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.
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.
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.
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. When things are calm, have a conversation about alternative ways to solve their problem (more about this below). When they’ve misbehaved and lied about it, address both the misbehavior and the lying.
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.
Kids are not being sneaky to hurt you. They are being sneaky to get what they want or to solve a problem that they have. But they are problem-solving the wrong way, and it’s your job to coach them to do it 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 a job performance review with you—professional, calm, and honest.
You will need to have a conversation with your child about how to solve their problems the right way—a way that does not entail lying or sneaking. But don’t have this conversation immediately when confronting the sneaky behavior. Instead, take some time for your child to think about what they did and how to behave differently in the future. This gives you time to prepare for this important discussion. It also gives you time to calm down, which is important because these conversations need to be done 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 the problem-solving 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.
There are different levels of lying with varying effects on others. These require different intensities of consequences for the lying. It’s the parents’ job to reiterate those consequences and be firm and consistent.
If your child’s lying seems to be more prevalent and worrisome, there may be a need to reach out to others in their life. Get the details on what is really happening in his life. Let your child know that you are concerned and suspicious of their behavior 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.
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. In fact, the most effective response I’ve found is to address the behavior, lay out the consequences, and help your child learn different ways to get what he or she wants other than through lying and sneaking around.
And here’s what’s not useful—simply stressing the right and wrong nature of lying. Conversations about right and wrong have a place, but they aren’t going to solve the problem. Instead, you need to have a conversation about finding a better way to solve problems that don’t entail lying.
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.
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™.