My teenage son constantly lies to us. How do we get the trust back?

My son is 15 and causing no end of trouble. He is a good kid, pushing against the boundaries and learning to grow up. But getting caught (not for the first time) with an e-cigarette at school has really brought everything to a head. He has now been excluded for two days, and my husband and I have been called in to be (what feels like) shamed for being bad parents.

What has become apparent is the constant lying, not only about the big things but also stupid, silly little things, that are inconsequential. I accept that lying to parents is normal – I still remember being a teenager myself. However, the lies on top of lies have destroyed all trust. Not only at home, but also at school.

I feel we cannot trust anything that comes out of his mouth. It’s exhausting and feels as if we are stuck with no way out of the hurt. How do we get the trust back? I am not averse to counselling but I have no idea what I am looking for. Am I blowing it out of proportion and is there something we can work on ourselves?

I’m sure the school doesn’t think you are bad parents; I think it may take a bit more than that. And your reaction to this is quite telling. If you feel shame at being called in to school, we can perhaps start to imagine that your son feels that, too. I’d like you to practise feeling curious about why he’s lying instead of defaulting to shame. Curiosity is a more useful tool in parenting. I wonder if perhaps your son doesn’t trust you with his feelings?

“Fundamentally,” says adolescent specialist psychotherapist Anthea Benjamin (psychotherapy.org.uk), “teenagers lie because of a stress-protection mechanism. It may be to protect themselves or not wanting to disappoint you or because they feel shame. Lies can be about keeping safe from the reality of how difficult and out of control they feel [life is].”

Lies are also a way for people to distance themselves – from a situation or a person. You didn’t go into detail about what these lies are. If they are of the “I didn’t do this”, then shame is usually involved. If they augment or invent a situation – “I did this” – then it can be a sign of unhappiness and wishing life were different. Both need exploration.

Loss of trust is a biggie and I sympathise – it is, as you say, exhausting when you feel you can’t trust someone. Benjamin wondered if there was something going on for your son, a source of stress, maybe at school, that you haven’t discovered yet? Instead of wanting to catch your son out maybe you could deploy the aforementioned curiosity here.

You may need to decide “to pick your battles”, Benjamin says. “Could you [sometimes] ignore the lie, but not the child, and see it as a form of communication? Even if you know he’s lying, maybe it’s more important for the relationship with him to be nurtured and try to create a connection again?” In your search for truth you may be sowing more distrust between you.

You also asked how to rebuild that trust. Sometimes talking endlessly isn’t the answer, especially given your son clearly finds this tricky. Benjamin suggested doing “low-key, structured activities with him, that you know he’ll do and where you can have positive times together”. And where there’s no pressure to have deep and meaningful conversations. Something like bowling, where little talking is needed and you’re all concentrated on a common “something else”.

Feeling as if he’s letting you down all the time must be eroding his self-esteem, so also try to focus on what he does well. What does he like and is there an outlet for this? You mention counselling and while it would be great for him to have an outlet that’s just for him, I’m not sure if he needs more than a school counsellor at the moment (if there is one?). Benjamin also wondered if his school did a mentoring programme.

Adolescence can be such a tricky time: teens learn independence and detach from their parents, and in turn parents can feel rejected. Have a listen tomy podcast on the teenage brain which has lots of useful information for the parental tool box.

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