You: “You failed your biology test? You said you studied!”
Your child: “Well, I forgot my books at school the night before the test. It wasn’t my fault!”
You: “Why didn’t you tell me? I’m so tired of your lies.”
When your child lies to you, whether she does it by telling a half–truth or conveniently "forgetting" some key facts, it’s frustrating and upsetting. You wonder, “How can I trust her if she’s not being honest with me?” And if this behavior turns into a habit, it becomes difficult to know when your child is telling the truth, twisting it a little—or making up a complete fabrication.
“When your child lies, it doesn’t mean she’s inherently dishonest or unethical—it just means she’s solving her problems in a faulty way in order to get out of punishment or consequences.”
As hard as lying is to deal with, I want to be clear here and say that it’s a normal part of growing up. It’s another way for kids to test the limits and see how far they can go, and most kids will do it at one time or another. It’s important to realize that when your child lies, it doesn’t mean she’s inherently dishonest or unethical—it just means she’s solving her problems in a faulty way in order to get out of punishment or consequences. The danger with allowing this behavior to continue is that your child will keep using this technique to cover up mistakes and the faulty coping skill will become a bad habit.
I think one of the biggest problems with this issue is that parents often overreact or under–react when kids lie. Don’t get me wrong, parenting is hard, and most of us are exhausted at the end of the day. It’s easy to let half–truths slide by without saying anything because on the surface, these distortions of the truth can seem harmless. We minimize their importance, but in doing so, we also teach our kids that lying is an acceptable way to solve their problems. Or we overreact and take it personally, and start to believe that our children are somehow intrinsically flawed or untrustworthy. But both ways of approaching lying in children are ineffective—and neither will make the behavior stop.
Half–truths, Omissions and Misrepresentations of the Truth
Don’t kid yourself: half-truths, omissions, and misrepresentations of the truth are really the same as lying. It all comes down to the same thing—your child is not giving you complete information. Why do kids do this in the first place? In addition to using lying as a quick fix to get out of trouble, they also see other children, older siblings and even the adults around them being less than honest at times. They see examples of these behaviors, often without seeing any negative consequence for the lie. As a parent, you just want to make sure that lying is uncomfortable for your child so he doesn’t use it to solve his problems. In my opinion, you shouldn’t be surprised or shocked when your child lies—instead, be prepared. Decide ahead of time how you’ll deal with the situation when you catch your child in a half–truth and then follow through on it. And always remember to stay as neutral and objective as possible when you do this—your child probably isn’t lying to make you look bad or to hurt you; he’s lying because he doesn’t know a better way to solve his problems yet.
When Our Son Lied: How We Handled It
I’ll give you an example from my own life. When our son was in first grade, he came home from school one afternoon acting as if he’d had a good day. But later that afternoon I got a call from the teacher saying that he’d bitten another child on the playground. Our son had lied by omission; he didn’t tell us about his misbehavior. We dealt with it by saying, “We got a phone call from your school and they told us what you did. This is very serious behavior.” We let him know that it wasn’t okay to omit the facts and pretend as if nothing had happened. Then we sent him to his room.
For kids, it’s tempting to leave out information about school because parents aren’t there and don’t know what happened. That’s why it’s really important to have that dialogue with your child’s teacher. You need to know what’s going on at school; do whatever you can to get a general sense of the situation. I always say that parents need to be good detectives where their kids are concerned, and having good lines of communication open with the school will help you understand what’s really going on when incidents crop up again.
Later, when our son was a teenager, he and some friends engaged in some minor vandalism in our town on Halloween night. Again, he came home and didn’t mention anything—but this time, he sat down with us the next morning and told us what he’d done. We handled it by having him call the police immediately and turn himself in. They made him write an account of what happened and he was dealt with through the legal system. We didn’t involve the other kids who’d been there that night—we just focused on our own child. While calling the police is a choice every parent has to make on their own, we felt the consequence was appropriate, given what he had done.
Was it easy to follow through on this decision? Not at all. I understand how hard it is for parents to handle difficult situations like this one. Often it takes a great deal of energy as a parent to be consistent, but it’s so important to have consequences and follow through on them. And it’s the best way to show your child that you can be trusted to be there for them.
When You Catch Your Child in a Lie
Our job as parents is to go to work and provide a home for our kids, while our child’s job is to go to school and fulfill his responsibilities at home. As I mentioned before, I believe it’s also part of our job to stay actively involved and know how our children are doing in school. Let’s say your teen daughter tells you that everything’s going fine academically and then you learn she’s failing in two subjects. When something like that happens, both you and your child need to do things differently. At this point in time it would be helpful to be more vigilant and start checking her homework. You might also meet with her teachers and set up stronger lines of communication.
When you discuss these changes with your child, you don’t have to talk at great length about her half truths and lying. Instead, you can say, “I don’t like that you’re not being honest with me. You said that things were going well in school, but they’re not. Now I’m going to be more involved in making sure you’re doing your homework until you show me that you can be responsible and bring your grades back up.” If your child continues misrepresenting the truth, you can set limits by giving her less free time until she completes her schoolwork at a satisfactory level. You can say, “If you do your work, you get the same amount of free time. If you don’t, you’ll have less.” I can’t state this enough: When you confront your child in these situations, stay matter of fact and objective. It’s not about you; it’s about the situation at hand. Try to avoid either overreacting or under–reacting. Be honest, above board and clear. And again, it’s the follow through that’s important.
When You’re Not Sure If Your Child is Lying
If you have a hunch your child isn’t telling the truth, it’s important to talk to her—but you have to be careful and non–intrusive. A way to discuss something you suspect is happening is to start by expressing the concern you feel. You can say, “It seems like there’s something going on and I’m worried about you.” Deliver that concern in a matter of fact, caring way. If your child tries to avoid the discussion or has a reaction that makes you even more worried, this is a good indicator that you need to look into the situation further. Kids also need to know that you’re going to follow through, so you should say something like, “I’m pretty concerned about this situation. I don’t really know the details right now and you’re not willing to tell me, but I’m going to talk to your friend’s mother to find out more about it.” In this way, you’re not charging in there and accusing your child of something without all the details. Instead, you’re stating your concern and telling them that you’re going to find out more of the details.
If you actually catch your child in a lie, I think it’s always good to be direct and calm. The message doesn’t need to be complicated—instead, keep it simple and specific. It’s also up to you to control the conversation—in fact, it’s important to avoid getting into long–winded discussions, particularly if your child is a junior lawyer who’s very good at twisting the facts. When this happens, it becomes more about the words and the slicing and dicing of the situation than the actual situation itself. You can say, “I know that you took your sister’s new sweater; I found it on the floor in your closet. That’s not okay. You need to apologize to her and pay to have it dry cleaned, or buy her a new one.” Instead of engaging in the argument that your child might try to draw you into, get up and walk away.
Consequences for Lying
In most cases, I recommend that you give consequences for the behavior rather than for the lie. Again, your child is using lying, half truths and misrepresentations of the truth to solve a problem. But I also believe there are certain times when you should give your child consequences for lying, as well. Let’s say your teen tells you he’s going to a friend’s house to sleepover, but you find out from a neighbor that he and his friends were out all night in town. In this situation, I would give a consequence both for the inappropriate, risky behavior and for the lie.
If you say to your child, “Were you out last night?” and he says, “Yes, I was. I snuck out with my friends and I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have done it.” This is an opportunity for your child to admit his mistake. There should still be consequences for that, but for the teen who says, “No way; I wasn’t out! That wasn’t me,” you’re also dealing with denial. Either way, there will be consequences for both the lying and the risky behavior. For the child who admits his mistake, you might set the limit of not allowing him to sleep over at a friend’s house until you can see he’s adhering to his curfew and being honest about coming home. But if there’s total denial on the part of your child, the consequences need to be more severe. He may lose his privileges to go out and to sleep over at a friend’s house for a longer period of time. You’ll also be watching him more carefully. The ante will be upped, so to speak. The important thing is that you’re monitoring your child—and he knows that you’re doing it. Your child won’t thank you for restricting his behavior for a time, but he will respect you for sticking to your limits.
We work so hard as parents and often feel pretty overwhelmed when our kids lie. But remember, you’ll do a better job when you respond objectively instead of reacting emotionally in these situations. You’re not a bad parent because your child tells a lie or misrepresents the truth—this is simply a chance for him to learn that lying isn’t the right way to solve his problems. The way to be a good parent in these situations is to call your child on his actions, give consequences and follow through.
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™.