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When Tweens Lie

I'll never forget the first time I caught my oldest son Cole, then 11, in an obvious lie.

He had attended a 6th grade dance at the middle school, and several moms who were acting as chaperones reported back to me that Cole had slow danced with a girl I will call Hailey Smith.

The next day, I said to him, "So, I heard you danced with Hailey Smith last night."

He looked at me blankly. Then out came these words: "I've never heard of a girl by that name."

I was taken aback. I never would have suspected that my son was capable of such a flat-out falsehood.

It is developmentally appropriate for tweens to start guarding their privacy.

Psychologists, however, say that it's normal for pre-teens to lie occasionally. And unless the lying becomes chronic or is coupled with destructive behavior it's relatively harmless.

Here, experts explain the three types of lies pre-teens typically tell, and how to deal with each:

The "mom, back off" denials. These are the lies, or omission of truths, that tweens tell when they feel their privacy is being invaded.

Why they tell them: As pre-teens separate from their parents, they don't want to share all the details of their lives with them anymore, says Sandra Burkhardt, a psychology professor at Saint Xavier University in Chicago. This likely explains why my son lied to me about his dancing partner. He was really telling me: "None of your business."

How to handle them: Acknowledge you may have stepped over your boundaries and don't press the issue, advises Burkhardt. Then the next time around, stick to less pointed questions, such as "How was the dance?" "Sometimes parents think their kids should talk to them about anything," says Burkhardt. But it is developmentally appropriate for tweens to start guarding their privacy, even with parents, she adds.

RELATED: Tweens Can Have Tantrums, Too

The "cover my tracks" lies. Your child fibs about watching a movie at a friend's house she knows you wouldn't approve of or says she's done her homework when she hasn't.

Why they tell them: Sure, they don't want to get in trouble, but an even bigger motivator often is that they don't want to disappoint you, says Dr. Anandhi Narasimhan, child and adolescent psychiatrist in Los Angeles.

How to handle them: Address the root problem, advises Narasimhan. It could be that your expectations or rules are too strict. If you are significantly stricter than other parents, you may be putting your child in a difficult social situation where lying is the likely outcome. Or maybe your child needs more support. For example, if your daughter can't finish her homework, she may need extra help in the class.

Also, try not to overreact when your child confesses to a screw-up; otherwise he may decide lying is a safer strategy than the truth. "Your child should know yes, there will be consequences, but the message you want to give is, `We know you will make mistakes, and we don't expect you to be perfect all the time,'" says Narasimhan.

Tall tales. This is when you overhear your 11-year-old tell a friend that Justin Bieber is coming to her school to perform even though last time you checked, Elmwood Elementary wasn't on his concert tour.

Why they tell them: The simple answer is your child's probably trying to impress the friend. But something more is happening, too. Usually these aren't conscious lies, says Burkhardt; your child is expressing what she wishes would happen. Like younger children, many pre-teens mix fact with fantasy because their brains haven't fully matured yet. Then wish-fulfillment can cause them to select the outcome they want to hear. On some level, your child really thinks Justin Bieber might show up at her school, says Burkhardt. After all, it is possible!

How to handle them: Either ignore them or if you feel the need to correct your child, do so gently with a technique Burkhardt calls "benign disbelief." She recommends saying something like, "It would be nice if Justin Bieber came to your school, but I don't think he probably has the time." This way, you let your child down gently.

By the way, this "tall tale" phase won't last much longer; the chemical changes in the brain that occur during puberty knock out this remnant of childish thinking, according to Burkhardt. So take a moment to enjoy your child's creative stories, and relish the information she gives about her soon-to-be secret inner life.

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