How to Tell If Your Teen Is Lying to You

Signs of Untruthfulness

Mom Talking With Teen Girl
Parents Are a Big Influence on Teens. © Getty Images

Teens may lie to their parents protect their privacy and freedom, cover up mistakes and violations of rules, and to protect others. As a parent, your child's safety is likely to be your first concern. You want to know the truth so you can address problems of unsafe behavior, whether it is substance use, sex, risky activities, or even petty crime.

How can you know when your teen is lying? The bad news is that research shows that most of us have a fifty-fifty chance (at best) of detecting when somebody is lying unprepared, and it is even worse when a child has had time to prepare their lie.

But if you pay attention to your child's behavior when they may be being untruthful, you may be able to improve those odds.

Everybody Lies

Even if you have placed a high value on always telling the truth, lying is part of normal human behavior. Let go of the shock that your teen will lie to you and accept that it will happen. Use what you remember about your teen's behavior when telling you the lie to use to judge their future statements. While discovering a lie may injure the trust level you have with your child, consider what the lie may be covering and gauge your response accordingly.

Lying makes a person think harder (called increasing their cognitive load). This can lead to signals that the person is thinking harder than they would be when giving a truthful statement. One of the tactics used by law enforcement is to make a suspect think even harder while giving answers. This leads to more pronounced behaviors when telling a lie.

Signs of Lies

Keep in mind that the signs of lying will differ for each individual. You need to use your experience with your child to guide you. But pay attention to these areas and see how your teen acts when telling the truth and when lying.

  • Pausing: Listen for pauses before your teen begins to give an answer to a question and long pauses during their answers. Unnatural pauses are signs that they are having to think harder to give an answer.
  • Eye Contact: This is variable. Darting eyes, looking down, or looking in a different direction can be a sign of lying. However, some teens can maintain eye contact while lying. One clue can be a change in how much they normally blink. Look for a different kind of eye contact when lying compared to when they are making truthful statements or in normal conversation.
  • Heavy Breathing and Dry Mouth: A change in breathing and a drying up of saliva is a sign of stress in coming up with a lie. There may also be a change in the vocal quality, becoming shallower.
  • Stillness: Because the brain is busy coming up with a lie, the body often becomes quieter. You may see a pause in normal fidgeting.
  • Pointing and Foot Shuffling: Some people will use more emphatic hand gestures such as pointing when telling a lie. While the body may be more still than usual, the feet may give things away by shuffling in the direction of escape.
  • Touching Throat or Mouth: These are common signs of telling a lie, protecting a vulnerable area and literally blocking communication.
  • Details: A teen who is lying may avoid giving details, at least when first asked, unless he has practiced his answer. He may change the story in the second telling. Asking for more details will put further pressure on your teen and may lead to more signs of lying. On the other hand, giving too many unasked-for details can be a sign of a practiced story.

    A Word From Verywell

    "Trust, but verify" can be a good tactic when you want to ensure your teen is telling the truth and is not covering up unsafe behavior. Ask for things you can check, remembering that your odds of simply detecting a lie are little better than chance.

    Make it easier for your teen to tell you the truth. Reassure your teen that he is safe from punishment in telling you the truth so you can work out problems together.

    Sources:

    Brinke LT, Stimson D, Carney DR. Some Evidence for Unconscious Lie Detection. Psychological Science. 2014;25(5):1098-1105. doi:10.1177/0956797614524421.

    Warren KL, Dodd E, Raynor G, Peterson C. Detecting Childrens Lies: Comparing True Accounts About Highly Stressful Injuries with Unprepared, Prepared, and Coached Lies. Behavioral Sciences & the Law. 2011;30(3):329-341. doi:10.1002/bsl.1994.

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