It is normal for teenagers to start “testing the waters” as they try to assert their independence. Whether it’s staying out late, hanging around with people you might disapprove of, or skipping classes, establishing independence can often lead to lying. While the main reason most teens lie is to avoid punishment, if lying becomes compulsive, they could be covering up something far more troubling.

What is Compulsive Lying in Teens?

Compulsive lying, or “pathological” lying is habitual lying teens can’t control. This is quite different from the occasional lies to avoid arguments or punishment, and instead is driven by a teen’s desire to deceive. In this case, lying isn’t just undesirable behavior, but instead a psychological behavior with underlying causes.

What are the Causes of Compulsive Lying in Teens?

The causes of compulsive lying in teens are quite complex, but can often be attributed to the following issues:

  • Low self-esteem causing teens to seek attention, wanting to make themselves look better in your eyes, or gaining admiration/acceptance from peers.
  • Fear of possible negative consequences for their behavior, or that might lead to social rejection or judgement on various levels.
  • Coping mechanisms for teens struggling with emotional issues or under stress who need an escape from reality.
  • Covering up undesirable, dangerous behavior.

What are Signs of Compulsive Lying in Teens?

You might not realize your teen is lying if you have always trusted them. As a result, you might not become suspicious until you “catch” them in several lies. However, there are some compulsive lying red flags you can watch for, including:

  • Constant lying with both complex stories and little “fibs”
  • Unable to maintain consistency in their explanations or when relating events
  • Exaggeration of events
  • Elaboration
  • Becoming defensive when asked questions or outright denying lies
  • Blaming others/lack of accountability
  • Manipulative behavior to help maintain their lies

Psychological Signs for Compulsive Lying in Teens

There are also psychological signs that can cause lying behavior such as:

  • Low self-esteem and lack of confidence
  • A constant need for validation
  • Insecurity
  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of judgment
  • Not knowing the difference between reality and fantasy
  • Lack of impulse control
  • Anxieties over possible consequences

Teens with anxiety, personality disorders as well as conditions such as autism might also be more prone to lying.

When to Seek Professional Help

When lying persists, your teen might have underlying emotional or psychological issues causing the behavior. Therefore, it is important to seek assistance, whether you speak to your family doctor or a mental health professional. They can help find the cause of lying behavior, provide coping strategies, teach you how to help support your teen, and start rebuilding trust.

How to Help Your Teen Overcome Compulsive Lying

There are a few things you can do to help your teen overcome compulsive lying behavior:

Help build their confidence and self-esteem

It’s important to provide ongoing support so they don’t constantly seek validation, including:

  • Steer them towards positive self-talk when they put themselves down
  • Always celebrate their achievements
  • Help them succeed by providing opportunities to do well, such as pursuing their interests, or encouraging them to develop a natural talent

Enhance their coping skills

Compulsive lying can come about because your teen lacks coping skills. You can help enhance these skills in the following ways:

  • Focus on “discussions” instead of shouting and arguing during conflicts
  • Help them find solutions for problems by discussing issues together
  • Set an example by using open, honest communication

Focus on accountability and honesty

Instead of getting angry and punishing your teen for what you feel is undesirable behavior, create a safe environment where they feel they can come to you to discuss anything. Strategies include:

  • Make honesty the most important “rule” of the household
  • Respect accountability and take responsibility for their actions
  • Reward honesty
  • Be reasonable about the consequences for overstepping the rules to remove the fear factor of being honest

For teens on the spectrum, compulsive lying and autism is often related to fantasy as opposed to dishonesty. In this case, it is important to help your teen learn to focus on the realities of events instead of what they would prefer to occur.

While it takes time to overcome lying behavior, if all your efforts fail to see results, professional intervention can help set your teen on a path of honesty.

If your teenager needs the structured care and support of a residential treatment center, request more information on our program here.