“I Caught My Child Lying.” How to Manage Sneaky Behavior in Kids

By Janet Lehman, MSW

Mother confronting daughter about lying

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. 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.

Nevertheless, sneaky behavior and lying 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.

These are the times when parents need to be able to step back, focus on the behavior, and not take it personally. Even though the behavior may not be okay, it doesn’t make your child a bad child.

And simply stressing the right and wrong nature of lying isn’t usually helpful. 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 act accordingly. Therefore, conversations about right and wrong generally aren’t going to solve the problem. Instead, you need to have a conversation about finding a better way to solve their problems.

The #1 Parenting Tip of All Time

Kids usually lie because they just have a really poor way of problem solving. 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 as a parent can help your child develop strategies so they can stop lying in the future.

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 a method to solve the problem – just not a good, effective, or acceptable method.

Is Your Child Pushing the Limits?

It is normal for many teens to take risks and push limits. It’s just a part of adolescence and something to expect. Some kids just act out more than others and need more consistency and limit-setting. Some kids just are just less bothered by getting into trouble or are more easily influenced by negative peer pressure.

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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 are still responsible for their own behavior and you should hold them accountable even if you suspect peer pressure played a role. Peer pressure is not an excuse for their behavior.

Call Out Sneaky Behavior

When you catch your child in a lie, 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. 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.

Stealing

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 do the following:

  1. Address the misbehavior – stealing
  2. 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 set a consequence for the stealing. For example, he loses a privilege until he makes amends to his sister. Then, he must make amends to his sister. This means righting the wrong 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 may be issues with drugs or alcohol.

Related content: Why is my child stealing and what can I do? Advice for parents on stealing and shoplifting

Sneaking the Phone

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 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 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? Regardless of the motivation, let them know the sneaky behavior is not allowed 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 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.

Lying

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. 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 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.

These conversations need to be done without emotionalism on your part. If calm, the situation will be much easier to deal with. Speak calmly. Focus on the behavior and the consequences.

Remember, while sneaky behavior is normal for kids, it’s not okay. Tell your child it is 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.

Related content: The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior

5 Tips to Deal with Sneaky Behavior

Here are five tips to help you deal with your child’s lying or sneaky behavior.

1. 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.

2. Stay Calm

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.

3. 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.

4. 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.”

5. 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 child won’t like it when you confront sneaky behavior, but remember that you are doing your job as a parent. Kids resent 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 and avoid a screaming match. Be aware that these are generally uncomfortable discussions, and that’s okay. Be matter-of-fact and clear about the misbehavior and the consequence. And then coach them to 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™.

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