Freedom. Our country was founded on this value. Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. Freedom to lie to your parents. Wait, what? Yes, we value freedom, but in our research with teens we discovered that it is far more than just a “value.” At this stage of their lives, it is the value. In fact, it is so motivating, so powerful, that to many teens it becomes like a drug – one that they are even willing to lie to their parents to keep.
When I was researching For Parents Only I had an illuminating conversation with adolescent psychotherapist Dr. Julie Carberry that explained so much of what I was hearing in my focus groups with teenagers. She said, “Freedom is cocaine to a teenager. It’s intoxicating. It’s addictive. And it is often their biggest motivator.”
How big? Three out of four of teens in my nationally-representative survey said they were intensely focused on being able to do what they wanted to do (which is essentially their definition of freedom). So much so that even most teens who loved and had good relationships with their parents would do whatever it took (including deceive their parents) to avoid losing that precious freedom.
While this truth may sound frightening, the research also revealed three steps that will help you nip those deceptions in the bud, so your teen can start living in the sort of healthy freedom that you as a parent can also enjoy!
Step #1: Choose discipline with their brand of freedom in mind
One of the most common pleas we heard from teens was for parents to understand them as individuals. And since they are wired to be freedom junkies, the fear of losing ONE particular freedom will likely cause a gut-level, highly emotional reaction in even the calmest teenager.
Which particular freedom? Well, that’s the point: that’s what you have to find out. Is your child’s cell phone their can’t-live-without-it lifeline to a few close friends they are desperate not to lose? Or do they (rather annoyingly) wait hours to check their text messages, but view access to the car as their lifeline to the world? Or perhaps they could take or leave their cell phone or car, but deeply care about the ability to spend money where they most want to spend it?
Whatever type of freedom your teen cares about most will be their main trigger.
So choose discipline with their brand of freedom in mind. When you need to give some sort of correction, make sure that (in their mind) the punishment fits the crime. In other words: losing their most important freedom should be reserved for “nuclear bomb” infractions, not day-to-day mistakes.
For example, suppose your child’s brand of freedom is their car—and they get a speeding ticket. You might be tempted to revoke their car privileges to “teach them a lesson”—and yet because the car is your child’s greatest motivator, taking it away is the nuclear option. You might hear (as we did) anger and fury that seems out of all proportion. But, you see, to them what was out of all proportion was revoking the car for a 10-mph speeding ticket! For your child, you might find that having to take a safety driving class for four weeks might teach the consequences for speeding without the least bit of resentment!
What does this have to do with lying, you might ask? Many teens, like many addicts, will choose to lie and deceive parents when they feel they are at risk of losing their brand of freedom for a non-nuclear-bomb infraction. Lying is often a teen’s defense to avoid losing freedom, rather than a stand-alone offense or rebellious bad behavior. In the research, we found that even good, godly kids who are close to their parents will rationalize and bend the truth to the breaking point out of fear of losing a freedom-trigger privilege or object, be it a cell phone, being able to go out with friends, or even being able to go to bed when they want!
Obviously, there’s no excuse for deception—but if we’re going to counter it, we need to know what is behind it. So learn your child’s freedom-triggers and choose discipline that will seem proportional to your child.
Step #2: Let your child know in what crucial situations they can be honest with you, without losing their freedom
Ultimately, we want our teens to know that they can be honest with us about crucial matters without risking their precious freedoms. Sometimes, of course, confessing to a fault and taking the consequences is an important lesson. But equally important are those safety and moral situations in which you want and need your teen to be honest with you—for them to know that no matter what they can come to you without losing their crucial freedoms.
My author friend Vicki Courtney shared that when her kids first started using the internet, she made them promise if something inappropriate showed up on their screen they should tell her. No matter what, she would not take away their access to the internet!
One day, a weird, inappropriate ad appeared on her daughter’s screen. Her daughter came to her, but reminded her promptly of her promise to not take away her internet access.
As you now know, teens live with a deep and reactionary fear that you’ll take away their favorite freedom. So unless you prove that there are situations in which you will leave it intact, your child may be inclined to think that calling you and confessing that they are at a rowdy party is a far greater risk than riding home in the drunk friend’s car. But the more willing you are to explicitly say things like “I promise, if you call, I will come pick you up anywhere, and you will not lose your cell phone,” (or whatever) the more willing the teen will be to trust you when it matter most.
Step #3: Remember, freedom-seeking is a healthy desire
Finally, remember: your child may not always handle their desire for freedom well… but the desire itself is a natural and good thing. After all, as they get older, one of our main jobs as parents is to help them handle their increasing freedoms well!
So empathize with your child. Show them that you “get” why such-and-such is so important to them—but that lying is never the right option. Prove to your child that they can earn more freedoms if they are truthful with you, even when it is difficult. Over time, even the temptation to lie will diminish as your child makes more mature choices—and is rewarded for them.
It is rarely an easy or quick journey to get to that point, but we have seen in the research that we can get there. Get to know your teen’s freedom language, give them freedom-saving discipline choices, and reward them for telling the truth. And as you do, your teen will become more and more honest and open with you—which is the ultimate state of freedom for parents and teens alike.
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