Let’s face it, human beings are prone to fibs, embellishments and fabrications, and little white lies. Some are even blatant liars. Lying is just one of many human foibles that we grapple with in our fallen nature.
But when it’s our kids who tell lies, well now that takes on a whole different sense of urgency. No parent enjoys being lied to by their child. It is disrespectful and, if lying is habitual, result in a broken trust bond between parent and child. Trust is the glue that cements parent-child relationships, so when one is not able to trust one’s child serious damage to the core foundation of that relationship can result.
An important distinction must be made between a fib and a malicious lie. All kids and teens will fib to cover their guilt—fibs are almost a reflexive survival tool. [Mom: Who broke the sugar bowl? Kid: Not me, it must have been the cat.] But at what point does lying become destructive?
Adolescent compulsive lying is a serious behavioral problem that can indicate a mental health disorder, particularly a personality disorder. For example, a sociopath is a person without a sense of empathy or conscience, so lying comes very naturally to these individuals. They may utilize lying to serve a particular goal, or they may lie indiscriminately. Pathological liars are not even aware that they are lying at all. So when a teen exhibits compulsive lying on a regular basis there is legitimate cause for concern. Parents should enlist the guidance of a mental health professional to help discern what might be the underlying factors that instigate the chronic lying, and then create a treatment plan for helping the teen change his or her behaviors.
Why Do Teens Tell Lies?
It can be befuddling, trying to understand the point of adolescent compulsive lying. Aside from the usual white lies, such as blaming a sibling for something that they are actually to blame for, when a teen’s lying becomes compulsive it can be disconcerting to parents. Many times, the lie doesn’t appear to even serve a larger purpose for the teen who perpetrates the lie. These types of pathological lies seem to just be lying for the sake of lying.
However, most teen lying falls into 7 categories:
- To conceal a truth. There are many occasions when a wrongdoing could result in punishment, and teens may lie to detract from their having committed the act in question. These lies might pertain to something fairly mundane, such as the teen lying about finishing their homework, or could be a more serious situation, such as lying about truancy, shoplifting, or substance abuse.
- To maintain control over privacy. Adolescents become more private and withdrawn during the teen years. They may lie to limit what the parent knows about their whereabouts or activities so they can continue with them, unbeknownst to the parents. Lying becomes a power play, with the teen controlling what the parent knows about his or her life.
- To play the victim. Some adolescent compulsive lying aims to paint themselves as a pitiful victim. Through contrived stories, these teens aim to elicit sympathy and concern for their wellbeing through emotional manipulation. They may fabricate a detailed lie about a dire family situation or the health of a loved one to garner attention.
- To elevate status. There is a lot of pressure on teens to fit in, or to be competitive among their peer group. To compensate for perceived shortcomings that a teen believes will diminish their standing among peers, teens may tell tall tales, embellishing certain features of their lives. They may brag about how much money a parent makes or make up stories about fantasy accomplishments. This type of lying is often born of low self-esteem or feelings of inferiority.
- To avoid parental disappointment. Parents typically set high expectations for their teens. Parents get swept up into the college admissions or sports scholarships frenzy. This pressure to measure up to other parents’ kids can result in intense pressure on the teen. Teens who lie compulsively may appease the parental expectations with falsehoods. They may assure the parent they are studying for the SAT or filling out scholarship paperwork when, in reality, they have no desire to even attend college.
- To game the system. A teen who may lack integrity will lie in order to manipulate a desired result. They may have mastered the methods for achieving a desired goal, such as dodging a criminal offense, by lying. These teens lie to outmaneuver and outsmart the system, and rarely feel guilt or remorse. The goal is to get off the hook or to manipulate the outcome somehow through lies.
- Unaware of the lying. The pathological liar may not even be aware that they go about their days lying incessantly. The lies become second nature, used as tools to manipulate their environment with the least amount of friction or confrontation from others. These teens may be fearful of the truth, see it as too revealing and intimate, so cloak their own realities in a layer of lies.
Adolescent Compulsive Lying and the Associated Mental Health Issues
To date the DSM-5 does not identify compulsive or pathological lying as a standalone mental health disorder. Instead, the behavior of compulsive lying is present in several personality disorders and other mental health disorders. These include:
- Antisocial personality disorder
- Histrionic personality disorder
- Narcissistic personality disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
- Bipolar disorder
The Effects of Pathological Lying
Getting caught in a lie can have serious consequences. Truth and honesty remain the bulwark of a healthy civilization. People are expected to be honest in their day-to-day dealings with others.
When a teen engages in compulsive lying, he or she may be impervious to the consequences—they simply do not care. This is a warning sign that a deeper psychological problem may be at hand, such as sociopathy. Most teens will feel badly when confronted with one of their lies. When there is no remorse or contrition, it is a sign that the teen is lacking a healthy conscience.
For most teens who lie compulsively, their motives may be simply selfish ones and will feel badly when a lie is revealed. Constant lying will erode trust bonds and cause parents and school authorities to place much higher burdens of proof on a compulsive liar’s claims. This only results in less freedom for the teen, as well as feelings of resentment.
When a teen lies about a school situation, such as whether they ditched school or cheated on a test, the ramifications for being caught in a lie can be significant.
How Should Parents Respond to Adolescent Compulsive Lying?
Parents should not hesitate to begin addressing a child’s compulsive lying as early as possible. The longer the behavior is ignored and allowed to go on, the more manipulative and dishonest the child will become. Parents should manage the lying in the following ways:
- Teach the virtue of honesty in early childhood, and exhibit these traits as parents
- Confront the teen in a calm manner when you catch them in a lie and ask them to explain the reason for lying.
- Establish consequences for telling lies and be consistent in enforcing punishment for the behavior.
- Expect the teen to be accountable. Have them make amends for the lie, or to apologize if the lie has been hurtful to another person.
Different Treatment Options for Adolescent Compulsive Lying
When a personality disorder or other mental health disorder is suspected as a possible explanation for the compulsive lying behavior, it is appropriate to meet with a mental health professional for an evaluation. Because there are several disorders that could explain the compulsive lying, the psychotherapist or psychiatrist will likely conduct various assessments and interview both the teen and the parent prior to making a diagnosis.
Depending on the severity of the adolescent compulsive lying, the teen can be treated as an outpatient or may benefit from residential treatment.
Outpatient treatment for a teen mental health disorder is typically going to be based on evidence-based behavioral therapies. Cognitive behavioral therapy in combination with other types of therapy can be obtained through a local practitioner or outpatient center. If medication is indicated, such as when a diagnosis of ADHD or bipolar disorder is made, then a psychiatrist would be included in the outpatient team.
When the compulsive lying has led to serious problems at school, legal problems, or with maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships, a residential teen mental health program would be helpful. In the residential environment, the teen can focus solely on learning how to change the disordered behavior through intensive therapeutic interventions. Teen residential programs offer a medley of teen-centric activities, as well as tutoring services so they can stay on top of their studies while in treatment.
BNI Treatment Centers Provide Residential Mental Health Treatment for Teens
BNI Treatment Centers is a leading Los Angeles-based residential mental health treatment program for teenagers ages 12-17. BNI Treatment offers teens a supportive, safe environment in which to work through the reasons behind pathological or compulsive lying. The clinical team is trained to carefully diagnose the underlying mental health disorder associated with adolescent compulsive lying, and then create a treatment protocol that will be customized to the teen’s specific issues. BNI provides teens with a menu of experiential therapies, such as surf therapy, art, music, and dance therapy, yoga classes, and more. For more information about the program, please contact BNI Treatment Centers today at (888) 522-1504.