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Why teenagers lie to parents in high-conflict custody cases

In a number of my high-conflict custody cases, clients will complain about their teenagers suddenly being secretive, evasive, and, sometimes, downright dishonest about what they are doing when in the other parent’s care. These clients often conclude that the teenager is doing this because the other parent is encouraging them to. They sometimes conclude that this evasiveness and lying is a sign that there are actually problematic things going on in the other parent’s home or that the other parent is engaged in deliberate alienation.

However, it is more likely that the teenager is doing this to stay out of the middle of parental conflict. A bit of secretiveness (even outright evasion) is typical teenage behavior and is a necessary part of their development. Part of the process of maturing into adulthood is developing a zone of privacy/autonomy, especially from one’s parents. It is difficult for parents to accept their teens may have aspects of their life that they wish to keep hidden from their parents. Given the teenage proclivity for risk taking–again, a necessary part of the development into adulthood–the parental fear of their child-at-risk clashes with the teenager’s desire for autonomy. Even when a teenager’s parents are not in conflict with each other, some of this behavior is normal and expected.

In high-conflict parenting situations the teenager’s need and desire for privacy is heightened. What a parent might perceive as an innocent question–“What did you do at your mother’s house?”–may strike that teenager as having a hidden agenda with the real concern being “what is your mother doing with you?” Further, if a teenager’s answer to this question prompts a series of further questions, that only encourages the teenager to shut down or lie. A simple question like, “what did you eat,” may be heard as a parent fishing for information about diet in an attempt to criticize the other parent’s food choices. A question like “who else was there?” may be heard as “does your mother have a boyfriend staying there?” Accusing the teenager of deliberately lying to protect the other parent or accusing the other parent of deliberately alienating the teenager will likely lead to an even more strained relationship.

I don’t suggest that some parents aren’t engaging in behavior that alienates the other parent from their children. I merely suggest that when parents do not live together, they allow their teenagers a zone of privacy regarding their relationship with the other parent. A parent who is not perceived as using questions to create conflict or search for ammunition to use against the other parent is a parent more likely to have a relatively open and trusting relationship with his or her teen.

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