Children and teens may tell lies for lots of reasons. When kids are little, they’re often exploring the boundary between reality and fantasy. But intentional lies are different. And if you think about it, adults lie sometimes too and we often justify it.
We may lie because:
- We don’t want to upset someone or hurt their feelings
- We’re afraid of someone’s anger
- We made a mistake and feel too ashamed to reveal it
- It’s easier to lie (or omit telling the full truth) than to explain/justify our actions or intentions
- We’re afraid that if we tell the truth, someone will try to stop us from something we’re going to do anyways
- It will help us get what we want.
I can relate to most of these. It takes maturity, courage, a strong sense of self, plus a good dose of language skills to reveal sensitive things with full honesty. This is especially true because we live in a society that’s so judgmental. Our kids need our help to develop all of these, before we focus on the lying itself.
Our Kids’ Lies Remind Us of Our Vulnerability
It’s distressing when our kids lie. First, there’s the moral concern–we want to teach them right from wrong. But on another level, it often triggers our anxiety because it reminds us that we can’t know or control everything our kids do. Our anxiety may get worse as they approach and navigate their teen years and act more independently. Not knowing what our kids are doing means we have less control over their safety—anxiety-producing for any parent.
We need strategies for working with our kids that help them develop the skills, maturity and courage it takes to tell the truth. Then they’ll do it naturally. Here are some strategies:
- Manage your own anxiety and frustration. Your kids will be more likely to tell you the truth if they know you “can take it” and will problem solve with them, rather than scolding or punishing them. Parental anger or agitation is unsettling for kids at best, but is often scary or even devastating for kids (especially young ones).
- First, check in with your body for fear, anger or anxiety, and deal with those before talking with your child/teen
- If you can’t calm yourself right away, take a few moments away to regulate yourself.
- You may even need to talk with a friend or support person to calm yourself down beforehand.
“Start by telling them they’re not in trouble.”
- Create safety. When your kids hesitate to tell the truth or admit a mistake because they’re worried you’ll be upset, start by telling them they’re not in trouble. Creating safety paves the way for discussion and problem-solving.
- Don’t ask questions that “back them into a corner” where they feel compelled to repeat the lie or add to it.
- Connect and problem-solve, after you’ve established safety.
- Try to determine their need. If they did something they shouldn’t have, what was their need and intention in that moment that led them to make that decision?
- Empathize – with how they felt then, or how they feel now. Be curious. Avoid judgment.
- Problem-solve, including setting limits if needed, reiterating the reasons for the rules/limits, or making a plan for future that helps the child/teen get their need met as relevant to the situation.
During the conversation, it’s most important to attune to your child/teen. Focus mostly on trying to understand them, and watch for signs that they feel understood. “Follow the trail” of recognizing their experiences, their intentions and needs, and meet them there, creating safety and connection. Once your child or teen is feeling understood, you’re more likely to be able to share little bits of information that they can use for making future decisions. You’re also more likely to be able to find a solution that helps them meet their needs.
TEEN TIP: It’s especially important for teens to be able to trust that you’re on their side and you understand.
Your child’s lies don’t mean they have poor morals or will never be trustworthy. You can approach these experiences as opportunities to connect and to teach them complex skills that’ll help them become more self-aware and empathetic human beings. And the key is to manage your own anxieties and fears well enough that you’re able to create safety for them to share the truth with you, even when they feel scared or they feel like they’ve really messed up.