Q: When your child lies to you, it hurts. As parents, it makes us angry and we take it personally. We feel like we can never trust our child again. Why does lying cause such anger, pain and worry for parents?
James: Parents are understandably very afraid of their children getting hurt and getting into trouble, but they have very little protection against these things as they send their kids out into the world. Kids learn from other kids and from the media, and it makes parents feel unsafe because they can’t control the information and ideas that are being presented to their children.
Let’s face it. Information isn’t just available to our kids; it’s injected into them. Bad ideas are pushed down our kid’s throats by their peers, by some adults, by the media. It’s hard for a parent to keep control of their kids when this is happening, and protect them from their own harmful impulses and dangerous outside influences.
Your kid’s honesty becomes the connector between what’s happening to him on the outside world and what happens at home. You need him to tell you honestly what happened today, so that you can honestly decide if that’s best for him.
You need to hear that information in order to decide if that’s going to help him meet his responsibilities now — and in the future. When parents don’t get the right information, they’re afraid they’ll make the wrong choices for their kids.
When your kid lies, you start to see him as “sneaky,” especially if he continues to lie to you. You feel that he’s going behind your back, that he’s undermining you. We begin to think that our kids are “bad.” We make the connection that if lying is bad, liars are bad. It’s just that simple.
Parents should hold their kids responsible for lying. But the mistake parents make is when they start to blame the kid for lying. It’s considered immoral to lie. But when you look at your kid like he’s a sneak and an operator who’s undermining your authority, it’s a slippery slope that starts with “You lie” and ends up at “You’re a bad person.” I think that perception of your kid promotes more lying. If your child thinks you think he’s “bad,” he’s going to hide the truth from you even more, because he doesn’t want to be bad. Even though they are lying, kids don’t want to disappoint their parents.
Q: Let’s look at it from the child’s perspective. What’s going in on a child’s mind when they lie to their parents?
James: Say you’re driving on the interstate and the speed limit is 65 mph. You know that if you drive 65 mph on the interstate, that’s the slowest anyone drives, and people fly by you, honk at you and call you names. So you go 75 miles an hour…and a policeman stops you. He says, “Ms. Jones, how fast were you driving?” And most people say, “Sixty five.” Or, “I thought I was doing sixty five, officer, or maybe a little over sixty five.” Why are people dishonest like that? Because they understand that driving fast is forbidden. But they don’t understand that it’s hurtful. We understand that it’s wrong to drive that fast and there are consequences. But we don’t understand that it really hurts anybody and that it puts people at risk.
It’s the same with kids. They know lying is forbidden. But they don’t see it as hurtful. Not the way that parents see it as hurtful. So a kid will say, “I know it’s wrong that I ate a sugar snack when I’m not supposed to. But who does it hurt?” “I know it’s wrong that I traded my dried fruit for a Twinkie. But it doesn’t really hurt anybody. I can handle it. What’s the big deal?” That’s what the kid sees.
When they don’t see it as hurtful, there are two different value systems operating: the family’s value system that says this is forbidden and the kid’s value system that says if it’s not hurting anybody, what do you care? The kid rationalizes his actions and justifies his behavior with the idea that it doesn’t hurt anybody. The outcome is a dishonest situation. A lie.
When you get to adolescence, of course, the stakes get much higher. But the thinking remains the same. Kids smoke pot and drink and say, “Well it doesn’t hurt anybody. My friends smoke pot and it doesn’t hurt them. I know drinking’s wrong, but my parents drink and it doesn’t hurt them. I can handle it. I’m older than my parents think I am.” They know it’s forbidden. They either don’t see it as hurtful, or they rationalize the hurt away.
Q: So what’s the best way for parents to deal with lying, so that they don’t feel hurt and resentful about it and so that the child learns not to lie?
James: The first thing you have to do is be careful of is giving lies too much power. If you have a kid who’s angry at you or who feels frustrated and powerless, and if he thinks he can get power over you by telling you a lie, he’ll use dishonesty to get that power. He’ll withhold information and lie by omission when you’re trying to get the truth. He’ll give you little pieces of information, and that makes him feel powerful. It’s a trap for parents. Honesty is important, but if you communicate that too strongly to your children, they will use that to have power over you. You have to keep these things a certain size so that they’re not used against you.
The second thing to remember is that you have to understand the power of the culture that kids go into. It’s a very powerful culture that exerts a lot of pressure to “fit in.” They may feel guilty if they lie to their parents. But, again, they’re thinking, “This isn’t that hurtful, and my parents just don’t understand.” Of course, parents do understand. They’re frightened, and they should be.
So I think that parents have to assume that kids are going to tell them lies, because they’re immature and they don’t understand how hurtful these things are. They’re also drawn towards excitement, and their parents aren’t. It’s not like the good kids aren’t drawn to excitement and risk, and the bad kids are. It’s not that the good kids don’t lie and the bad kids do lie. They’re all drawn to excitement, and they’ll all have a tendency to distort the truth because they’re kids.
I think parents have to deal with lying the way a cop deals with speeding. If you’re going too fast, he gives you a ticket. He’s not interested in a lot of explanations from you. He’s just going to give you a consequence. Look at it the same way with your child. He didn’t tell the truth, whether the truth was distorted, omitted or withheld. There should simply be consequences for that. The first time you lie, you go to bed an hour early. The second time, you lose your phone. It should be something that the kid feels. You lose your phone for twenty four hours. You lose your phone for two days. You lose computer time or TV time.
The consequences have to make the child uncomfortable or they don’t change anything. The idea is that the next time he’s faced with telling you the truth or lying, he’ll recall how uncomfortable he was when he did the consequence for lying, and he’ll tell you the truth instead.
The consequence should be about the lying. If there’s a separate consequence for the incident, that should come down separately. If you come home later than your curfew and you tell me the truth, you may still lose going out Friday night, but you won’t lose your phone. If you lie to me, you lose both.
Parents should not get into the morality of it. Just be clear. Lying is wrong, it’s hurtful and, in our home, we tell the truth. But don’t make it a moral issue. Make it a technical issue. You broke the law. You broke the rules. These are your consequences.
When a cop writes me a ticket, he doesn’t follow me home or argue with me. He hands me my ticket and he drives away. Approach the consequences for lying the same way. Don’t argue about it or get into a big discussion. Discuss it in a structured way: “What were you trying to accomplish by doing that?” Not “Why did you lie? You know how much lying hurts me.” Just ask what he was trying to accomplish, then point out that lying is not the way to solve his problem. Compliance is the way to solve it. Talk about it after things have cooled down, not in the heat of the moment. Explain what will happen if he lies again. “If you lie to me about the dance, you’re not going to the next dance and I’m taking your phone for twenty four hours.” Just keep it really simple.
Related content: How to Deal with Lying in Children and Teens
James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.
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Thank you for writing in and sharing your story. Lying is a difficult behavior many parents are faced with at one time or another. The important thing to keep in mind is that lying is a poor problem solving skill. The focus should be more on what was lied about rather than the lie itself. For example, if she says she brushed her teeth and you then find out she didn't, focus on her not brushing her teeth and take steps to address that. We have several articles that offer great tips for how to manage lying. You can find those here: https://www.empoweringparents.com/article-categories/child-behavior-problems/lying/
We appreciate you being part of our Empowering Parents community. Be sure to check back and let us know how things are going. Take care.
After reading the responses about what's "supposed" to work versus what works in most (but not all circumstances), I find that there is an issue that's not being addressed. Perhaps some of you can relate.
So, "good cop, bad cop" - yes that's understood. Do not be the bad cop, leave that to the biological parent. You (the non-biological step parent or caregiver) are supposed to let the child's real mother/father reprimand, punish, scold. But how about another angle?
What if you're committed to being the go-to person for everything "fun" and that you're supposedly seen as the "confidant"; one where you're just along for the "fun ride" and times with you are not affiliated with "punishment" nor "negativity" in a nutshell toward any child. But, when the biological parent is either overwhelmed, lazy, or tends to look the other way, the child takes advantage? What if the parent is away and you're left as the caregiver? Do you look the other way, bite your tongue and let the child get away with lying and being sneaky? Do you constantly have to communicate to their biological parent all of their shortcomings so she/he can make amends? Now we have lying to both the non-biological adults AND the biological adults because of a pesky little notion called "Plausible Deniability" - where, since the biological parent didn't actually hear the lie, it becomes hearsay. Because, the non-biological person doesn't have the same amount of "weight" and/or the biological parent feels guilt/remorse because the "family" is no longer a nuclear one so the commitment is marginal. Also, once the lying child knows you're keeping tabs on them and you're essentially (in their eyes) being a "tattle tale", the chances that they'll continue to lie and get away with it outweigh ANY sort of punishment (outside of corporal punishment - which I see no one is advocating for here. So, unless the biological parent is willing to TRULY be the one to make the effort to be the "bad cop" and confront the real issue of lying, then there will NEVER be resolve of the issues, underlying or superficial, when it comes to step parents/guardians in the fold.
I hear you!!
I have a step daughter who lies and manipulates every. single. day.
We have to put locks on everyone's doors, because she steals.
Consequences don't work.
I have no idea what to do...
I used to watch that show "Full House" where Danny would have an open and honest conversation with his kids and I always wished my parents would have that kind of openness.
I try my best to have those kinds of conversation with my 5 year old, other times I stare into her eyes and ask her if she's lying to me. She probably thinks I can see through her soul cause the next thing you know she comes out with the truth and when she starts laughing I know she's just joking at which point I realized that my kid actually has a sense of humour and I roll with it. My mom always adds humour to these kinds of situation because she's only 5. She said to me if we are always hard on her then she may not see a purpose to be alive. You're daughter is not a teen yet, you can switch it around. We don't know what kinds of pressure they're facing in school, their emotional needs etc. but we can ask. Hope this helps.
Thank you for your advice. That is exactly the way I have been handling the boys ; the dad enforces everything, I don't interfere . I'm just there for moral support; an adult confident. I don't want that roll, that's the biological parents job. I just need advice on how to empower the dad, especially when the mother undermines him in every way. She's trying to drive a wedge between the boys and their dad so the boys will live with her full time, so she gets more child support. She has done this in the past with another ex-husband. I want the kids dad to be more on the offensive and not look like a wounded deer. The teenage son in manilipulative and uses this and the mother condones his actions and enables the son to hide out at her place. It's been over a month and the dad hasn't been able to meet and talk with the son to talk about his bad choices. Help!!!???
Hi yes it does! I have recently become a step mother to 2 teens boys 16 &18. The 16 year old used to be the Honor Roll, always honest and could be trusted 110%. I have only heard about how he used to behave; I have never known this teen to behave like that. Anout 5 months before came into his life, he was lying and drinking, sneaking out etc. Grounding him and taking his phone away ( I'm not the one who disciplines the teens. I'm just an adult who live under the same roof) doesn't matter; he was grounded for 7 weeks because of continued deciept, lies, sneakinformation out to drink and hang out with friends, so this just compounded the grounding. But as soon as the sentence was completed, he did something wrong again, and it is getting worse and more complex lies. For example, his dad and I left town for the weekend and the boys were at their mom's on her visitation time. We told the boys that they were not allowed in the house when we are out of town. They don't have a house key, but we hid a key outside ( against my opinion not to. The dad said I'll hide it where no one will find it.besides the boys wouldn't even think of disobeying me.) The teenage boy who is 16, came over had a party, lied to his mom where he was and lied to us when we got home. He tried to make it look as if everything was normal and not out of place. Later, things were not adding up, things broken and missing...his dad confronted him on the phone and he confessed. I was let out of the conversation, I feel like my privacy was invaded and I don't get to say how it affected me. The dad even walked out of the room while discussing the offenses on the phone with his son, and said , " ok She'said not in the room...now you can talk freely...". I have never once disciplined the boys or said my piece; the dad does that role. I'm not sure how to take this behavior from the dad and I don't know what to do as a step mother. I don't like or agree with the segregation and splitting up the parenting when a behavior directly affects the step parent. I need advice...can anyone help me?
Thank you. I also have one more part to this story. the biological mother is undermining our parenting and letting the teenager go hide at her house so he doesn't have to face his consequences. He is not helping him at all with owning up to his actions. We can't stop the teen from leaving.
After everything that happened the mother allowed her son to go to a party on new years eve so long as we dropped him off and picked him up. He left early, and was drinking ( he wasn't allowed to have any alcohol) and we looked for him till 4:30 am. We found him at his older brother's place. the older brother was empowering the bad behavior and called the police on us when we were there to pick up the teenage son. The mother own the house ( she bought a 2nd house to let her other 2 older sons live there; they who won't work and just party. They are telling the teenage son he doesn't have to listen to the parents and he can stay and party there. ) The mother who is the landlord, wouldn't accert her authority and make the teenage son leave with us.
Now, he won't come to our house and talk with us; he just is hiding and avoiding us for days; and his mother is letting him. Even though a few days prior, he snuck out of her house and stole his step-dad dad's car and was drunk driving and partying with friends ( by the way he doesn't have a driver's license either), he hid the cat and snuck back in the house later. The mother is condoning this behavior!
We feel helpless.
I couldn't disagree more. My husband, a step parent, has taken an active role in disciplining my two boys when they misbehave. For years, the biological father and other adults (even teachers) underminded every effort I was making to provide structure and a semblance of discipline.
For example, one helpful relative actually told my kids that they didn't have to listen to me while I was sitting right there. Their father told them, on speakerphone, I had no right to take their game system and to go into my room and take it back. Nevermind the fact that the children were falling asleep in school & being disruptive due to the lack of sleep that was a direct result of said system. Disrepect, lying & stealing were the norm at the time.
Since my husband has started helping me provide a disciplined environment, I have seen a marked, positive improvement in the kids' behavior. We still have a long way to go to ensure they are ready to be out on their own, but for the first time in years I have good that my kids can live happy lives.
If my husband had taken a backseat then I would be married but struggling on my own against a sea of people who claimed they want the best for my kids but were in fact preventing all of my efforts.
I can hear how frustrated you are. It can be tough to know
what to do when the consequences don’t seem to be working. Something to keep in
mind is that consequences are only part of the solution when managing acting
out behaviors, as Sara Bean explains in the article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/why-consequences-arent-enough-part-1-how-to-coach-your-child-to-better-behavior/.
From our perspective, most acting out behavior can be attributed to poor
problem solving or coping skills. You mention you’ve been told your son is
acting this way for attention. That may be the problem he’s trying to solve
and, until he learns more effective and appropriate ways of doing so, you may
continue to see this acting out behavior no matter how many consequences you
give him. For more information on how to help your son develop better problem
solving skills, you can check out the article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/the-surprising-reason-for-bad-child-behavior-i-cant-solve-problems/. I hope
you find the information useful for your situation. Best of luck to you and
your family moving forward. Take care.