When your child lies to you, it stirs up a potent mix of emotions. You might feel angry, hurt, and offended all at once. Lying is extremely upsetting for parents because it shakes the foundation of trust we have in our child.
So it’s understandable and normal if you have an emotional reaction to lying—whether the lie is elaborate and “premeditated” or impulsive—a fib your child tells because he just didn’t stop and think.
Related content: “How Dare You Lie to Me!” How to Deal with a Lying Teen
But no matter how angry, hurt, or offended you feel when you catch your child in a lie, it’s important to respond to them in a consistently calm and measured way rather than an emotionally reactive way (e.g. “How dare you lie to me? I’ll never trust you again!”). When we overreact emotionally, it allows our kids to focus on our unreasonable behavior and sometimes diverts them from taking personal responsibility for their behavior.
Likewise, it’s important not to overreact by imposing a disproportionate or inappropriate consequence that doesn’t fit the circumstances (for example, “You’re grounded for a month! No electronics. No car!”).
While throwing down a punishment might make you feel better in the moment, it won’t help your child to learn from their mistake. Often, kids prefer to simply “serve their sentence” rather than have a meaningful conversation with their parents about the reasons for and impact of their lie. But having a conversation about the lie is where the learning happens for your child and is where you can influence better choices for more consistently responsible behavior.
Talking about the reason your child lied is an opportunity for them to learn from their mistakes in three ways:
Lies don’t happen in a vacuum. They affect lots of other people, from siblings to peers to teachers and coaches, depending on the nature of the lie and the consequences that result from it. Because kids tend to “leap before they look,” they often don’t realize how their actions affect others…until you make them aware of it.
Kids may feel guilt, shame, and a loss of self-respect and self-esteem when they lie. They lose freedom and have to endure more parental supervision. It’s helpful to talk openly about these realities with your child so they become more aware of how they are impacted as a person when they don’t tell the truth.
A value system can’t be variable or situation-specific—it has to be consistent to have meaning. Your child’s value system is the cornerstone of trust in your relationship.
By talking about the lie with your child, you create an opportunity for them to understand the consequences of their actions and, ultimately, to be more truthful.
Don’t just dive into this conversation. After you’ve taken some time to calm down and get some perspective, set it up with these four things in mind:
It’s necessary and appropriate to have consequences for lying. The most common consequence is a loss of privileges for a specific period of time. This is different from the “grounded for eternity” consequence I mentioned earlier. Suspend a privilege that’s related to the offense.
Say, for example, your son tells you there will be a responsible adult chaperoning the party this Friday, and you find out later there wasn’t. You can give a consequence called “verification.” For the foreseeable future, your son loses the privilege of going to any party until you’ve verified there will be an adult on site (By the way, I’ve found this consequence to be very effective. Kids really don’t like it and will often decide being truthful works better.).
Or let’s say your daughter uses the family car to go somewhere you’ve told her she’s not allowed to go and lies about it. The consequence could be her car use is restricted to driving to and from school only, and you check the odometer. When she demonstrates she can follow the rules with the car for two weeks, she gets driving privileges back.
Withholding privileges for a period of time is important because it helps draw the child into a period of reflection. So, time that’s usually spent in the car or with electronics is, instead, spent thinking about telling the truth the next time they are confronted with a problem.
Some kids won’t want to talk about their lying. It stirs up emotions that make them very uncomfortable, and they’ll resist at all costs. In this case, explain that the loss of privileges stays in force until they have a meaningful conversation.
Other kids may want to have the talk quickly to get the consequence over with. I’ve always found it most effective to keep the suspension of privileges in force for the amount of time you specify and not cut it short after the conversation occurs.
So, if you take away your teen’s electronics for three days, and they decide to have the conversation on day two, they still lose electronics access for the rest of the time. Privileges resume after both conditions are met.
Talking about a subject like this can seem pretty big to your child, and they might not know where to begin or what to anticipate. You can tell them, “Here are some things I’d like you to think about before we talk.” Then give them a list of three or four open-ended questions to consider, such as:
When you talk with your child, avoid the emotional temptation to over-lecture them about the offense. Keep it businesslike and calm, asking open-ended questions that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no.
Avoid the word “why.” Asking your child, “Why did you lie about going to the party” will likely set up a power struggle and defensiveness that will get in the way of learning. Also, by asking your child “why did you lie,” you encourage your child to give you an excuse.
Once you’ve given your child the framework and they’ve thought things through, have the conversation. You can use the framework you set up as a guideline.
Related content: How to Deal with Lying in Children and Teens
You know best when your child is being authentic or simply telling you what they think you want to hear. Children generally demonstrate that they are learning from mistakes by speaking openly and genuinely about their reason for making the misstep.
They will also generally show some level of authentic emotion—sadness, guilt, or shame. For most kids, lying doesn’t feel good. In your conversation, allow space for them to talk about that and why it doesn’t feel good.
Some kids can lie regularly but only get caught infrequently. That’s why when you discover that your child has not told the truth, it’s important to have a structured conversation that shines the light on the impact of their lie. It’s not a conversation your child will enjoy having, but the payoff of that talk is a big one—a child who has more respect for themselves, you, and others—a child you can trust.
Michael Kramer, PhD is a Licensed Psychologist in the State of Maine. He received his PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of Kentucky. His Portland practice is quite varied, providing psychotherapy to children, adolescents, couples, and families. In addition, he is an Organizational Consultant and provides multiple services to a wide variety of for-profit and non-profit businesses. A final area of specialization is Sports Psychology.