People are just terrible at telling when people are lying. In fact, it turns out that people are worse than chance at detecting lies. So what is left to those of us who work with teenagers who we think are struggling and won’t talk about it?
How can we really get at what the youth we work with are thinking, feeling, and doing when they are often desperately trying to hide from us? We think we know when youth are telling the truth, but decades of research tell us that our “gut sense” of truthfulness or deception is often simply wrong. Even the best therapists are left scratching their heads, trying to figure out fact from fiction. How about that famed “clinical sense” that therapists talk about? You would think we would really know those we know best—their “tells,” so to speak—but, guess what? They know us, too. They know what we want to hear, what will make the most sense to us, and they definitely know our blind spots.
Adolescence is that rare, sweet time when we think we really do know better than everyone. Teenagers are highly motivated to keep their lives secret—their comings and goings, what they’re up to, and who they’re hanging out with. Some of that withdrawal is part of a healthy process of individuation—a desire to form an identity separate from the parents who haven’t yet figured out how to let go. Sometimes, though, all those secrets serve to hide children from themselves, a process that can quickly become soul-sucking and damaging. And, while teenagers may ask for help in getting rides, money, and other favors, they rarely ask for help when they really need it—when they’re scared, sad, guilty, or desperate.
The woods are magical in many ways, but there is no plant or animal out there that will make teenagers open up and divulge their secrets. The therapeutic milieu at YSA ACT program offers a different kind of option for truth-seeking: time, energy, and lots of observations. Teenagers can lie to themselves and us for a long time, but they can’t do it 24 hours a day without slipping up. The therapists, youth mentors and other kids will notice inconsistencies, and those inconsistencies will grow. And an even more powerful force is at work: social pressure. Because other kids in the groups have faced the stark realities of their lives and lived to feel the incredible relief in sharing with others and admitting truth to themselves, they offer a lot of encouragement and support in helping newer or resistant group mates to open up.
Kids who formerly put much of their energy into deftly escaping a tough question or even a good, hard look in the mirror are carried along in a wave of authenticity by their peers until they begin to paddle themselves and eventually propel others along. And, there is the magic of the woods, there is something about all that fresh, clean air and those beautiful vistas that make truth telling and soul searching much more appealing. Only when we have a clear picture of a teenager’s inner world can we really know how to help them. We don’t need a polygraph test or lie detector; we just need time, the woods, and a lot of well-trained eyes.