Why Isn’t My Teenager Honest With Me?

One of the problems teens struggle with is honesty. And it’s not only honesty with one’s parents or authority, but honesty with oneself.

Part of psychological distress comes from hiding the more difficult and disturbing aspects of experience from oneself. While this can sometimes be adaptive, it can become problematic when it comes to drinking, sexting, drug use, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, and other situations teens can sometimes get themselves into.

Being honest about a situation means admitting it is actually happening, admitting it is real, admitting the distress is real, and addressing potential consequences. Not admitting it is real, not asking for help, and not coping with the situation can lead to even more problematic consequences. Addressing something openly- while often difficult- can lead to prevention of further problems.

Admitting to the reality of a situation also may involve admitting to one’s role or part in the situation. Teens can sometimes not be honest because they have a fear of getting into trouble or a fear that it will escalate an intense reaction in the person they tell. They would rather avoid the short-term pain of intense reactions than the long-term problems of the situation. And teenagers are often not thinking about long- term consequences! The double bind is to deal with it all alone. A teenager who is all about gaining independence and relying less on one’s parents may believe that secret keeping is the only way to gain privacy and independence.

If you are a parent and want to increase you teen’s ability to confide in you, consider the following:

What are you doing to invite conversations about difficult topics, and what are you doing to punish conversations about difficult topics?

Are there topics or themes in your own life that are “off topic”? Are there conversations that would be too emotional for you to handle if someone were to ask?

Is the short-term anxiety of “not knowing” something worth avoiding based on the long-term consequences of not having a conversation at all?

What types of things do you “hide” from yourself because if you admitted they were true, you’d have to face the consequences?

If you were being completely honest with yourself, what situations would you have to confront?

What types of things did you keep from your parent/s when you were a teen, and what do you wish could have been different?

Being open about emotionally “forbidden” topics will help create an environment where openness is encouraged. Being more and more comfortable with intense emotions, painful life situations, and one’s own ghosts will help you develop deeper relationships. Avoiding painful life situations can sometimes create more psychological distress than seeing what is in front of you, admitting it exists, and taking steps to address it.

The benefits of telling lies:

• Avoiding confrontation. Getting the person doing the confronting pacified or calmed down.

• The person lying doesn’t know or have the answers. It may be easier to go along with what is being implied or being made explicit and verbal than to face the unknown, unsaid, or unarticulated.

• The person lying is trying to save face or look good. Sometimes it’s easier to make things up than to risk disappointing people.

• The person lying is disorganized. He/she may have planted so many lies or has so much confusion about keeping people away from the truth that the lying has become a habitual form of avoiding what’s really going on. As a way of life, there is a great deal of confusion about what is “real”, what is accurate, and what is factual.

• Fear. It is just plain scary to dig inside, look at the truth, face the facts, and confront reality.

• The person doing the confronting has a low tolerance for ambiguity, thus there is a high insistence or demand for concrete answers. If the person being confronted doesn’t have a clear way to paint the picture more accurately, he/she may not know how to correct what is being implied.

• If the person doing the lying doesn’t have an accurate way to look inside, sort of speak, and come up with a description of self-experience, lying can be feasible. This may be the case of the person simply doesn’t have words for what they feel, notice, experience, etc. So they don’t bother.

If a person has a history of going along with the flow, or doing what the environment is prompting him/her to do, lying will be a behavior that is extremely difficult to change. “Automatic pilot” behavior is behavior that is not always conscious- and although it may result in painful consequences later (being confronted about lying)- it can be the easy thing to do in the moment.

Putting words on experience is one of the “what” skills of mindfulness. Paying attention to experiences within the skin encourages clients to accurately “look inside” (sort of speak) and to get better at describing what (exactly!) is going on. Looking “inside” can be rather aversive (and sometimes even painful).

Mindfulness is a conscious effort to be aware. It may mean paying attention to and interrupting a history of automatic pilot behavior. Over time, being able to accurately put words on experience, be assertive, and have a legitimate “voice” can be rewarding. Not only can it give persons a sense of confidence, but it can empower them with adequate words for their pieces of truth. They can also share observations and perspectives that may have been previously silenced.

Of course.

Worth it?