Lying teens and strict parents

We heard this week from Dr. Talwar that lying is a normal part of child development, occurring as kids begin to understand others' perspective. Young children aren't the only ones who fib, though. Teenagers also lie, to avoid getting in trouble, to get out of obligations, or for any number of reasons. And it's not as simple as just lying - partial truths, or avoiding touchy topics are also possible strategies for dealing with disagreements with parents.

A study published in the April 2010 issue of the Journal of Adolescence examined the approaches taken by teens in situations likely to lead to disagreements with their parents. The researchers collected information from over 2600 middle- and high-school students in Santiago, Chile. The transition away from a military regime to democratic elections in the 1990s led to a widespread rejection of authoritarian values in Chile, creating an interesting situation for families. According to the researchers, modern Chilean parents are less likely than previous generations "to enforce strict rules or to use power-assertive parenting techniques." And teens in Chile are less likely than those in the United States to believe that their parents have legitimate authority over their behaviour.

The researchers asked the youth about how they tend to handle a number of situations that are likely to lead to disagreements with parents (their choice of friends, their curfew, smoking, and drinking, for example). Interestingly, in an environment where parents are unlikely to be strict, for each of the issues examined 40-50% of the youth said they'd tell their parents the truth about the situation. Twenty-five to 30% would attempt to avoid talking about the situation altogether. Slightly more than 1 in 10 said they'd lie to their parents. Youth who perceived their mothers as being supportive and warm were more likely to tell them the truth, as were those who valued obedience and generally stayed out of trouble. Teenagers who engaged in more negative behaviours were more likely to lie, and were more likely to feel that they were being closely monitored by their parents.

Unfortunately, because the data were gathered all at once, the researchers were able to point out these links, but could not determine which factors were causal. Parents are more likely to monitor kids who get in trouble a lot. But it's also possible that teens (perhaps especially in Chile, where parental authority is not considered to be absolute) react to strict rules by getting into more trouble and lying about it!

The takeaway might be that, for typically-developing teens, 24-7 monitoring might not have the desired effect of reducing negative behaviour - and parents might come to know less about what really happens in their children's lives than those who are less strict but more warm. In addition, monitoring might have the unintended effect of increasing conflict between parents and teens.

You can find the Journal of Adolescence study here.

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Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only, and are not intended to replace professional or medical advice. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.