It can be developmentally typical for teens to exaggerate the truth or tell lies. Sometimes, difficulties at home or in close relationships and mental health concerns contribute to this behavior.
Teens might lie to get attention, but there’s usually more to the story. Like many of us, teens may lie in a few different ways, including:
- sharing only part of the story
- hiding specific information
- telling a false story
According to an older 2015 study that evaluated how often people lie across their lifespans, teens told the most lies, with the frequency fading throughout adulthood.
Here’s why your teen might be stretching the truth and when to consider getting professional support.
Although a teen’s tendency to fib can signify something more serious, it’s more often evidence of attempts to establish their independence — in other words, growing up.
Other common reasons for teen lying include:
- To feel seen: Teens who feel insignificant or unappreciated might lie to gain a sense of recognition or validation from people who matter to them, like peers or parents.
- Telling the truth feels unsafe: If a teen has learned that telling the truth will result in repercussions, like being shamed, losing freedom, or even physical harm, they might lie to avoid those outcomes.
- To gain a sense of control: Teens who lack a sense of agency in their lives might find relief in lying when it allows them to control a situation. In fact, a 2021 study suggested teens may lie more when they feel their parents are trying to control them.
Additionally, some teens
Lying isn’t clinically connected to many mental health diagnoses. Even so, it sometimes occurs with mental health conditions such as:
- anxiety disorders
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
- bipolar disorder
- oppositional defiant disorder
Lying can also link with cluster B personality disorders:
- histrionic personality disorder
- borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- narcissistic personality disorder
- antisocial personality disorder
Keep in mind that per the American Psychiatric Association, mental health professionals don’t diagnose personality disorders (except BPD) until someone is 18 years old because teens’ personalities are still developing. Before that, they might diagnose a condition like oppositional defiant disorder or bipolar disorder.
What about compulsive lying?
Occasionally, truth-bending enters the territory of compulsive, or pathological, lying. Some experts consider lying compulsive when it:
- interferes with daily life
- causes the person high levels of distress
- happens for no clear reason
- feels out of control
Compulsive lying also tends to occur as a pattern of behavior rather than happening every now and then.
The most effective response will depend heavily on the context surrounding your teen’s lies. Here are some ideas to explore:
Consider your role
Sometimes, parents inadvertently promote lying through their parenting styles or the examples they set.
For instance, a 2020 study linked permissive parenting to less prosocial communication and behavior in teens, and a 2017 study suggested that even the lies parents tell for convenience, or “white lies,” can undermine the parent-child relationship.
Modeling honesty — and transparency when you fall short — is a positive way to encourage the same behavior in your teen.
Try not to make assumptions about what’s causing your teen to lie or treat them as if they’re acting maliciously.
It may also help to remember not to take your teen’s behavior too personally. Most likely, their behavior is a reflection of their own insecurities.
Is your teen’s behavior stemming from a wish to be seen and known, a self-defeating coping mechanism, or something else?
Consider using the following questions to start a conversation with your teen:
- Do you feel comfortable sharing your thoughts with me?
- Do you feel safe being yourself around friends?
- How can I help you feel safe?
- How can I support you in expressing yourself?
Build trust and security
If feelings of insecurity contribute to your teen’s behavior, establishing a more secure connection with them could help. Try:
- Reducing reactivity: Sometimes, teens lie to avoid a parent’s strong negative reaction. Practicing mindfulness is one way to clear your mind before responding to your teen, giving them space to express themselves truthfully.
- Modeling emotional regulation: Lying can show up as a maladaptive or unhelpful coping mechanism for difficult emotions. Showing your teen how to manage emotions in a more functional way can help them learn those skills, too.
- Showing enthusiasm: Regularly setting aside time to give your teen some undivided attention will help remind them that they’re enough as they are, without the need for any embellishment.
Using punishments to stop your teen from making up stories isn’t usually the most effective way to curb the behavior. It might also motivate them to become better at lying to hide behaviors you don’t condone.
A 2018 study even connected harsh punishment in childhood to conduct issues later in life.
If your teen’s behavior continues and you’re not sure what to do, consider connecting your teen with a mental health professional for more support.
To find a mental health professional for your teen, check with your health insurance to see if they work with any therapists in your area or search therapist directories. If your teen is open to it, consider involving them in the search to find a therapist they can connect with.
Many therapists will use the first session to get to know your teen and their background. From there, they might:
- ask about your family dynamics and past experiences
- help your teen explore any concerns around their identity and self-expression
- teach coping mechanisms to help process feelings of vulnerability or insecurity
- offer screening for mental health conditions and provide support in managing them
Considering online therapy? Here are our picks for the best options for teens.
Noticing dishonesty in your teen’s communication can feel startling. But it can be typical for many teens to exaggerate details or even lie, especially as they get more independence and develop their own social lives.
Less often, dishonesty could indicate compulsive lying or a developing personality disorder. If you’re worried about your teen’s lying habit, consider connecting them with an understanding and supportive mental health professional.