I'm 24 years old and have full custody of my 16-year-old sister. She has been living with me for the last 3 years. I found out today, from her, that she has been lying to me about spending time with a female friend in order to spend time with her new boyfriend. She confessed this to me because she would like for me to have dinner with them both tonight so that I can meet him. During this, she has also told me that he is 18 and will be a senior at her school this year.

Some good points about this: she told me herself, she has immediately asked me to meet him, and she has offered me his parents' phone number if I wanted to contact them.

Some bad points: she lied to me about where she was and who she was spending her time with (this specifically violates a house rule regarding her car and keeping me informed of her whereabouts) and a 2-year age difference, as he will be a legal adult in our state next year.

In our state, he will be a legal adult at 19 and she will still be a minor. 2 years in your 20's is nothing, but I feel that 2 years in your teens is a major difference in emotional intelligence and responsibility.

I have agreed to the dinner with them both, and I am compiling some questions and rules to address. But I'm really struggling with how I should go about punishing her previous actions, if I should even punish her at all? It is obviously not okay to lie to me, but she has been very mature in our communication today about this all.

Update after the dinner last night: I didn't go into it with the view of needing to interview him for the position, but instead took the time to get to know him. What his interests are, what his favorite class is, if he had any plans for the future. He's not a bad kid, and definitely not the boogy-man that I was expecting when I heard he was a big bad 18-year-old. I get the impression that my sister was expecting me to grill him, and she seemed very relieved after the first few minutes of this casual conversation. As for why she decided to lie to me she said something along the line of, "I was expecting you to be upset with me for seeing someone, and the longer I waited to tell you the harder it got to bring it up." After which she apologized and seemed to breath a little easier. I have shared this post with her today, and I'm hoping that using the answers provided here we can both work together to foster a more trusting environment. Thank you everyone, I appreciate you all so much!

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    I'm curious why you think a two year age difference is a "bad point". What are you concerned about there? – Becuzz Jun 14 at 18:58
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    @Becuzz It is mostly the next bit. In our State he will be a legal adult at 19 and she will still be a minor. 2 years in your 20's is nothing, but I feel that 2 years in your teens is a major difference in emotional intelligence and responsibility. – danninta Jun 14 at 19:01
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    For how long has she been lying? A month or a year are two different things which would entail different approaches from you. – iulia Jun 15 at 8:05
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    Did she explain why she lied to you about it? If she hadn't lied, would she have been breaking any house rules by going on these dates? Or did she just preemptively think you would disapprove of her dating at all? – David K Jun 15 at 11:51
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    Both my grandma's married at 19, one with a man of 30 years, the other with a man of 36 years. They lived (and still live) very happy lives. I really don't see the age difference as a problem at all in your case... – Bakuriu Jun 21 at 4:11

15 Answers 15

up vote 252 down vote accepted

Your sister got herself into a situation that she felt she needed to lie about. She could have continued doing that in the hope that she never got caught out, or until some crisis point where she was found out involuntarily. But instead, she chose to take the tough decision and confess to you, to allow things to be better in the future. She took the adult path of dealing with an uncomfortable situation actively: despite the immediate negative consequences of admitting her past behaviour, she wanted to be open with you and resolve the problem.

In behavioural psychology, we term a "punishment" as something that reduces the frequency of a target behaviour, as opposed to a reinforcer, which increases the frequency of a behaviour. In this case, you want to reinforce her (impressively) good behaviour: her brave decision to admit to past misdeeds and to involve you actively in this new part of her life. Focus on that, rather than on punishment of the earlier behaviour. In your discussions, feel free to say how the deception was wrong or hurtful, but emphasise how much you value that she was brave enough to resolve that openly, and that she trusts you enough to do that.

Repay that trust: from now on, she will be dealing with many other adult-level problems. The key thing is to say that you hope she can be open with you from the beginning in the future. If that is to happen, she needs to see that her openness and honesty is received positively by you.

So in essence, discuss the past deception openly but don't attempt to punish it. Focus on reinforcing her newly honest approach.

Lastly, given your own age, what a wonderful thing to be doing to take on the responsibility of raising a teenager. I hope you'll be receiving a lot of positive reinforcement for this yourself.

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    +1 For all the reinforce good behaviour thing. IMHO OP should punish her but in Salomonic way like putting all burden of prepare a full family dinner (I mean something like cooking for hours and cleaning everything after). Something like hard work with a happy ending – jean Jun 15 at 17:16
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    Perhaps a full family dinner for the OP and the boyfriend ... ;) – rrauenza Jun 15 at 18:45
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    "don't attempt to punish it" Alternatively, if you really don't want to let the lie slide, have her decide her own punishment. This keeps open communication that the lie should be punished, while not destroying relationship between you. – Mooing Duck Jun 16 at 0:01
  • @mbomb007 - if you have an answer, please post it. Don't use comments to try and persuade someone else to add content into their answer that does not fit with their beliefs. – Rory Alsop Jun 23 at 14:35

I train dogs as a hobby. This situation reminds me of a cardinal rule of dog training - if your dog is off leash and does something you don’t like, never call him back to you and punish him. Why? He will probably never return on your recall again, cause you just taught him that bad things happen when he does.

I presume you see the analogy. This does not mean you have to endorse or disregard the lying, you can and should have a serious talk and make it clear that you are not happy about that; but if you’re proud of the actions that followed and you would like to make it clear that you prefer ‘coming clean’ over carrying a lie on indefinitely until caught, you might also want to acknowledge that you’re proud of the decision she made. This will build a stronger and more open relationship built on understanding and trust.

In the future your sister may be more likely to ask permission instead of beg for forgiveness because she won’t predict an automatic and objective ‘no’. A considerate reaction from you will show her that trust and respect can be earned, and she will be rewarded to enjoy more freedoms and maturities because she has established her responsibility. This is a far more symbiotic relationship than never knowing what she’s doing because she never tells the truth, because you taught her to when you punished her after she returned on recall.

Good for you for acting as a responsible guardian and seeking advice.

Edit: I would also like to mention that when I was her age I probably would not have ‘come clean’ like she did. I would have thought ‘if it’s not broke - don’t fix it. I’m getting away with the lying, so just keep going’. What it means to me that your sister did ‘come clean’, and did so by offering boyfriends parents contact info in an attempt to ‘do things right’, means she respects you, values your relationship, and she was very uncomfortable lying to you and knew she needed to do a hard thing and tell you. You should nurture and preserve this. Lying can become normalized behavior to a young adult.

The age difference is something that’s entirely up to you to decide, but in my opinion it should not be a major concern. Maybe cause the raise of an eyebrow, but not a deal breaker.

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    The first message to a dog is "Good girl!", in a happy tone of voice, is it? My mum was like that as a preschool teacher too: preferring to guide kids' behaviour via praise and encouragement than reproval -- see also e.g. the "If a child lives with..." poem. – ChrisW Jun 15 at 10:46
  • @ChrisW What's your point? – Xen2050 Jun 16 at 5:04
  • @Xen2050 My mum at dog-training was told the same thing about dogs as PrinceM said, i.e. don't express anger to an errant dog when it comes back to you. Similarly, the reason to put a leash on is for safety, never as a punishment. – ChrisW Jun 16 at 6:40
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    @ChrisW I suppose.. the point isn’t really that the right way to train a dog is in a nice way - it’s more that by calling the dog back to you for punishment confuses it, and it associates the punishment to the good thing it did (coming back). – Prince M Jun 18 at 0:55
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    Yes. Someone might hope that, a teenager being more verbal, they'd understand why you might punish them, and agree you're being only reasonable. That doesn't doesn't sound like a safe bet to me, though. – ChrisW Jun 18 at 1:21

Raising a child, a parent or guardian has two main jobs, beyond providing food and shelter.

  1. Protecting her from dangers she's not capable of safely managing herself
  2. Guiding her development as a person

Your sister is sixteen, and in many ways is an adult. Not legally, certainly, but in two years or so she will be. This means that (2) is mostly complete: she's fairly close to the person she will be, at least to the person she'll be when you don't have much of a say in the matter beyond what she allows.

Further, as a sibling and not a parent, you're probably relatively close in age; even a ten year difference would be seen by the child as similar. That means your best way to guide her development is leading by example. If you want to guide her towards greater honesty, you should do so by being honest and open with her.

(1), protecting her from dangers she's not equipped to handle, is the more important task at hand. At sixteen, though, it's a very different task than it might be with an eight year old; she's close to an adult, and that means you need to be more circumspect with your choices here. 'not equipped to handle' is an important side of this; she's very much equipped to handle a lot that a ten year old wouldn't be.

The best way to approach this is with limits. You set limits, it sounds like, and she transgressed those limits. The best approach then is to simply change the limits to make it easier to keep within a safe space.

This is like, when I'm walking on the street with my children, I set limits to where they can walk: they must not walk on the street, and must stay within eyesight. If they show they can't do that, then I shorten the distance: they must stay off the parkway (so 2-3 feet from the road) and must stay within a block. This isn't worded as a punishment; it's worded as something to help them follow the more important limits (i.e., something to keep them from going over the truly dangerous line).

The approach, then, is to determine a limit that you can give her that will make it easier to ensure she's staying within safe bounds. Perhaps more frequent checkins; perhaps you ask her to share her location with you. Be careful here as it's very easy to get into overly intrusive spaces, particularly with a 16 year old who really should have a fair amount of freedom.

Have the conversation with her about why you need to know where she is, and why it's important to be safe. Then perhaps come up with something together. Also include in that conversation why it's important to be honest. Be prepared for her to tell you she's sixteen and capable of protecting herself; try to have the conversation as positively as possible, and not accusing or making her defensive. Try to work with her to find a solution that works for both of you, and that she'll really do.

And one other thing; it sounds like she does care about your opinion, and that's important to hold onto. Use that as the point that you work from. Don't harp on the 'honesty' side of things; make it clear you care about her and want to both protect her and just know what's going on, but the more you focus on the lack of honesty the poorer this will go.

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    Note: I specifically avoid talking about the appropriateness of her dating an 18 year old. I have opinions about that, but they're not germane to the question - OP is not asking whether it's okay for her to date an 18 year old - so I am leaving that out of my answer, per our site policy to not question the premise of questions. – Joe Jun 14 at 19:56
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    It might also be beneficial to ask her (in a non-accusatory way, for sure), why she lied to her in the first place, i . e. why didn't she feel safe telling her about her boyfriend, what were her fears and worries. – Anne Daunted Jun 14 at 20:12
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    @Joe I would be interested in your opinions of that as well, albeit not part of the actual answer for the reason you stated. I am not sure that I have formed my own opinion of the matter yet. – danninta Jun 14 at 20:43
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    "...she's fairly close to the person she will be." Is this "conventional wisdom"? I am nothing like I was at 16, and I don't mean just superficially. Half of my kids are nothing like they were at 16. I think a lot of change is possible between 16 and, say, 26. Maybe the only thing you can safely say is that at 16, she's fairly close to the person she will be at 17 or 18. – anongoodnurse Jun 14 at 21:36
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    @corsiKa - From 16 to 26, I went from a kid failing high school and not even caring to getting a PhD (and later an MD). So clearly my ambition and work ethic changed (due in great part to someone to whom I was not related. I.e. luck, not bootstraps.) But there were ways that I changed which I miss now as well. We tend to think 'for the better', but I'm not entirely satisfied that all of the ways I changed were. Looking at the tragic trajectories of my siblings, though, it's hard not to deduce it was vastly better. – anongoodnurse Jun 15 at 16:51

Ask your sister.

If your sister doesn't believe that her actions were worthy of punishment, then punishing her will only serve to illustrate the power you have over her and widen the gap between you. Understanding why your sister felt justified in her actions will allow the two of you to begin the process of mending your relationship.

On the other hand, it sounds like your sister recognizes that what she did was wrong. If she does, then it's even possible that she will welcome a punishment that she thinks is an appropriate level as a way of alleviating her guilt (although don't expect her to admit it). Talking it over will allow the two of you to find the right response. It also opens the door to the conversation about why she felt that lying to you was better than the alternatives.

You should enter the conversation with a firm idea about what part of your sister's actions were the most problematic (was it the lie or the dating, etc) and what you hope to achieve with a punishment. But above all, be prepared to listen to your sister.

A punishment that your sister agrees to and believes is justified will do far more good (and be much easier to enforce) then a punishment decreed from on high.

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    I think this is a great idea. I wouldn't phrase this in terms of, "What punishment do you think is appropriate?" but rather, "What do you think that we should do about the situation?" – John Doe Jun 15 at 15:43

Should I punish my kid for lying to me in order to secretly see her boyfriend?

I suggest "no". Instead, consider feeling remorseful that she wanted to (or 'felt the need to') lie, and reconsider your relationship (i.e. your previous communications) in that light.

At 16 I presume she's getting past the age at which you're able to coerce her.

I think instead you should position yourself as a person she can afford to confide in -- i.e. someone who won't give her grief when she does confide.

Also, instead of house rules maybe you should have house agreements. If she's lying and breaking a "rule" then maybe she doesn't agree with it. Maybe renegotiate your agreements, check she agrees with them, make it about what she wants as well as about what you want, and tell her you'd rather she tell you (instead of her lying about it) if when she changes her mind about an agreement or wants to modify it or whatever.

I suppose she'll be making most of the decisions about her life, at least this way you'll know what she's doing and have an opportunity to discuss it with her.

I don't mean you have to agree with all her decisions (e.g. warn of her foreseable consequences if you think that's appropriate) but don't punish her, let her change her mind and take things slowly.

I don't think you can achieve your aims with punishment. I think the fact that she confessed, and wants you to meet the guy is very positive - it may be that this guy is good for her confidence.

I don't think you can keep a 16yo 'safe' without harming their developing independence - but you can and should talk about all the directions the relationship can go - there are a lot of well-known failure modes, and most of them have warning signs that mean early action can prevent the failure from doing lasting damage. Hopefully, you have a relationship in which you sometimes talk about the kind of relationships you admire and the things that lead in to unhappiness (power dynamics, life goals with respect to income, children, work, education, or point of view mismatch).

After you have met this guy, about half of whatever problems you imagine will disappear, replaced by real things that make you uncomfortable. Try to give him the benefit of the doubt - he probably won't seem good enough, but your sister likes him. He should be willing to respect the responsibility you have for your sister, but at 16, I think her responsibility for herself is substantial. (I know we're often idiots at 16, but without the responsibility for ourselves and the stupid things we do, we may still be idiots at 26.)

The only other thing is that college and career aspirations are big challenges to this kind of young love; are they a realistic match through those challenges and beyond? Will she still find him attractive if he becomes an actuary? Best of luck.

As a former, teenager liar, I can see a number of reasons she could have lied to you in the first place:

  1. Fear of your judgement (founded, as you confess to have not decided for or against her relation).

  2. Need for independence, maybe from founded or not feeling of asphyxia.

  3. Proving she can be an independent adult by giving you a "mind your own adult business, I have mine".

At least it doesn't sound like she's just opposing your authority.

In any case, she has worried you (enough to come to SE to ask about it), probably offended you (although you don't sound offended, that's good), and needless to say it could have gone awfully wrong for her, and then she would have to face two shames: the lies to you, and her being hurt for disobeying a rule. So, yes, there should be consequences to her actions. What kind of? Surely, not a severe one. As Archanist put, what do you want to achieve? Focus on what your kid wanted to achieve.

If you think (1) is the most prominent reason for her lying, try to reassure her you are a figure of trust. That you will try to judge only on demand (she will still need advice) and won't force your point of views.

If (2), you may need to renegotiate limits and rules, restate why are they there in the first place.

If (3), you may praise the more mature part of her behaviour (confessing the lie) and remember her she will be an adult soon and even when treating each other as adults you will still be talking as peers about good and bad things.

Hopefully she'll see reason. Then you can impose a proportional, purposeful punishment, like going together to cinema (you could ask her to pay) or giving you a small apologetic present, or any other thing that won't dissuade her of early confessing a truth next time she feels like lying, and will give both of you an opportunity to get closer.

  • +1 In my experience fear of judgement is a very big motivator for secrets and lies. – Pharap Jun 18 at 7:36

I see nothing worrying in this situation, except the original lie. The age difference is perfectly normal and her behaviour is excellent.

Have a friendly talk with her, be proud (and tell it) that she came clean and tell her that next time you would prefer to be told the truth from the beginning.

Everything else will almost certainly guarantee that she does not come to you again with such a revelation.

You should only punish someone for doing something intentionally bad, like stealing, vandalism and so on. Lying is bad of course, but almost always bad in an indirect way. She didn't lie to gain something but to hide something she thought you wouldn't approve of. If she had been told she couldn't see the boyfriend and then did it anyway and lied about it, it would be a different matter but punishment would not help.

The issue here is why she felt she needed to lie about the boyfriend. I personally don't see a problem with the 16-to-18 age difference.

Teenage girls will almost always fall for guys a few year older, so this is a very common situation, and banning the relationship will only make her lie more, destroy the trust you might have with her, and ultimately lay the ground for them to run away together or worse.

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer - if you are skeptical about the boyfriend, invite him into the family and spend a lot of time with him. This will either make you open up to him and let you see what she sees in him, or reveal his true characters to her, probably making her end the relationship.

It seems that she doesn't feel trust in you. It happens. Sometimes as an elder sibling we feel insecure about our sisters or brothers as we don't want to lose them or them to make mistakes in their life. But we forget that we also have made many mistakes in our life and these mistakes have taught us about the value of life.

So according to me, you should forget her mistakes and start acting as a friend to her but don't forget to search about the history of her boyfriend, I mean his ups and downs, his nature and behaviour. If her chosen boyfriend is not good in nature then you should start acting as a parent and end her relationship. This would be the real duty of yours as an elder sibling.

You both did the right thing. You asked for advice to be a better guardian and brother while your sister told you about everything. She was scared that you would get angry but from what I see now, she really loves that guy and she wants your approval as well. Love is simple and yet complicated once you fell for someone. Guess you have your own experience as well. I bet they both are good kids because if they are not serious, they won't even bother meeting you in the first place. Just trust her and respect her decision. It would be better for the future and she will open up everything with you as she trusts you as well. Anyways, good job both of you.

As others have said, being able to raise a 16-year old at your age is impressive, and you should be proud that you're able to do that.

In our state, he will be a legal adult at 19 and she will still be a minor. 2 years in your 20's is nothing, but I feel that 2 years in your teens is a major difference in emotional intelligence and responsibility.

But I think there are two different concepts mixed together here. I don't believe that being a legal adult has anything to do with emotional intelligence or responsibility.

Personally I don't think two years is anything at all to be concerned about. From what you've written, it sounds like you believe both your sister and her boyfriend to both be pretty mature almost-adults, and that hey can be able to handle their relationship responsibly. (If I've gotten that wrong, feel free to jump in and shoot me down!). But if you do believe that, then really, that's the important consideration.

Our job is to help them grow into adults who make smart choices, yet understand consequences. So yeah, discipline her if she broke your rules, but go easy if you think it's the right thing. Every adult I know who grew up in a home with no mercy and strictly enforced rules is filled with resentment and issues, and as far as I can tell, they don't have a superior work ethic, respect for authority, or ability to navigate life.

I tell my kids all the time, and especially during discipline, that I love them unconditionally, that there is nothing they can do to make me love them less, or love them more for that matter. My love is guaranteed. Regardless if they grow into serial killers or win a Nobel, I will love them exactly the same. My approval, pleasure, satisfaction, pride and happiness will vary, but my love is constant. They didn't earn it and they can't escape it.

Our kids, by birth or otherwise, need to feel love and support from us. You seem like an amazing brother and guardian. I believe the world is a better place because of your choice to help.

I'd encourage you to stock your house with snack food, invite him over often, and keep them in your line of sight...

This will be awkward for you both- but you really must start a conversation about birth control with her, or find someone else to talk with her. At this point, she should be on the pill. Sneaking around late at night usually indicates sex, right? At least it did in the 90s, when I was a teenager.

I think a good question for the boyfriend, with your sister included in the conversation, would be something like:

"Exactly what do you expect to happen in this relationship when you reach (majority age) & (sister's name) is still a minor for (x years) & your romance becomes illegal? Are you both willing to put your romance on hold for (x years) until (sister) is (legal age), or do you intend to become a sex offender?"

Short & to the point there.

If you think the boyfriend is a nice guy & that they might have a future together after your sister becomes a legal adult, say so, but make it clear to both your sister & the guy that they will not be allowed to date whilst she's a minor & he's not.

As for punishment: since she confessed on her own, lied mainly because of nervousness about telling you, & if she is usually responsible in the other areas of her life/behavior, I would suggest a minor punishment for the lying. Something like temporarily revoking a privilege, doing extra chores, or possibly a grounding from going out with friends for a while (since she used hanging out with a girl friend as her lie, if she wants to hang with her she-peeps they can hang out at your house).

Just make it clear to her that the punishment is for the lying, not the boyfriend per se, & that if she'd been upfront about the guy & asked you to meet him right away, there wouldn't have been any need for punishment.

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    This answer presumes a lot about the laws where they live, and is incorrect about those presumptions. The OP said they live in Alabama where the age of consent laws allow for a 19 year old and a 16 year old to be in a sexual relationship, so no one would be sex offender even if they continued their relationship – Kevin Wells Jun 23 at 0:16

Punishment is rarely a good idea, in my experience (having brought up two children myself). Punishment must be seen as fair by the 'sinner', in order to be effective. If your sister feels the penalty is unfair, she will be motivated to exclude you further from her confidence, which means both of you will suffer a loss. I would suggest that you control your need for petty revenge (I'm not judging you - we all feel that sometimes), and talk to her about how important her happiness is to you. As her 'parent' you will, unfortunately, experience these disappointments from time to time, and the best thing you can do is to try to guide her towards a better way in the future. It is a heavy burden, being responsible for a teenager, when you are so young - but you seem to have the wisdom to ask for advice; that's miles better than some I know of.

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