The Dancing Parent: Coping When Your Child Lies (Part 1)

You know darn well that they're lying to you or hiding something. It can be very hard to take, much less comprehend. Let's face it: of all of the behaviors kids are prone to, lying can especially sting.
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Your child tells you their teacher lost their homework, they didn't drink a beer at the party, and they are doing fine in school -- raising your dander, even as your heart sinks.

You know darn well that they're lying to you or hiding something. It can be very hard to take, much less comprehend. Let's face it: of all of the behaviors kids are prone to, lying can especially sting. Because whatever special trust you thought you had with your child, however different or unique you thought the understanding was between you, the moment you catch them lying or telling half-truths can feel like a betrayal, as though they have willfully tossed aside you and your relationship in favor of some sudden, capricious or calculated need to mislead. Ugh. But not understanding their reason for lying can lead to far worse.

For example: Two girlfriends, wishing to go out with a couple of boys on a school night and not wanting their parents to know, agreed that they would each tell their parents that they were studying for a test at the other's home. A few days later, the girls' moms bumped into each other at the market and discovered that neither girl had been where she said she was. When the moms arrived home, they each asked their daughters how their study night had gone, and the girls each stuck to their cover story. Even when their moms revealed what they knew, the girls continued to insist that their fib was the truth, shaking the very foundations of their relationships with their moms -- at least as far as their moms were concerned. But from the girls' point of view, as distressing as this all was, they were still more worried about the romantic and high school social implications of getting the boys into trouble, too, than of facing whatever punishments their moms might impose.

Given this kind of complexity and conflicting aims, a parent's response needs to be well informed to truly help, even when it seems like a simple case of lying. Remember, from your child's point of view, as you may well recall from your own life, lying to anyone close, especially a parent, is never simple.

So what's your first, best step when you discover that they are lying or covering something up?

First, stop! Take a deep breath, and take a step back because even if they have lied, understanding why they lied before you act is key. Wait until you are calm enough to think clearly, and act accordingly -- not just react. Before the feelings of hurt and betrayal of being lied to by your child dig in deeply, remind yourself that human beings of all ages lie, and for all sorts of reasons.

Before the ages of six to eight, lying tends to be more fantasy-born experimentation. After six to eight, lying becomes more calculated. Yet telling a lie does not make one a liar for life. So do not turn a challenging moment into a crisis, or a crisis into a catastrophe.

Next, keep in mind that human beings may lie for many reasons:

  • To get something they want, such as an iPod, a drum set, a night out with their friends... you name it.

  • To avoid something they don't want, such as homework, chores, or feeling shamed.
  • To deal with their fears, real or imagined.
  • To promote themselves in some way to appear stronger, smarter, more important, or cooler.
  • To conceal the secrets of a friend or group out of loyalty, and/or to protect a friend's questionable behavior.
  • To hide that they are breaking a rule or an agreement, such as having sex, drinking, or bailing on that curfew that they agreed to as a condition of going to the party.
  • So you must try to determine what is driving your child to lie or to tell a half-truth because, just as with the two girlfriends, your child's reason(s) may be very complicated, gut-wrenching and confusing, even to them.

    This leads us to the next thing you can do: start a dialogue. Listen to what they may be trying to tell you in spite of their lying. Or even because of it. Then really listen. It might also help to think of them as having lied to someone else, so that you can depersonalize it and listen more objectively until you know more. It's critical to provide as safe a place as possible for them to tell the truth, because parents can play a role in creating an environment in which a child feels a need to lie or slant the truth.

    OK, let's say that you've listened, and that you now have some sense, if not a specific understanding, of why your child lied to you. What should your response be?

    As the parent, you may need to impose some consequences, some temporary restrictions on their freedoms or customary privileges. Just be sure that they are temporary and proportional consequences. Keep in mind that the consequences you impose are to draw attention to the lesson you are trying to teach them, not to punish them. (We will discuss this further in an upcoming blog post on "Punishment.")

    That said, unless your child is a habitual liar, imposing overly severe consequences on a child for lying often doesn't work as intended. From your child's point of view, a heavy-handed response from you may only encourage them to try to figure out better ways to conceal any future fibs, thus sowing seeds of a growing suspicion and distrust between parent and child alike.

    So if imposing consequences is, at best, a limited or last resort option, what does work?

    You can begin by clearly expressing to your child how the lie affected you, and the feelings and questions it ignited in you. Then speak to them about the ways in which being truthful builds trust between people, and how trust, in turn, cements enduring and fulfilling relationships of all kinds.

    As we have said, be sure the consequences are proportional. Also, try to be a little more aware of your own lying -- even the little lies of social interactions -- so that your child does not view you as saying one thing to them but doing another. Being more mindful of honesty in your life, even in the little ways children observe every day, can teach them how to be more honest adults.

    All that considered, and even after all of your best efforts, what if they lie again?

    In our upcoming "The Dancing Parent: Coping with a Lying Child (Part 2)," we will take a reality check on all we have just said and offer, from our experience, how moms and dads can best proceed should a new lie or half-truth arrive, as they often do.

    As always, we welcome your questions and comments here, or at our website, where you can find more information, discussion on parenting topics as well as many useful links. Until next time, keep dancing! (Copyrighted material)

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