Let’s face it; we are probably all guilty of some type of “sneaking around” when we were younger. We may have stolen cigarettes from our parents, or lied about going to a friend’s house, or said we were going to the “library” when we were really going to a dance. We may have even thought we were justified at the time and come up with all kinds of reasons to explain our misbehavior.
The sneaky behavior and lying become the “method” for them to solve problems – not a good or effective method – but a method.
Despite how common this is, sneaky behavior and lying are some of the hardest issues for parents to deal with, especially parents who aim to be loving and caring. When your child lies and sneaks around, it can feel like a betrayal and begins to feel like a moral issue. These are the times when parents need to be able to step back, look at the behavior, and not take it personally. Even though the behavior may not be okay, it doesn’t make your child a “bad” child. Simply stressing the right and wrong nature of lying isn’t usually in itself helpful, either. 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.
The Surprising Reason Why Kids Lie
The truth is, kids generally know right from wrong in their gut, but don’t always listen to that “little inner voice.” Conversations about right and wrong generally aren’t going to solve the problem, but a problem-solving conversation can make a difference for that behavior now and in the future.
It’s important to understand that most children are not inherently dishonest; they lie because they just have a really poor way of solving their problem. They may lie to get out of a consequence, thinking that’s going to work and it’s the best (and only way) to handle being caught doing something they aren’t supposed to be doing. If you look at lying as a problem-solving issue, and not a moral one, you as a parent can help your child develop strategies so they can stop lying in the future.
Is Your Child Pushing the Limits?
There are times in a child’s life when it’s more natural and normal that they will take risks and push limits. It’s just a part of adolescence and something to expect. Saying that, there are certainly kids who are sneakier than others and it’s natural to wonder why that is. Along those same lines, some kids just act out more than others and need more consistency and limit-setting. Some are risk-takers and seem less bothered by getting into trouble. Some kids are more interested in hanging out with a negative peer group and may succumb more easily to peer pressure. Some learn sneaky behaviors from friends and siblings. Others learn to keep doing the sneaky behavior because they’re able to get away with it and avoid consequences.
If your child is involved with a negative peer group and feels pressure to go along with the misbehavior of their friends, understand that this doesn’t make them a “victim” of peer pressure. They ultimately have responsibility for their own behavior, and you can remind them of that when they act out or go along with their friends’ bad choices.
One of the most important things for parents to realize is that kids use sneaky behavior and lying as a way to solve a problem. They failed the test and told you they did fine…but now the progress report is coming home and has to be signed by you, for example. Or they said they went to babysit…but another parent calls you to say they saw your daughter driving around in a car drinking beer. Your child has chosen to do what she wanted in a way that resulted in sneaking around and lying. Kids often justify this behavior with thinking errors: “The test wasn’t fair anyway and I didn’t have time to study.” Or, “I was going to babysit, but the kid got sick and my friend picked me up, and I didn’t know they had been drinking.” The sneaky behavior and lying become the “method” for them to solve problems – not a good or effective method – but a method.
Call It When You See It
When you know that your child has been sneaking around or you’ve caught them in a lie, it’s important to call them on it right away, remind them that the behavior is unacceptable, issue the consequences and discuss alternative problem-solving methods at a time and place when your child can participate in a calm, productive conversation. When they’ve engaged in a sneaky behavior and lied about it, you have two behaviors that you’re going to address and give consequences for: 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.
If your child’s sneaky behavior has hurt someone else, this needs to be addressed. Stealing is one of these behaviors that impact others. If you find that your child has stolen something, the consequences need to:
- Address the misbehavior – stealing
- Make amends to the other person who was affected
For example, if your son is caught taking money from his sister, your conversation with your son should point out that there are consequences for the stealing: he’s lost access to a privilege for a period of time and he needs to “right the wrong” with his sister. This means making amends by paying her back and then adding an additional gesture, like doing her chores for a week, for the hurt this stealing caused her.
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. This is a time when you want to keep your money better protected, like you’d do when walking in a crowded area in public. That way you can reduce the risk of it happening again, and your child learns that you want this behavior to stop. Despite these safeguards, 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 behavior that will have to be addressed.
Sneaking the Cell Phone
If your child sneaks her cell 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 that 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 stated period of time (depending on the age of your child and whether this is a one-time thing or a pattern of misbehavior).
Sneaking out at Night
If your child sneaks out at night, you need to reiterate your rules around his curfew and then address the risk of the behavior. There are degrees of sneaky behavior, from the 15-year-old kid who goes to the neighbor kid’s house to play video games at midnight, to the extreme of the teenage girl who takes 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 “draw” was – was it to be with a boyfriend or girlfriend, to get high, to have sex, or to hang out with a group of kids? Regardless of the “draw,” let them know the sneaky behavior is not justified and goes against your house rules. Your conversation needs to include a short, 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 snuck her cell phone one 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, however, up to and including calling the police when warranted.
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 you child’s lying seems to be more prevalent and worrisome, there may be a need to reach out to others in their life to get details on what is really happening; you’ll need to “become a detective for the truth.” Let your child know that you are concerned and suspicious of their behavior and put them on “high alert” that you are watching their behavior closely. They won’t like this, but you have to let them know that you care about them, but expect them to stop the lying. You can even tell them that as a parent it’s your job to help them follow the rules in your home.
The Importance of Problem-solving Conversations
After catching your child in a lie, it can be useful to have a conversation (when things have calmed down) about what your child could have done differently. “If you wanted to go to your friend’s and play video games at midnight, you could have asked and we may have let you do this on Friday night when there was no school on Saturday.”
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.
All of these conversations need to be done without emotionalism on your part, and with a focus on the behavior and the consequences. Once the emotionalism is gone, the situation will be much easier to deal with. Remember, while sneaky behavior is pretty normal for kids, it’s not okay, not acceptable for your family, and kids need to find better ways of problem-solving than sneaking around your rules. At these times parents need to remain clear-thinking, especially around your family’s values and expectations for your child.
5 Tips to Deal with Sneaky Behavior
In a nutshell, here are five tips to help you deal with your child’s lying or sneaky behavior.
- Don’t take it personally. Kids are not doing this to hurt you, they are doing it to get what they want the wrong way. It’s your job to help them learn this.
- Remove emotionalism. Even if you feel like it’s a personal betrayal, try to take the emotionalism out of the discussion with your child. Stay calm, clear and focused on the behavior. Be businesslike and objective.
- Have a problem-solving conversation. Your child is solving his or her problems inappropriately, which is why you need to have a problem-solving conversation about better ways to handle the situation. Don’t do this 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 also gives you time to prepare for this important discussion.
- Have a consistent message about lying. For example it can be as simple as: “Lying is not a good way to solve your problems. We don’t allow this in our family and if you resort to lying, there will be consequences.”
- When your child engages in sneaky behavior:
- Be clear about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior
- Name sneaky behavior when it happens
- State the consequences
- Be consistent with this response
You are not going to win a personality contest when you confront sneaky behavior, but remember that you are doing your job as a parent. Kids don’t like it when their parents suspect them or catch them lying or sneaking around. They also don’t like the conversations and consequences that follow. You will need to stay calm, avoid a screaming match, and know that these are generally not warm-and-fuzzy discussions, but rather matter-of-fact and clear conversations about misbehavior, consequences and talking to your child about better, healthier ways of solving their problems.
About Janet Lehman, MSW
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. In addition, Janet gained a personal understanding of child learning and behavior challenges from her son, who struggled with learning disabilities in school. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.