But, if you’re the parent of a teen, you know that the something burning is a lie. “Liar, liar, pants on fire,” is a rhyme mainly chanted by small kids on the playground, but the truth is, pardon the pun, teenagers lie most of all.

The happy news is that increased lying is actually indicative of their brain development and will probably abate in time. The guarded news is that when the lying becomes incessant, and the teen isn’t called out, it can worsen and ease the door open to bigger and more dangerous behaviours like stealing and abject plagiarism.

“I smell something sweet. Did you have an unscheduled snack?”

“Okay, I had a few gummy bears.”

“But, you smell like chocolate.”

“Fine, I had a chocolate bar, all right? I’m going straight to hell!”

This snippet was part of a conversation I had with my fifteen year-old son, Scowl, that had me shaking my head and laughing at the same time. Not only did he lie about eating candy, he lied about the candy he ate. In his warped brain, there is a hierarchy of unacceptable between-meal snacks and apparently, eating chocolate is a much more brazen act than chowing down on a handful of gummy bears. A few years ago, I might have yelled at him for fibbing, for breaking the sacred trust between us that began with the shared placenta. I have learned, however, that lying is learning and also so prevalent that if I screamed at him every time he did it, I would have permanent laryngitis.

In my experience, teenagers predominantly lie to avoid unpleasant consequences. “Yes, Mom, I ate some bad-for-my-skin-and-teeth-and-internal-organs food. Please, bring on the lecture.”

No kid wants to be badgered or punished, so they lie; it’s easier on everyone’s blood pressure. Teenagers also lie because they don’t want to disappoint us. “No, Mom, my teacher still hasn’t handed back our chemistry test.”

“But, you wrote it two months ago.”

“I know, I know. He’s such a slow marker – it’s ridiculous, isn’t it?”

The teen avoids mentioning that he actually bombed on the aforementioned test. He thinks he can bring his mark back up on subsequent work and doesn’t want you to worry that he may never get a job because he hasn’t memorized the periodic table. Again, that filial concern for blood pressure is really very endearing, isn’t it? What you don’t know can’t hurt you – and more importantly, it can’t hurt your teen.

For my son, the long view is something that may happen in an hour. The concept that lying won’t actually change the truth of what really happened nor stop that truth from eventually emerging is not something he or most adolescents can easily grasp. So, it’s my job to help Scowl consider the potential results of any lying in which he engages, and I have learned that it’s best to keep it impersonal.

By this, I mean that I try not to take my son’s lying as a personal affront caused by disrespect. I know that he loves me and even grudgingly thinks I’m smart. The lying is about him, about his coping mechanisms. He isn’t trying to put one over on me so much as he’s trying to avoid being hectored. I get it, however, I feel that it is incumbent upon me to let Scowl know that I am aware of his lies and that escalating such behaviour will lead to a breach of trust that will have adverse consequences for his life.

“The more you lie about little things, the less I will be able to trust you about big ones.”

“Yeah, Mom. Okay. ‘What-evs.’”

“No, not ‘what-evs.’ If I can’t trust you to tell me the truth about your assignment due-dates, how am I going to trust you to drive my car some day far, far, far in the extremely distant future?”

Scowl’s ears suddenly perk up like he’s channeling his inner Dr. Spock. “Mom, my ability to drive a car has nothing to do with lying about putting off assignments.”

“It doesn’t matter. Trust begets trust and vice-versa. You have to prove you’re responsible and telling lies isn’t responsible. No trust. No car.”

“So, you’re giving me an ultimatum?”

“I’m giving you a chance to show me that you have the maturity to be honest and deal with the consequences. Your choice.”

On a daily basis, I have found that the best way to combat telling lies is to offer positive feedback for telling the truth. “Mom, the other day I carved my name in the leg of the dining room table. I don’t know what I was thinking; I wasn’t thinking. I’ll get some of that wood oil stuff and try to make it look better, or I’ll buy you a new table.”

Mmm-hmm. Instead of screaming or threatening to carve my name in his leg, I praise him for coming forward and being honest; then, I threaten to carve my name in his leg if he ever does it again.

As with all issues teenage, parents must carefully choose their moments for the big life lessons, let kids know that we understand they are having some difficulties becoming responsible adults who come clean, and help teach them by reinforcing their honesty when it emerges. Remember, everyone has lied. Anyone who says she hasn’t is, well, a liar.

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