The Truth About Lying
A question I often get asked is some version of, “Why does my kid keep lying/exaggerating?” This question crops up when parents are relaying what has been so hard at home, in the midst of hearing a story their child told me in therapy, or when they hear about interactions in the group. This question is often accompanied by some level of frustration or anger and bewilderment born of betrayal, sadness, and--at times--hopelessness that this new habit can shift.
It is not an easy question to answer. That said, there are certainly trends I’ve seen with my students.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of belonging and connection. To many of us, being honest is a key element to both. Afterall, we can’t truly be seen until we are authentic in who we are. Belonging and being connected to our group was, at one time, absolutely vital for physical safety. Social rejection or ejection from the group when we were roaming nomads way back in history was often lethal. The ingrained instinct to be part of the “in group” hasn’t left us. This is true for any human being, but particularly for teenagers.
According to most theorists, adolescence is about trying to figure out who we are and how we fit into the world; into our families, our peer groups, and society. Most of us learn through trial and error, and most of the students I work with are constantly trying on different pieces of identity. Sometimes this is unconscious. A joke or piece of language becomes pervasive in my group for a few months: “That’s lit!” or “That’s on fleek!” A couple years ago, who had the most Supreme merch was all the rage.
One key element when I think about my students lying about/fabricating/exaggerating events, interests, or identity is that they are often trying to find acceptance. Or perhaps--even more desperately--trying to avoid rejection. This can span from claiming knowledge of very trivial bands all the way to rampantly lying about drug use or various traumatic experiences in order to fit in or be able to relate. Weeks down the line when they have established their role socially, it’s not uncommon to then hear, “I didn’t feel safe/liked/welcomed so I said I’ve done x.” The makeup of the group will also influence what these lies can look like. I have seen students try to “act tough” in order to fit in or to pre-emptively defend themselves from other students who seem intimidating.
A second trend: Our society sucks at validating emotional pain. We are (slightly) better at recognizing and comforting physical manifestations of injury. But most of us learn from a pretty young age that unless pain has accompanying physical symptoms, it’s often overlooked. Exacerbating this, emotional pain doesn’t usually correspond with an outside symptom. With emotional wounds there isn’t blood dribbling down the shin or a cast, but that need to be seen in the pain and have it validated is still there. At best, our society regularly overlooks and minimizes emotional pain. At worst, it’s ridiculed or mocked as weakness.
This is a pattern that many experience, and it begs the question: How do we get ourselves seen and validated when feeling challenging, uncomfortable, and painful emotions?
So, often times, my students feel like if they tell what actually happened, their pain or emotions will be overlooked or discounted. I work with sensitive students who’ve learned that the strength of their pain or other emotional reaction is generally judged to be out of proportion with the event they’ve experienced. So? They learn to tell a more intense, exaggerated, or fabricated version so as to create a validating response. They are trying to be seen, to be heard, to be validated in how hard something was, how scared they were, how overwhelmed they felt. They learn to create a new version of what happened which may sound dramatic but better communicates how it feels.
This is reinforced by those around them who may disregard the original comment, the original experience of bullying or rejection, but suddenly pay attention and validate the larger, more intense tale.
A third trend I want to touch on briefly is students who struggle with impulse control, for example students with ADHD. These are adolescents who are frequently asked, “Why did you do that?” by many people in their lives—teachers, coaches, parents, siblings, and even friends. And when they respond honestly, “I don’t know,”--as is pretty predictable when you have very low impulse control--the adult won’t believe them and presses for a “real” answer.
If a child genuinely has no idea why they did something and the adults in their life won’t accept not having a reason, it would become necessary to come up with something to offer up as a reason. If this behavior is repeated over and over as impulsive behavior continues, lies would trip off the tongue.
When framed these ways, lies and exaggerations are meeting understandable needs that the teenager has; to be accepted, to be validated, to cover a deficit of self-awareness or impulse control. Learning how to be authentic in ourselves, be validated in our experience, and be aware of why we behave in certain ways is so much of the work teenagers are grappling with. It’s also so much of the work of being a human being.
Of course, none of this changes how hard it is to be lied to, but hopefully it provides helpful context to understand where the mistruths are coming from.