Q: Do you have advice about lying? My 16-year-old son says that he lies to not disappoint me and that he does it without really thinking, because he wants to avoid the immediate disappointment. I understand that and have assured him on so many occasions that it’s the lies that are disappointing. He’s saying (again) that he will think before he speaks. How do I move forward to start trusting him?
For simple things such as not using his phone at night, he says he won’t, but if I check on him if I wake up, he’s often on his phone. Do I take the phone or trust him again the next night? I’m a single parent of two teens and live overseas, and I’m really burned out. Also, is it fair to “force” him to see a counselor?
A: Thank you for writing in. A single parent of two teens? I don’t doubt that you are feeling burned out, and my first piece of advice is to take it easy on yourself. Whether solo through choice, separation, divorce or being widowed, single parents get to play by a set of different rules. Why? Because it is unreasonable to expect you to do the work of two people, thus necessitating greater grace and self-compassion.
Your son has clearly told you why he is lying: He doesn’t want to disappoint you. This leads me to a couple of questions: Is the pressure in the house too high? Are the expectations out of whack? Is there a history of shame and blame when he has told the truth? Reflect on your parenting, and be honest about your tone and judgment. Yes, every parent of a teen loses their cool, but is your disappointment palpable? Are your expectations reasonable and kind?
Or is your son’s shame some kind of self-imposed guilt coming from within? Is he anxious or a perfectionist, or does he have cognition distortions regarding guilt, shame and truth? You can be as kind, understanding and open as possible, and your son still may have some false beliefs. If you think anxiety or depression is at play, this needs to be met with empathy and support with the proper professionals.
As for what I’ve noticed, it could be that when he has lied on many occasions and you reassure him that it’s the lies that are disappointing, your son may not be separating himself from the lies. Remember: Humans are allergic to feeling separate from whom they are attached, so even the idea of disappointment may cause your son to shut down and feel ashamed. You may be separating the lie from your son, but he may not be.
Another point: When it comes to screens, many (if not most) teens cannot resist the siren song of the screens. Promises, assurances and the best intentions go out the window as the texts, gaming invites and social media alerts come in, and many teens cannot resist. In fact, most adults cannot control themselves when it comes to their own devices, so your son is not alone.
For now, I would stop talking about the lying, if only because it isn’t working, and I would call a meeting with him and say: “There has been some difficulty with putting down the screens at night. Tell me what’s going on.” Then listen to your son. Is it homework? A romantic interest? Games? Movies? Podcasts? You need to understand his point of view if you are to create solutions with him.
After you fully understand the problem, you can say: “The thing is, your sleep is of the utmost importance, and the blue light is messing with it. What can we do to change this?” You both need to like the solutions; this will have a greater chance of working, because hopefully your son won’t feel the need to lie, and you both will have a shared goal to refer to. All of this is directly from the problem-solving model in “The Explosive Child,” by Ross Greene. When used correctly, it’s respectful of and effective for both parents and teens.
Take the focus off the lies, appreciate his honesty, look at the patterns and get busy creating solutions together. Good luck.