13-year old son lies all the time

Seeking advice on 13 year old son who lies all the time.  When he is confronted about lying, he denies it even though all evidence points to it being a lie.  For example, he left pornography sites open on his younger sister's computer, but he denied it was him.  He lies about screen time when he is unsupervised and lies about completing assignments at school.  In the past we have punished him by taking away his electronics time or having him do special chores or pay fines as a restorative justice measure, but it does not seem to be working.  Because of the constant lying, we do not trust him and have restricted his unsupervised time.

Is this a phase?  Should we schedule a visit with a therapist?  I appreciate any advice you can provide.

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Hi there,

I want to recommend the book called I’d Listen to my Parents if They’d Just Shut Up: What to Say and What Not to Say When Parenting Teens, by Anthony Wolf. 

He has a really helpful section on how to focus more on the original problematic behavior than on the lying. 

I’be found the whole book helpful.

Take care!

Mom of two middle school boys  

My son is 12 and we've seen an uptick in lying recently, though not as bad (yet) as you are experiencing. The tough part as a parent, is that you don't want them to internalize that they are a liar, but you need to call it out and address it. If my son gets to the stage yours is at, we will definitely get a therapist. A therapist can talk about lying in a more neutral way. Because it's only going to get worse. Things that seem to have helped us so far ... 1) we do not flip out (anymore) about lies. We talk about them quietly and we ask questions vs accuse. We search for the answer to, Why? We are open and nonjudgmental, as much as possible. 2) I recently explained how easy it is to lie those who love you. On a long drive, I talked about the corrosive effects of lying in adult relationships, and how easy it is for boyfriends/girlfriends and spouses to lie about huge things - because the people who love them deeply, desperately want to believe that they can TRUST the few people that they choose to love. It's not clever to lie to parents or lovers: It's the easiest thing in the world. A stranger would probably see through his lies, but those who love him can't so easily, because we are blinded by love. But that's what makes lying so terribly hurtful, so damaging, and such a betrayal. Lying also damages your own heart and mind. It changes you. That's why bravely telling the truth is the best path for yourself and those few people who truly LOVE you.  That message seems to have been really received. 

Our oldest son began lying all the time at about the same age. I feel like it was born out of insecurity, and just continued to become a habit. No matter what we’ve said, or done, including punishment or just plain, “this has got to stop because we’ll never be able to trust you.”, bluntness stopped the behavior. 

We finally did have him start seeing a therapist about 18 months ago, he’s now 20, and I think it’s helped a little bit, but lying is always  his first instinct. And ridiculous stories. Like, they make no sense, but he just can’t help himself. 

My advice would be that if you feel like it’s not going to stop and it’s affecting your relationship negatively then you must get him to a therapist ASAP. I regret not going sooner. Mostly because I knew deep down he needed it, but just kept hoping he’d grow out of it, but also, now that hes over 18, I have far less control(is not really the right word, but it works)as far as therapy. I can’t make him go, although it is a condition for him to live at home now. And I can’t discuss his progress with the therapist as  easily. My son is very resistant to a session with us, well, because who knows what he’s told the therapist? 

But I always go with the thought that if you think he needs it he should go. I’m worried our relationship with our son is irreversibly damaged. I’m hoping that in time we will be able to rebuild trust between us, and I feel like if we had started sooner we’d be in a better place now. 

Take care. 

Have the same problem. Don't know what to do. Seems pathological. Open to suggestions.

If your son's lies are primarily around screen time, Internet use, pornography, and claiming homework is done in order to spend time with screens, your son's main issue may be a video game/Internet addiction. The proposed DSM-V criteria for this disorder include:

  • Preoccupied with video games or the Internet
  • Withdrawal symptoms, e.g., irritability, kids get quite angry when limits are set
  • Demands to use more and more time
  • Repeated unsuccessful attempts to get your kid to cut back
  • Lied/deceived family about use of games or the internet
  • Kids' screen/phone problems have damaged family relationships and/or hurt academics

If you believe your son is addicted, I encourage you to seek mental health treatment with a child and family counselor who can meet with your son and parent(s),

This really alarms me, because not only is he visiting porn sites, it sounds like he is aggressively leaving them open for his younger sister to find. To me, this is sexually predatory behavior, and I would be extremely concerned. It sounds to me like he is screaming for help. I don't think this is a matter of punishment as restorative justice, but of finding out if something happened to him that has led to him acting out. 

IMO you should definitely see a therapist, and be extremely cautious about your younger child. This is not normal behavior for a 13 year old. They're difficult, but this is different. Try to look at the lying as a symptom of a deeper problem troubling him and get to the bottom of it. 

The replies to your post have all been thoughtful: there was some really good advice given, especially those that were geared toward responding calmly and nonjudgmental to lying. Some early, targeted therapeutic intervention for your son also sounds like a good idea. This may help him to uncover what's motivating the lying, and could also help you to uncover what else may be going on. It's about supporting him to grow and develop into someone who feels solid enough that he doesn't need to lie reflexively. We all tell lies, little ones here and there, and/but lying habitually can become a real impediment to leading a healthy, happy life. Based on my own experience with my teenage daughter, there may also be some work to do within your family. Often, we'll see some undesirable quality crop up in our child, and then this son or daughter becomes the "identified patient," the one with the problem. In fact, while working with the child directly, the therapist will often recommend exploring what it is in the family system as a whole that is driving the behavior. Ultimately, dealing with the whole family system, in addition to treating the child himself/herself, will help set the stage for understanding and growth. It takes courage to admit something like this and to seek help. I wish you, your family and your son bravery. Take the steps to address this now. You won't regret it.

Teenage boys are confused, frightened, and ashamed by their own impulses. In order for him to be more honest about porn and masturbation, he has to first be honest and open with himself--he first needs to understand these impulses. 

As far as lying about screen time: maybe you should not have rules that you cannot enforce. If nobody is home to watch a teenager, he will most likely play video games or watch TV. If you know your son with go to the computer as soon as his parents leave the house, find an alternate solution or simply allow him screen time. Also, it sounds like your internet could use a content filter.

I'm kind of surprised you got advice to see a therapist because your 13 year old is lying about looking at porn and spending too much time on video games. I am a parent of three boys, my youngest is 16 and the older ones are now out on their own. What you are describing sounds very normal to me for a teen boy. My boys at this age would rather play video games than eat, certainly they'd prefer it to doing chores or homework. And they would maximize their screen time whenever they had the chance.  You just have to decrease the opportunities. For example no screens in the bedroom, and avoid long stretches of time at home alone. I think threats and punishments are not as effective, given the limitations of the teenage brain. They really crave the excitement and risk they get from video games, and it can be hard for them to resist.  

As for looking at porn: teen boys look at porn, that's a fact, and they do not want to discuss it with their mom. Even my grown-up husband is incredibly embarrassed by the topic and reluctant to discuss it. So it's not unusual that your son lied about this. He wants to preserve his dignity. Teenagers are also very careless about covering their tracks, just as they are careless about everything else.  I'm sure your son didn't intend for anyone else to see it, but he was not careful, and he probably feels terrible about that. I remember the first time I found porn on the family computer when my oldest son was about 14. He was horrified that I had seen it. I did not ask him if it was his. I pretended that I didn't know how the porn got on the computer. I called an impromptu family meeting with him and his brother, and I said I found some porn on the computer, so I wanted to let them know what the rules are about this. First I gave them my canned speech about how porn debases and objectifies women (which they had both heard before) and then I told them that I "heard on BPN" that teen boys look at porn, and I'm not saying they can't, but I personally do not ever want to see porn popping up on my computer again. And I didn't after that!  (Although I did find a gross magazine under the mattress a few years later when the oldest son went off to college...)

This age is very aggravating for parents. Thirteen is the worst!  They are trying to figure out how to be adults and they have adult-like hormones and impulses though they are still basically children. It can be very difficult to navigate as a parent. It's good to set rules and expectations, especially around how much screen time you're willing to allow. But I do think it's just as important to let him save face sometimes, even when you both know he was in the wrong.  This will help you build the relationship you want to have when your son is older and on into young adulthood.  A sense of humor helps a lot too.

Good luck!