Sneaky behavior such as lying and stealing are some of the hardest issues for parents to deal with. When your child lies and sneaks around, it can feel like a betrayal and begins to feel like a moral issue. You start to question their character. You may start to dislike your child.
Let’s face it—many of us were guilty of some type of sneaking around when we were younger. We may have stolen cigarettes from our parents. Perhaps we lied about where we were going or who we were going to be with. We may have even thought we were justified at the time and came up with all kinds of reasons to explain our misbehavior.
These are the times when parents need to be able to step back, focus on the behavior, and not take it personally. Lying and sneaky behavior is not okay, but it doesn’t make your child a bad person. Instead, it means your child has a behavior problem that needs to be addressed.
Kids are not being sneaky to hurt you. They’re being sneaky to get what they want or to solve a problem that they have. Either way, being sneaky is not the right approach, and it’s your job to give consequences and to coach them to solve their problems the right way.
Stay calm and focused on the behavior. If calm, the situation will be much easier to deal with. Even if you feel as if it’s a personal betrayal, try to take the emotion out of the discussion with your child. Just be businesslike and objective and focus on the behavior and the consequences. Think about how a good boss would handle things—professional, calm, and honest.
When you catch your child in a lie or doing something sneaky, tell them immediately. Remind them that the behavior is unacceptable and issue the consequence.
If you think your child has been lying to you and sneaking around but you don’t have the details or the full story, let them know your suspicions. Tell them that you’re going to follow up to get more information and that you will be monitoring their behavior more closely.
Later, when things are calm, you will need to have a conversation with your child about how to solve their problems without resorting to lying or sneaking. Give yourself time to prepare for this important discussion, and do it when you are calm and without getting emotional.
A way to begin these problem-solving conversations is to have your child do some “homework” ahead of time. Ask them to think about their behavior and be prepared, either verbally or in writing, to let you know what they were thinking when they did this, what the problems were with the behavior, and how they might behave in this situation in the future. It’s always most helpful when these ideas come directly from your child.
Related content: The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior
It’s helpful to remember that kids don’t understand how hurtful lies can be. Their thinking is immature, and they generally lie without even considering how these lies affect others.
The truth is, kids know lying is wrong. But they lie anyway. And they usually lie because they just have a really poor way of solving problems. They lie to get out of a consequence because they think it’s their only option left.
If you look at lying as a problem-solving issue, and not a moral one, you can help your child develop strategies so they can stop lying in the future. Don’t spend all your energy stressing the right and wrong nature of lying. Conversations about right and wrong have a place, but the most effective approach is to focus the conversation about finding a better way to solve problems that don’t entail lying.
If your child’s lying seems to be getting worse or is particularly worrisome, there may be a need to reach out to others in their life to find out what’s really going on. Let your child know that you are concerned and suspicious of their behavior and that you will be keeping an eye on them.
They won’t like this, but you have to let them know that you care about them. Tell them they have to be truthful with you. You can even tell them that as a parent it’s your job to help them follow the rules in your home.
Related content: How to Deal with Lying in Children and Teens.
If your child’s sneaky behavior has hurt someone else, this needs to be addressed. Stealing is an example of one of these behaviors that hurts others. If you find that your child has stolen something, the consequences need to do the following:
For example, if your son is caught taking money from his sister, your conversation with your son should set a consequence for the stealing. He might lose all electronics privileges until he makes amends to his sister. Then, he must make amends to his sister by paying her back and then adding an additional gesture, like doing her chores for a week.
If your child sneaks money from your wallet, this is also stealing. You tell them that the behavior is unacceptable and that you will be watching your money much more closely.
If your child continues to steal from you, it’s time to try to find out what he is spending this money on. This may lead to uncovering other behaviors that will have to be addressed. There could be issues with drugs or alcohol.
Related content: Kids Stealing from Parents: What You Need to Know
If your child sneaks her phone at night and texts into the wee hours with her friend, there will be a natural consequence for her because she’ll be tired the next day. But remember, you control the phone. You’re paying the bills. And you can and should let your child know that she has broken the phone rules and won’t have the privilege of using it for a reasonable amount of time (depending on the age of your child and whether this is a one-time thing or a pattern of misbehavior).
Related content: How to Give Kids Consequences That Work
If your child sneaks out at night, you need to reiterate your rules around his curfew and then consider the risk of the behavior. Is your 15-year-old son sneaking out to his friend’s house just to hang out? Or is your teenage girl taking off every night to go to her older boyfriend’s house where drugs and alcohol are present? Some behaviors and patterns of sneaky behavior are much more dangerous and risky than others and have to be dealt with more seriously.
When your child is calm and can talk about what he or she did, it’s useful to try to find out what the motivation was. Was it to be with a boyfriend or girlfriend? To get high? To have sex? Or just to hang out with a group of kids?
Reiterate to them that the sneaky behavior is not allowed and goes against your house rules. Your conversation needs to include a short and direct discussion of the risks and dangers of the behavior and your concern about your child’s safety.
The consequences and conversation should match the level of safety concern. For example, if your child was on her phone all night and it’s a first-time offense, taking away phone privileges for the weekend while she practices good behavior and goes to bed on time may be adequate. If your child is sneaking out of the house and it becomes a pattern, the consequences need to become more serious.
Tell your child that lying and other sneaky behaviors are not acceptable in your family. Explain that he needs to find better ways of problem-solving than sneaking around your rules. State your family’s values and your expectations for your child within the family. Remember, while sneaky behavior is normal for kids, it’s not okay. You can simply say:
“Lying is not a good way to solve your problems. We don’t allow this in our family.”
You child won’t like it when you confront sneaky behavior. They will initially resent being caught or being suspected of the behavior. And they definitely won’t like the uncomfortable conversations and consequences that follow. But that’s okay. By doing so you are doing your job as a parent. Just be calm, matter-of-fact, and clear about the misbehavior and the consequence. And then coach them to healthier ways of solving their problems.
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Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.
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I’m not sure where I went wrong with my niece who is almost 13, but here goes.
Recently, I noticed my niece does a lot of things out of spite and lies about it, she’s a habitual liar. I usually address the lies and she says she understands. Also, she got into gaming and YouTube and she’s telling these people she’s pregnant. To keep her lie going, she eats a lot of food throughout the day. It’s gotten so bad sometimes the food won’t last the entire month so I go to bed hungry so her & my mom (who is waiting for her disability to start) can eat. I tried my best with my circumstances from navigating my senior year as a “parent” at 17 since my older sister abandoned her. I’m almost 29, I’m not sure where I went wrong but I’m on the verge of sending her over to stay with her bio mom, especially since now she’s stealing food, which I fear will turn into money, credit cards etc. I can’t live with someone who I can’t trust. Help!
I have an 11 year-old son. He does not have his own phone and I have not allowed him to have any social media accounts. To be honest they scare me and I don't want to open him up to the online world. All of his friends have phones of course and online accounts, but that doesn't make a difference to me. Last night I just found out he has an instagram account, a snapfish account and Musicily account....all without my knowledge since Nov. of 2016.
Previous to this, we've talked about when he does want an app of any kind, he needs to ask me about it, I need to look at it and if I approve he can have it. I KNOW there are a lot of parents out there that feel letting your child have an online presence is no big deal. To me, I believe 11 is too young to have that. But now he went behind my back and did this....I don't want to be so restrictive that he feels like he has to lie to me. How would you handle this?
This is a common question we receive from many parents of
teens, so you are not alone. Although I hear how important school and
your son’s education is, we do not recommend making kids quit part-time
jobs. This is because work can be a really positive experience for kids,
and another avenue for him to learn skills and values like accountability, team
work, time management, and so on. In addition, making him quit his job is
more likely to cause feelings of resentment toward you, rather than remorse or
motivation to change. Taking away his car if he is showing that he is not
able to follow your rules around its use, as well as earning it back by meeting
his responsibilities, makes sense. Please let us know if you have any
additional questions. Take care.
Your daughter’s behavior sounds
very risky and concerning. In Megan Devine’s article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/how-dare-you-lie-to-me-how-to-deal-with-a-lying-teen/, she talks about the
difference between telling lies to get attention or to avoid disappointing you,
and lying to cover up unsafe or risky behaviors. It sounds like your daughter’s
behavior has crossed the line into a potentially dangerous and unsafe
territory. I am glad to hear you have reached out to local supports. That is
what we would recommend. I would continue to work with them and make them aware
when you know your daughter is not being truthful. I would also utilize your
local authorities when you have found out your daughter has been speaking with
adult men inappropriately, or getting into cars with strangers. Let them be a
resource for you. In a calm time you can call them or go to the police station
and see how they can be a support for you. I know this is not easy to be
dealing with. Thank you for reaching out to us. Please let us know if we can be
of any further help.
my kid is going on 16, for the past few years I have been trying to break his addiction to video games. years ago it started with sneaking things he knows he is not allowed to have. problem is he is terrible at sneaking cause he always gets caught. I have done everything to stop this. grounding, taking away items you name it. the playing games is impossible to break. I removed systems and put away but he finds away to sneak them to play. I have 2 other girls so it's not fair for them to never have access. my next step is a psychiatrist for him. you mention consequences but I have no options left other than military school, school for boys or paddle his ass which is illegal nowadays. he has pushed me to the edge where the paddling is near. even his door has been removed from his room a few days ago. today he broke in a locked closet and hooked up the game system, left the console where he was playing then denied he had it. I can't take it anymore. what can I do????
even been contemplating putting up camera's in the house.
I am sorry to hear about the struggles you are having with
your son. You are not alone, as we speak with parents daily who are
experiencing similar challenging behaviors. Does your son have the opportunity
to earn time daily on his video games? By taking away all your son’s meaningful
privileges, including the games, it also can remove any motivation he has to change
his behavior, and kids often resort to more extreme measures, like the
sneaking, in order to have time on his games. Sara Bean, one of our Empowering
Parents authors, has a great article about how to https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/does-my-child-have-a-video-game-addiction-how-to-set-limits-around-video-game-use/. We would strongly discourage any sort of
physical intervention or paddle, as it does not help to teach better choices.
Along that line, we also wouldn’t recommend taking his door off the hinges, as
teens need their privacy, as long as there isn’t any safety concerns involved. And
you already know that your son is taking the games out of the locked closet, so
cameras seem like an unnecessary step. Worst
case scenario is you may just end up removing the games from your home
altogether to remove the temptation. I hope you find the video game article
helpful, and your family is able to come to a resolution around this issue.
Best of luck!
Blended families can offer some unique challenges. It can be
tough to know what role a stepparent should play. We have several articles that
offer some useful tips for the possible issues a blended family may face. Two
in particular you may find helpful are https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/my-blended-family-wont-blend-help-part-i-how-you-and-your-spouse-can-get-on-the-same-page/ & https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/blended-family-the-5-secrets-of-effective-stepparenting/. As much as possible, you
want to be the one who’s taking the lead when disciplining your son. It’s also
going to be more effective if you don’t take everything away as this usually
has the opposite effect on behavior. Janet Lehman does offer some useful tips
for addressing lying in the above article, such as having problem solving
conversations with your son about the choices he has made. Help him figure out
what he could be doing differently in the future. I hope this helps. Be sure to
check back if you have any further questions. Take care.