The day before my oldest daughter got married, she asked me, “what is the most important quality to a successful marriage?”
I didn’t say “love.” I guess I don’t hold to certain romantic notions such as “soulmate for life” or “love conquers all.” No, my response was – “honesty!” Without truth and honesty in the relationship, even in the face of rejection or inevitable repercussions for being untruthful, there is no foundation upon which the marriage can thrive or even survive. Love will wax and wane, but honesty is forever, regardless of how one feels. What’s this got to do with adolescents or young adults who lie? The same foundation argument applies to parents and young adults. Without honesty, trust doesn’t exist, and love suffers.
Why do Young Adults Lie?
The most prevalent reason I have found is to avoid judgment or criticism from the parent. Common lies to avoid disapproval by the parents have to do with:
- School failure
- Losing a job
- Drinking excessively or illicit drug usage
Often this is accompanied by a level of shame or guilt. A second contributor to lying relates to the young adult’s desire to obtain some benefit from the parents. Often this is a request for money that may not be used as requested. This is particularly the case with addictions, where lying and ultimately stealing from parents to feed the addiction is common.
Recently a young adult whose use of a car and the payment of tuition for community college were tied to her achieving a “B” average, avoided producing evidence of her meeting this agreement. She admitted that she didn’t exactly achieve a “B” average but still didn’t produce evidence of her grades. She then claimed to be enrolled in the next semester’s classes, but the father had not been billed for these. The father took the car back, assuming she was lying as she had done in the past, and she abruptly stopped speaking to him. The third basis for lying involves certain mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit, and other disorders. Although not unique to young adults, denial of a mental health condition due to a sense of shame or belief that one is seen as weak is relatively common in Western culture.
“What’s a Parent to do?”
This is a question that a parent asked during the Q&A section of my recent webinar. It’s a hard question to answer because there may not be specific evidence of lying, and it’s their word against yours in many cases. When confronting a young adult living at home on being high on drugs, it’s your word against theirs unless you have some arrangement and agreement with them that they will submit to a urine analysis. I’m not a fan of parents requiring a UA when they think their young adult is high. Such testing is handled more appropriately through a drug treatment program with continued surveillance and support. Some parents who have faced the theft of money or jewelry and denials by the young adult have resorted to putting such items in a safe. Stealing is one of the deal-breakers for living at home, and it may be time to indicate that the young adult needs to live elsewhere. Deviant or irresponsible behavior resulting from addiction is one of the most difficult challenges parents can face.
General Guidelines for Confronting Lies
Handling lying requires both a proactive as well as a reactive approach. On the proactive side, it’s important to do the following:
- The starting point for all of us as parents needs to be our willingness to model honesty and openness with our young adult children. If we don’t walk the talk, there is no reason for them not to do the same.
- It’s also important to express your desire to have a trusting and honest relationship and communication with them.
- Try to acknowledge and reinforce any efforts on their part to be truthful and follow-through on promises they make. No young adult or person lies all of the time.
- Look for ways to reduce the possibility of their lying, such as buying books, paying school tuition, buying a phone, a bag of groceries versus giving them money.
- Allow our young adults some privacy and ability to take the fifth. Having certain secrets to assert one’s separate identity isn’t a bad thing as long as these are not illegal or destructive to trust in the relationship. I had a motorcycle while in graduate school and purposefully didn’t tell my parents to avoid their worrying about this.
When becoming aware of a situation in which you believe your young adult may not be truthful, here are some guidelines.
- Remain calm, express your desire to learn the truth. You may even give your young adult some time to think about the question you want to ask them. Encourage them to be truthful and avoid compounding the problem with lying.
- Avoid attacking and accusatory language and the use of “you always” or “you never,” which are rarely accurate and often lead to defensiveness or arguments regarding old examples of behavior and lying.
- Ask your young adult for evidence for their claim of truthfulness. If they are unable or unwilling to produce these, ask them to help you understand how you can believe them?
- Sometimes you may have to act even though you don’t have all of the evidence to make a case. If your young adult said they used the money to buy something they needed, but they can’t produce this, you might think twice before giving any further money.
- Keep perspective. Their lying is not your fault. This, too, shall pass. Share a vision of a future where you will have a more honest relationship.
Many of the guidelines above are relevant to young adults living at home or on their own, but if they live on their own, they have no obligation to be truthful. They also may have less need to lie. Our kids who live independently, out of sight, out of mind can lead to fewer sleepless nights, but we never stop worrying about our kids. That said, we must shift from directive to being more of an adult friend and recognize they have to be responsible for truth in their decisions and actions.