How To Tell If Teens Are Lying to You

We all lie.  For parents, it is more important to tell if their teens are lying.  After watching and interacting with thousands of teens, parents and families, here are a few patterns for adults, teachers and parents to look out for:

(Disclaimer: these are simply observations, these clues do not mean that the person you are speaking with is lying)

Verbal Nuance

  • Timing is off between gestures and words.  The facial expression that comes after a statement (I am so sad about this, pause and then the sad expression)
  • Less full facial expression when talking.
  • Out of proportion reaction
  • Responds to questions, yet asks none of their own.
  • When the subject is changed there is physical and emotional relief that you can see in the teen.

Body Language

  • Less physical expression and movement.  Stiffness or mechanical movement.
  • The teen takes up less physical space (shrinking down in order not to be caught)
  • Their hand may go up to his face or throat, especially to the mouth.
  • They turn their body away from the adult or person they are lying to.
  • Playing with physical objects or actually placing a physical object in between the two of you as a type of barrier.

Verbal Content

  • Responding to an accusation by offering a belief in general instead of this specific instance (ie Do you smoke pot? -I believe pot is dangerous)
  • Constantly adding additional details until you believe them and to fill silences.
  • They use such phrases as “To tell you the truth”  “To be perfectly honest”  and “Why would I lie to you?”
  • The answer is very specific, almost rehearsed about a ‘casual event’
  • They repeat your question.

To Catch A Lie

  • Use an open-ended question that is not accusatory but alludes to a possible behavior.

“Anything interesting happen at the party last night?”

  • Ask their opinion on a similar example.

“I would love your opinion on this.  A friend of mine from college, recently found a lighter and some rolling papers in their child’s jeans.  She is not sure how to approach it or if the papers were used for cigarettes or pot.  What should she do?”

Lying is a very natural, yet dangerous occurrence.  Unfortunately it is part of growing up, but parents need to be aware of teens lying habits to keep them safe.  I share these tips and hope they will be used in the right circumstance.

This is part of EmoSocial Intelligence series. If you would like to read more articles on how to read and build nonverbal communication skills in your family or with your child, please visit our EmoSocial Intelligence page for tips and updated research.


Paul Ekman (1999). Basic Emotions. In T. Dalgleish and M. Power (Eds.). Handbook of Cognition and Emotion. Sussex, U.K.: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

“The lie detective: San Francisco psychologist has made a science of reading facial expressions” by Julian Guthrie, San Francisco Chronicle, Monday, September 16, 2002.

Book: Why Kids Lie: How Parents Can Encourage Truthfulness

“The lie detective: San Francisco psychologist has made a science of reading facial expressions” by Julian Guthrie, San Francisco Chronicle, Monday, September 16, 2002.

2 Responses to “How To Tell If Teens Are Lying to You”

  1. sue dillicar
    August 27, 2009 at 2:27 pm #

    My 14 year old daughter has demonstrated some of these things when she lies to me, but others are new to me so I will keep an eagle eye out for them. I don’t think that I will necessarily call her out on it but I think knowing when kids are lying to you gives a parent a heads up about possible areas of concern.

  2. Cheryl Roth
    November 5, 2011 at 7:08 pm #

    Great tips, it’s good to be aware.

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