Why Kids Tell Lies And What To Do About It

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Why Kids Tell Lies And What To Do About It

Q: When your child lies to you, it hurts. As parents, it makes us angry and we take it personally. We feel like we can never trust our child again. Why does lying cause such anger, pain and worry for parents?

James: Parents are understandably very afraid of their children getting hurt and getting into trouble, but they have very little protection against these things as they send their kids out into the world. Kids learn from other kids and from the media, and it makes parents feel unsafe because they can’t control the information and ideas that are being presented to their children.

Let’s face it. Information isn’t just available to our kids; it’s injected into them. Bad ideas are pushed down our kid’s throats by their peers, by some adults, by the media. It’s hard for a parent to keep control of their kids when this is happening, and protect them from their own harmful impulses and dangerous outside influences.

Your kid’s honesty becomes the connector between what’s happening to him on the outside world and what happens at home. You need him to tell you honestly what happened today, so that you can honestly decide if that’s best for him.

You need to hear that information in order to decide if that’s going to help him meet his responsibilities now --and in the future. When parents don’t get the right information, they’re afraid they’ll make the wrong choices for their kids.

When your kid lies, you start to see him as “sneaky,” especially if he continues to lie to you. You feel that he’s going behind your back, that he’s undermining you. We begin to think that our kids are “bad.” We make the connection that if lying is bad, liars are bad. It’s just that simple.

Related: Does your child yell, call you names or swear at you?

Parents should hold their kids responsible for lying. But the mistake parents make is when they start to blame the kid for lying. It’s considered immoral to lie. But when you look at your kid like he’s a sneak and an operator who’s undermining your authority, it’s a slippery slope that starts with “You lie” and ends up at “You’re a bad person.” I think that perception of your kid promotes more lying. If your child thinks you think he’s “bad,” he’s going to hide the truth from you even more, because he doesn’t want to be bad. Even though they are lying, kids don’t want to disappoint their parents.

Q: Let’s look at it from the child’s perspective. What’s going in on a child’s mind when they lie to their parents?

James: Say you’re driving on the interstate and the speed limit is 65 mph. You know that if you drive 65 mph on the interstate, that’s the slowest anyone drives, and people fly by you, honk at you and call you names. So you go 75 miles an hour…and a policeman stops you. He says, “Ms. Jones, how fast were you driving?” And most people say, “Sixty five.” Or, “I thought I was doing sixty five, officer, or maybe a little over sixty five.” Why are people dishonest like that? Because they understand that driving fast is forbidden. But they don’t understand that it’s hurtful. We understand that it’s wrong to drive that fast and there are consequences. But we don’t understand that it really hurts anybody and that it puts people at risk.

It’s the same with kids. They know lying is forbidden. But they don’t see it as hurtful. Not the way that parents see it as hurtful. So a kid will say, “I know it’s wrong that I ate a sugar snack when I’m not supposed to. But who does it hurt?” “I know it’s wrong that I traded my dried fruit for a Twinkie. But it doesn’t really hurt anybody. I can handle it. What’s the big deal?” That’s what the kid sees.

When they don’t see it as hurtful, there are two different value systems operating: the family’s value system that says this is forbidden and the kid’s value system that says if it’s not hurting anybody, what do you care? The kid rationalizes his actions and justifies his behavior with the idea that it doesn’t hurt anybody. The outcome is a dishonest situation. A lie.

When you get to adolescence, of course, the stakes get much higher. But the thinking remains the same. Kids smoke pot and drink and say, “Well it doesn’t hurt anybody. My friends smoke pot and it doesn’t hurt them. I know drinking’s wrong, but my parents drink and it doesn’t hurt them. I can handle it. I’m older than my parents think I am.” They know it’s forbidden. They either don’t see it as hurtful, or they rationalize the hurt away.

Q: So what’s the best way for parents to deal with lying, so that they don’t feel hurt and resentful about it and so that the child learns not to lie?

James: The first thing you have to do is be careful of is giving lies too much power. If you have a kid who’s angry at you or who feels frustrated and powerless, and if he thinks he can get power over you by telling you a lie, he’ll use dishonesty to get that power. He’ll withhold information and lie by omission when you’re trying to get the truth. He’ll give you little pieces of information, and that makes him feel powerful. It’s a trap for parents. Honesty is important, but if you communicate that too strongly to your children, they will use that to have power over you. You have to keep these things a certain size so that they’re not used against you.

Related: Learn how to manage your lying child.

The second thing to remember is that you have to understand the power of the culture that kids go into. It’s a very powerful culture that exerts a lot of pressure to “fit in.” They may feel guilty if they lie to their parents. But, again, they’re thinking, “This isn’t that hurtful, and my parents just don’t understand.” Of course, parents do understand. They’re frightened, and they should be.

So I think that parents have to assume that kids are going to tell them lies, because they’re immature and they don’t understand how hurtful these things are. They’re also drawn towards excitement, and their parents aren’t. It’s not like the good kids aren’t drawn to excitement and risk, and the bad kids are. It’s not that the good kids don’t lie and the bad kids do lie. They’re all drawn to excitement, and they’ll all have a tendency to distort the truth because they’re kids.

I think parents have to deal with lying the way a cop deals with speeding. If you’re going too fast, he gives you a ticket. He’s not interested in a lot of explanations from you. He’s just going to give you a consequence. Look at it the same way with your child. He didn’t tell the truth, whether the truth was distorted, omitted or withheld. There should simply be consequences for that. The first time you lie, you go to bed an hour early. The second time, you lose your phone. It should be something that the kid feels. You lose your phone for twenty four hours. You lose your phone for two days. You lose computer time or TV time.

The consequences have to make the child uncomfortable or they don’t change anything. The idea is that the next time he’s faced with telling you the truth or lying, he’ll recall how uncomfortable he was when he did the consequence for lying, and he’ll tell you the truth instead.

The consequence should be about the lying. If there’s a separate consequence for the incident, that should come down separately. If you come home later than your curfew and you tell me the truth, you may still lose going out Friday night, but you won’t lose your phone. If you lie to me, you lose both.

Parents should not get into the morality of it. Just be clear. Lying is wrong, it’s hurtful and, in our home, we tell the truth. But don’t make it a moral issue. Make it a technical issue. You broke the law. You broke the rules. These are your consequences.

When a cop writes me a ticket, he doesn’t follow me home or argue with me. He hands me my ticket and he drives away. Approach the consequences for lying the same way. Don’t argue about it or get into a big discussion. Discuss it in a structured way: “What were you trying to accomplish by doing that?” Not “Why did you lie? You know how much lying hurts me.” Just ask what he was trying to accomplish, then point out that lying is not the way to solve his problem. Compliance is the way to solve it. Talk about it after things have cooled down, not in the heat of the moment. Explain what will happen if he lies again. “If you lie to me about the dance, you're not going to the next dance and I’m taking your phone for twenty four hours.” Just keep it really simple.

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About James Lehman, MSW

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."

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