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When a Teenager Can’t Be Trusted
By Lisa Belkin
The purpose of parenting is to help children reach the point where they don’t need you anymore. To gradually let go of the back of the bike until they are riding it on their own.
But how and when to let go? There’s the tricky part. And with some children the timing is particularly complicated. A reader wrote asking for advice about her daughter. The details she is willing to share are necessarily limited, but you will get the idea from the broad strokes: teenage daughter lies; her mother responds by questioning everything; daughter lies further to deflect the questions.
As the mother writes:
…compassionate detachment regarding raising teenagers … is fine advice if you know what you are dealing with, but what about when trust breaks down on both sides? With one lie told by my teenager, I find it all but impossible to trust what she is telling me again. And with the discovery that I went through her bag looking for alcohol, she feels the same toward me. So two questions: 1. How to parent when you don’t know what’s really going on because your teenager lies and 2. How to build trust back between parent and child when it is shattered?
In this case the subject of the lie is alcohol. But I have had similar letters from readers whose children have lied about schoolwork, or their whereabouts or their relationships.
I have asked Wendy Mogel, who coined the phrase “compassionate detachment” in her book The Blessings of a B Minus to weigh in, and I will post her thoughts later this afternoon. Meanwhile, what is YOUR advice for this teenager’s mom? For all mistrustful parents of teenagers?
UPDATE: Wendy Mogel has been reading over our shoulders, and has this to say:
Yes, I heartily agree with rf#21. All teenagers lie. I did and you did too. Your reader’s comments “now she feels the same towards me” and her concern about building back ”shattered” trust” remind me of psychologist Anthony Wolf’s observations in “Get Out of My Life but First Can You Take me and Cheryl to the Mall.” He writes: “To be able to trust one’s teenager is nice for parents, but more frequently it is a fool’s paradise.” He also says: “Trust is to adolescence what fairness is to childhood.”
Teenagers react to accusations of lying, sneaking or general slimy behavior with indignation. It’s an attempt to level the moral playing field and induce shame. Just like your young child shouts “It’s not fair!” teens tell you that the relationship is shattered…forever…and ever. They’re hoping the drama, the morality play, will distract you from ferreting out a real problem or real danger.
So when the lie emerges ask yourself: Is my child lying because she fears telling me the truth? Is she lying because she knows I’d rather believe her deception than confront her with her genuinely reckless choices? Or is it an experimental floater lie, a gentle truthiness, to see how much she can get away with? And when she reacts to your probing with outrage consider her a creative tactician.
June 1, 2011