Home » Doing Drugs with Paul Dillon » Parents, teens and trust: Are teens more likely to lie during adolescence?

Parents, teens and trust: Are teens more likely to lie during adolescence?

Last week I discussed a simple ‘how-to-guide’ when deciding on whether your child attend a party, gathering or sleepover. In the last paragraph I repeated what I have said many times before around adolescents not always telling their parents the truth and that even though you have to trust your child during this time, you just have to make sure it’s not ‘blind trust’. As I said, “do that and it’s just plain stupid and potentially unbelievably dangerous!”

This statement received a fairly strong response from one person who posted the following on my Facebook page:

“I am disappointed to see this old chestnut rolling around in a place I generally regard as offering wise, evidence guided suggestions, “As I’ve said many times before, you can’t trust an adolescent – they’re going to tell lies and let you down – that’s what they do!”

I call bulls***. I was a teacher in secondary schools for a decade and I have three adolescent children. Adolescents are no less trustworthy than anyone else. They have my trust unless and until they break it. If I respect and trust them, if I share my values, concerns, and expectations, they come to value our relationship and my trust enough to avoid breaking it. Parenting is all about building solid connections and meaningful relationships. Expecting kids to lie to me undermines that goal.”

Now I would normally just simply respond directly to the comment on the page but I wanted to take the time to answer and make sure that it was addressed appropriately. There have been many people who have challenged me over the years on this topic (some simply getting angry that I have suggested that their child would lie to them, while others, like this person, holding the belief that adolescents are no less trustworthy than adults) and even though I have tried to clarify my position many times, it may be wise to do so again …

Firstly, I believe that our young people are wonderful – they live in an increasingly complex world and the vast majority manage to navigate through the adolescent years without too many problems. I have worked with them for over 30 years and the current generation of teens constantly amaze me when it comes to their resilience and ability to adapt to the huge changes that are occurring in the world today. Each week, across the country, I meet adolescents who are doing incredible things and, sadly, we do not talk about their achievements enough …

Secondly, I suppose the best way of explaining my beliefs around parents, young people and trust is as follows:

Most young people will do the ‘right thing’ most of the time, however, all young people will do the ‘wrong thing’ at least some of the time

I totally agree with this mother – sharing your “values, concerns and expectations” with your child is vital in developing a valued and trusting relationship. And of course, parenting is all about “building solid connections and meaningful relationships” but it is also important to remember that during the teen years they do not have fully-developed brains and as such this affects their decision-making ability, including whether to tell the truth or not.

You can have the best relationship with your child – one that both you and your child values greatly – but when they are put into a situation where they have to make a decision, they weigh ‘risk-reward’ differently than adults. If a teen is put into a situation where they have to decide whether or not to tell their parents the truth about whether they are planning to drink alcohol at a party or not, they have to ‘balance’ risk and reward. The risk is they would jeopardise their wonderful relationship with their parents if they lie and the potential reward is that they get to drink alcohol with their friends … As adults, we would look at these two options and would regard the risk as too great – the relationship is far more valuable than a couple of drinks. Adolescents, however, are more likely to see the reward as far more important, leading them to not always telling the truth … Does this mean they value the relationship with their parents any less? Of course not, it’s just that their brain is pushing them to the reward – they “don’t downgrade the risk, they give more weight to the payoff”! It is also important to note that this reward is increased if they are around their peers – the more friends around them, the greater the reward. So in actual fact, adolescents are likely to be less trustworthy than adults simply because of this evolutionary feature …

So should parents ‘expect’ their teens to lie? Absolutely not! If parents went through the teen years with that negative attitude they’d be driven mad … I don’t believe you should ‘expect’ your child to lie, but you need to ‘accept’ that they will at some time. Does this undermine your relationship with your child? I don’t believe that it does – it’s simply being realistic and acknowledges that teens do not always make the best decisions, not because they’re ‘bad kids’ (or you’re a ‘bad parent’) but simply because they’re going through a stage in their life when their brains are going through major changes and they also need to push against rules and boundaries to work out exactly where they fit in the world.

Without doubt, the better the relationship you have with your child, one in which your values, concerns and expectations are discussed, the more likely it is that they will be truthful and share what is happening in their life. Accepting (not expecting) that your teen is going through a stage of their life where they are not always able to make the best decisions and may lie to you ensures that you don’t fall into the trap of blindly trusting them. I have met too many parents over the year who have totally believed that their relationship with their son or daughter was one built on respect and trust, only to find out too late that they had been lied to, sometimes for years. All too often they discovered this out when their teen had ended up in hospital, been sexually assaulted or in some cases, when they had died.

Of course, you should always think the best of your child – raise the bar and they are likely to lift themselves up to reach it! Trusting your teen to do the ‘right thing’ is vital in maintaining a positive relationship during adolescence. However, accepting that teens lie and understanding why they may do this, even in the most trusting and open relationships, helps avoid blind trust and potential disappointment …

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