I am contacting you because I have been asked for advice and I am at a loss. My friend Helene is the grandmother of Debby, age 13. Helene describes her granddaughter as obese, a trashy dresser, and a habitual liar. She lies about what she eats, claims she has a boyfriend who doesn’t really exist, says she hasn’t taken money when it is obvious she has. Debby hangs around older kids who are outliers and involved in questionable behavior.
Debby does not get along with her grandfather (Helene’s husband). She is rude to him when he asks her to make her bed, or use better manners at the table, or to stop swearing. Debby constantly challenges her mother on everything. She does not get along that well with her stepfather, either; he is focused on his own kids and is not particularly attentive to her.
On two separate occasions, Debby said that two brothers, 13 and 14 in age, local friends of the family for several years, have been groping her breasts. She has also said her 24-year-old stepbrother has touched her inappropriately. Helene and her husband don’t know if Debby is telling the truth about these incidents or if it’s more of her lies. Even if she is telling the truth, the grandfather is upset that her saying these things could damage the three boy’s lives – he says, “This is just something boys do.” Helene has not told her daughter (Debby’s mother) about any of this.
Debby will be spending some time at her grandparents’ home shortly and they are not sure what to do.
Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response
I think it is important at the outset to establish that Debby’s lying may or may not be cause for great concern. Granted, there are different kinds of lies – ranging from white lies to avoid hurting someone’s feelings to those that cause great harm, either to oneself and/or to others – but the truth of the matter is that everyone lies, and, as it turns out, with great frequency.
Research conducted by Nancy Darling, Ph.D., currently a professor of psychology at Oberlin College, found that “On average, adults will tell one lie per every 5 social interactions. Usually these lies are white lies intended to be polite and /or protect someone’s feelings. Kids grow up watching parents lie and learn that lying prevents conflict while telling the truth can upset people. By the time kids become teenagers, telling lies to keep the peace or avoid trouble has become second nature.”
Further, her research indicates that over 96% of teenagers tell lies. Of 36 potential topics presented in her study, the average teen lies to their parents about 12 of them. (For a list of the topics and a discussion of lying, see this link.)
Debby’s lying does not necessarily mean she is somehow a morally bankrupt human being. Rather, as the late child behaviorist therapist James Lehman points out, teens need help to learn better problem solving skills so they don’t feel lying is the only way to deal with what is really bothering them.
So, rather than wasting time trying to get Debby to admit she took some money, a more relevant discussion would be about why Debby feels she needs more money – that is, what problem is she facing that she thinks her having more money will help solve? Instead of trying to get Debby to admit she’s fabricated a boyfriend, a more meaningful discussion might focus on ways in which she thinks having a boyfriend would improve or make her life better.
Whether Debby is telling the truth or lying about being inappropriately touched by the neighborhood boys and/or her stepbrother requires immediate attention. At this point Debby needs an advocate – that is, someone who accepts that she is going through a rough patch and can provide her some help and guidance to develop the problem solving skills she needs to address her problems, as well as deal with the sexual victimization she is actually experiencing, or the reasons why she would fabricate this.
Here is the specific advice I suggest you give Debby’s grandmother:
- Debby’s mother needs to be brought up to date on her daughter’s situation. Time is of the essence, especially with regard to the sexual jeopardy Debby may be in.
- Debby’s mother and/or grandmother could benefit from talking with a professional with specialized training in family therapy, and specifically in helping teens. After meeting with this professional, he or she will have some recommendations about how best to help Debby; e.g., teach Debby’s mother and/or grandmother some new ways to interact with Debby, suggest meeting with Debby, perhaps establish an ongoing therapeutic relationship with her.
- Your friend and/or her daughter might look into mentoring programs in your area to help troubled teens, such as the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
- Debby’s mother and/or grandmother might find it helpful to complete a short tool to assess whether Debby might be considered an “at risk” teenager.
- Finally, I want to suggest three articles that I think will help Debby’s mother and grandmother better understand some of Debby’s behavior and provide suggestions for how they might deal with it.
I close by suggesting that you talk with your friend about some of Debby’s positive traits – that is, things that Debby says or does that are pleasing, engaging, or endearing. It seems Debby is currently being labeled primarily in negative ways. It would be sad indeed if she concluded that she is not a good person.
This is an opportune time to start highlighting some nice qualities about Debby so that she can see herself as a worthwhile and good person who occasionally behaves in less-than-sterling ways and faces difficult challenges – challenges that often require the help of others, but that can be overcome.
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II: Savvy Advice to Soothe Parent-Grandparent Conflicts
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