- Taking your child's lying personally stops you from creating emotional safety for your child to be open.
- Parents overlook how lies from their children are driven by their underlying struggles and emotional pain.
- Being your child's supportive emotion coach and not a hurt parent helps you guide them to be more open.
When I coach parents, I help them learn to not take lies from their kids personally. This is not to say that lying is acceptable, but the less parents take it personally, the more they can calmly and constructively help their child be more open and vulnerable to addressing their dishonesty.
According to A Guide for Families by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, children, preteens, and teens can lie for varying reasons. They lie to avoid getting in trouble, to defend a friend they like, or because they are too upset to talk about painful experiences. Their upsetting situations could include failing a class, losing a job, and other struggles with things about themselves or fitting in with their peers. I have seen this same dynamic play out with adult children as well. The "truth" is that often our kids at any age will spin the truth or lie. Below are some examples of how lies occur in children and teens.
Raymond Lied to Get a Reward
Children might exaggerate their accomplishments or make up stories to impress others, gain attention, or receive rewards or privileges.
Raymond wanted a new toy that his parents had promised to buy if he consistently finished his chores. Raymond, however, didn't complete his agreed-upon tasks for the day. To increase his chances of receiving the reward, he decided to lie. When his parents asked if he finished his tasks, Raymond confidently claimed that he completed them all. He hoped that by deceiving his parents, they would believe he deserves the toy and fulfill their promise.
In this scenario, Raymond is using dishonesty as a means to secure a desired reward. It is crucial for parents to address and correct this behavior, emphasizing the importance of honesty, integrity, and earning rewards through genuine effort and responsibility.
The Truth About Linda
"I'm at my breaking point, all she does is lie to me!" exclaimed Julia about Linda, her 14-year-old daughter. "She lies about what friends she sees at the movies, lies about completing her homework, and by the way, I am sick of policing her about it. I can't even trust if she washes off her dishes. If she's like this now, how's she going to make it as an independent adult? Even when she tells me stories, I am finding that she is embellishing big-time! I just don't get it. I was not like this as a kid and it would be so much easier if she was straight-up about things."
Potentially Explosive Lies
One child in my counseling practice concocted a story about burying a gun in the woods that was supposedly obtained from a "gang" he belonged to. Turns out the story was a hoax but his underlying feelings of inadequacy were a serious matter. In this example, the child lied to make himself seem more powerful to others, to calm himself from feeling invisible and lonely, and because he lacked social and problem-solving skills.
The Size of the Lie Matters
It's important to be cognizant of the difference between lies that cover up for risky behaviors including drug use as opposed to smaller, everyday lies. Lying that results in, or covers for, unsafe or illegal behavior must be addressed directly. Instead of getting hung up on whether your teen is showing remorse—and yes, I realize that this is important—remember that being responsive is paramount. When the lying is about dangerous behaviors, involving drug or alcohol use, stealing, or other risky activities, seek guidance from a qualified mental health professional in your community.
Parents Get Stressed Out From Lying Kids
As you can see from the above examples, and as you probably know if you are reading this post, lying-related behaviors from our children can drive us nuts, if we allow them to. The best you can do is to keep yourself from overreacting to your child's lies. If you overreact, then you are just building a bigger barrier between you and your child feeling safe to open up to you.
7 Ways to Help a Child Be More Truthful
Try to keep in mind that kids can be quite self-absorbed (can't we be as adults, too?) and they often don't understand how hurtful lies can be. With this in mind, here are some strategies to help promote truthfulness in your child at any age:
- Calmly discuss, without lecturing, about honesty and dishonesty, and why they chose to lie.
- Do not use a judgmental tone, as it just usually fuels the "see, I can't tell my parents anything" reflex from preteens and teens. You may not be able to stop your teen from creating those everyday lies, but you can convey that there are other options available.
- Think of yourself as an "emotion regulation coach," not an over-the-top disciplinarian out to show who is boss.
- Talk about how telling the truth can feel scary, and how we can all feel scared and that it's OK. As I write in The Anxiety, Depression, and Anger Toolbox for Teens, children and teens who are prone to anxiety will use lying as an unhealthy coping strategy. The more you help manage your child's anxiety, the more you will pave the way for them to be more open with you. Share how calming down and solving problems are the keys to a successful life.
- Relate how lies can give the tempting illusion of calm and avoiding problems (e.g., schoolwork not completed) but in the long run, lies just create stress and emotional chaos.
- If you feel that your child is making lies a "go-to" way to cope, then acknowledge this observation. Talk about the problems they face as a consequence of lying but don't use shaming tones as you speak. Join your child about their fears. For example, do they believe that saying something dishonest helps them fit in?
- Remember, above all, to help your child see their value. For example, if your child is exaggerating a story, you might ask, "What you were telling me really held my interest, but then it seemed like you started to add things to it that weren't true. That got in the way of seeing how you really are becoming so mature. Can you tell me why you decided to do that?"
Keep in mind that addressing lying behaviors is a process versus a quick fix. Some kids may take a while before they feel safe to level with you. But if you keep your emotional reactivity and judgmental responses at bay, your child or teen is more likely to eventually open up. While in the short term, you may just get a shrug, keeping yourself calm to create a sense of emotional safety will help your voice of truth and reason be heard throughout their lives. That is a gift to your kids that will always keep on giving.
A Guide for Families by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, https://www.aacap.org/App_Themes/AACAP/docs/resource_centers/odd/odd_re…
Bernstein, J. (2020), The Anxiety, Depression & Anger Toolbox for Teens: 150 Powerful Mindfulness, CBT & Positive Psychology Activities to Manage Emotions, PESI Publishing, EuClaire, WA.
Bernstein, J. (2003). Why Can't You Read My Mind? Overcoming the 9 Toxic Thought Patterns that Get in the Way of a Loving Relationship Paperback, Perseus Books, New York, NY
Bernstein, J. (2023). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, third edition: The Breakthrough Program for Overcoming Your Child's Difficult Behavior Paperback, Hachette Go Books, New York, NY.
Ehrenreich, S., Meter, D., Beron, KJ, Burnell, K, and Underwood, MK, (2021) How Adolescents Use Text Messaging Through their High School Years https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8669751