Thursday, June 9, 2011

Adolescence and the problem with truth

The truth is, most adolescents are selective about how much truth to tell their parent about what is really happening in their lives and in their world.

"If my parents knew it all, they'd never let me do anything!" There's the rub. The teenager knows that telling truth will not always set them free. It can often get them in a lot of trouble. Parent: "You did what? Your friends are doing what? You're staying home until further notice!"

This is why adolescents lead double lives - the life about which parents are informed and the life about which parents are not told. There's a fine line between self-confession and self-incrimination and most adolescents don't want to cross it because if they do, significant freedom can be lost.

However, when truth is deliberately omitted, denied, covered up, or fabricated by the teenager, the consequences for the parent can be profound. Come adolescence, the young person is the parents' prime informant about what is going on in his or her life. Deprived of valid information the adults feel cut off and out of control. "We can't believe anything you say!"

Adolescents often treat lying as a practical way to escape punishment of get away with the forbidden, a way get illicit freedom. They don't comprehend the emotional impact of lying in a valued relationship -- the anxiety and helplessness from being kept in ignorance. After all, there is no trust without truth, there is no intimacy without honesty, and there is no security without sincerity. And there is anger. To be told a falsehood by their teenager can feel like a betrayal. "You deliberately lied to us!"

Once at a workshop a parent described how she used an object lesson to teach her middle school daughter to stop repeated lying. An object lesson is a risky disciplinary maneuver whereby the parent models the transgression in the hopes that, finding it objectionable, the child will want to stop it too. The risk is that the young person, rather than learning to cease, will take the parent's instructional example as a justification for continuing the misbehavior. "Well you just acted that way with me so I can keep acting that way with you!" However, in the case described, it was successful and it worked like this.

The mother told her daughter, "Sometime in the next two weeks I'm going to tell you a really big lie." The daughter didn't believe her mom. "You wouldn't lie to me. You always tell me the truth." But then the girl started to get worried. "About being able to spend my savings on what I wanted, is that the lie?" "No," the mother answered, "that's not the lie. You earned the money." Later in the week, the daughter asked, "Being allowed to go to the overnight this weekend, is that the lie?" "No," the mother answered, "that's not the lie. You can go." Then, deep into the second week, the daughter asked, "Getting the puppy, is that the lie?" "No," the mother answered, "that's not the lie. We've already named him."

Finally the two-week wait was over. "Well?" asked the daughter, by now angry at not knowing what was true and what was not, "You promised you were going to lie to me!" "That's right," answered the mother, "that was the lie. And that's how it feels to be lied to." And perhaps because the daughter was a mature only child, she took the lesson to heart. It's really hard to live comfortably in a relationship where the other person is telling you deliberate untruths.

Of course, telling the truth is not that simple because truth is more elusive than we like to think. So placing people "under oath" we ask them to take a vow no human being is empowered to keep: "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?" Only a liar would swear to that. After all:

Language only approximates meaning.
Experience is subject to interpretation.
Truth is a story that can be told many different ways.
Accounts of facts are often mixed with bits of fiction.
There are different visions and versions of what happened.
Perception is biased by personal point of view.
Truth is a matter of debate and hard to prove.
Memory is selective.
Understanding is limited.
Awareness is constantly shifting.
Like history, "truth" is in a constant state of revision.

But if the truth is so hard to unequivocally establish, what are parents and adolescent to do? I think what parents can reasonably ask their teenager is this. "Tell us as the truth as you see it, be as honest with us as you possibly can, don't deliberately deceive us, and tell us enough about what is going on so we can be there when you need our help."

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