Why Does My Teenager Lie to Me?
My 22-year-old son lied to me about being in an accident. When will he be mature enough to start telling the truth?
“I don’t want to go to school and learn solemn things. I don’t want to be a man.” —J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
At the end of my last post, I got a frantic call in the middle of the night from my 22-year-old son, Harry, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and central auditory processing disorder (CAPD). Gasping for breath at the scene of the accident and full of righteous anger, Harry tells me he was minding his own business, driving two friends home from work, when out of nowhere, a huge speeding truck ran him off to the side of the road. In the resulting accident, Harry slammed through a ditch, tore across an empty field, and smashed his Jeep Cherokee into the side of a deserted building. Proud of my hyperfocused, calm, caring-parent, good-in-an-emergency reaction, I find out if anyone was hurt (he didn’t think so), ask if he got the tag number on the truck (no), and tell him to call 911 immediately and then call me back with his exact location so I can get there to help him.
My wife, Margaret, wakes as I throw on clothes. I give her the basics of the call and she lies back down with a groan, covering her head with the blankets. When I go downstairs to get my jacket and keys, I realize Harry hasn’t called me back yet. I try calling him. No answer. That’s weird. God, I hope that speeding trucker didn’t come back and … do something to him. I start to head out the door to the car but stop when I remember I don’t really know where he is. I call him again. Now it’s busy. Okay, he’d seemed reluctant to call the cops; he’s probably just getting to it now. I walk out to the driveway and start the car. I turn the radio on and off. Still full-on in my hyperfocused, problem-solving mode, I decide I’ll try him one more time and if I don’t get him, I’ll call the cops myself. This time Harry answers.
“Uh, yeah. Hi, Dad,” he says, all the righteous anger gone from his voice. “Look, you don’t have to come down here, really.” He sounds much more subdued; is he in shock? I hear what sounds like police radios in the background.
“Just tell me where you are, Harry. I’ll be right there.”
“No, really, don’t,” he says, growing adamant. “The Highway Patrol is here.”
“Good, that’s good,” I say. “Did you tell them what happened?”
“Yeah, well, they’ve kind of figured that out,” he says.
“Figured what out?” I ask.
“I gotta go, Dad…”
What’s going on? Why is he being so evasive? The whine of a winch splits the air on his side of the phone. Some guy is yelling, “Whoa, whoa, that’s got it!” in the background. Then Harry’s hand muffles the phone and I hear him saying “Yeah, okay” to somebody, and then he’s back. He doesn’t sound good.
“One of the troopers will bring me home later,” he says.
“Did you give them a description of the truck that ran you off the road?”
“Dad, stop.” Harry’s impatient and irritated now. “That’s just it. I lied to you about that, OK? There was no truck.”
“What?” I shriek. I’m outside pacing back and forth in our driveway in the middle of the night, yelling at the top of my lungs. At the moment, I’m stopped at the curb next to the mailbox facing across the street. I’d better pull it together before the neighbors call the cops on me. We’re new here, and with my long trips out of town to take care of my parents, I’m less well known than the rest of my family. Plus, I’m more excitable and irrational than the rest of my family, which I guess is obvious in my present situation. Here’s one of the drawbacks to hyperfocus — transitioning out is like being splashed with a bucket of ice water. You’re confused and prone to getting pissed off.
My heart is accelerating in pre-panic attack mode, so I stand still and take a couple of deep, slow intakes and releases. To move things along, I let my left brain cross-examine my right brain during this calming exercise. Splitting my personality in two opposing camps is a good way to burn out all my circuits in one final pop and fizzle. In less than a minute, I’ll have centered myself and gained enough self-knowledge and control to not lose my mind screaming at my son over the phone outside at two in the morning. It’s a scene we’d all like to avoid.
I can hear the entire conversation in my head.
Right Brain, get focused! So there was no speeding truck running Harry off the road — why do you care?
He lied to me, Left Brain.
Of course he lied, you idiot — Harry lies like he breathes.
But why won’t he tell me what really happened?
That’s simple: because there’s no immediate upside for him.
But lying never works in the long run.
Come on, he has ADHD and CAPD, on top of being in his early 20s. The long run doesn’t exist for him; tomorrow doesn’t exist. Even the next minute is barely real. It’s all about the present moment. It’s all that really matters to him — kind of Zen-like if you want to give it a positive spin.
What can be positive about my son only telling the truth when a Georgia State trooper is in his face?
He identifies a real threat and responds appropriately.
Harry’s voice filters in from the phone: “Dad? You there?”
Circuits are getting hot, Right Brain, time to get back to our phone call and get off the driveway.
Wait, Left Brain, one question … How, in just a couple of years, has my honest, good-hearted boy turned into this stubborn, secretive man who lies to me all the time about everything?
I don’t know; ask him. And stop being so nice and touchy-feely about everything.
“Harry, tell me what’s going on. Right now.”
“Later,” Harry says. “I gotta go.” He clicks off.