Lots of kids lie, and often lying is particularly upsetting to parents. I think that one reason lying affects parents so strongly is because we want to keep our children safe. As long as we think we know what is going on in our kids’ heads and what they are actually experiencing, we figure we can take action to protect them. When our kids lie to us, however, we find out that perhaps our kids have been exposed to dangerous or negative situations out of our control.
WHY LYING UPSETS PARENTS
Let’s say for example, that you find out your nine year old has ridden her bike outside the agreed upon streets. She has been lying to you by omission, and then one day you find out that she has crossed some major streets with a lot of traffic. A big part of why you are upset by her lie is your fear about what might have happened to her—the accident she might have had, or whom she might have encountered so far outside your sphere of influence. Plus, in the face of one lie, you begin to doubt what you can trust about other parts of her life: Is she telling you what is going on at school? What happens when she plays at her friend’s house?
WHY PEOPLE LIE
People lie to get some kind of emotional need met. We all have needs for a sense of security, autonomy, attention, status, acceptance, excitement, intimacy and love, connection to others, self-esteem, and so forth. We lie, then, either when we think telling the truth will get in the way of having one of those needs met or when telling the lie will get the need met.
In the example above, for example, the nine year old is more than old enough to know that she is lying. Perhaps she has lied because of her need for autonomy. She feels she is old enough to handle crossing a busy street and she wants to test it out. Perhaps she has lied to gain status, and another child has dared her to cross the forbidden street or she has bragged that she is allowed to do so and now must show that she can.
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO ABOUT LYING
The question remains what should a parent do in the face of a child lying? Certainly it is reasonable to have a consequence for breaking a family rule (and ideally that consequence has been worked out the same time the bike riding boundaries were set up). But in order for a parent to feel secure her child won’t lie again, it is important that she take the time to figure out what emotional need was the child trying to meet by engaging in the behavior which required the lie (including the lie of omission). Only then can parent and child work out more acceptable ways of getting the need met.
WHAT ROLE PARENTS PLAY IN THEIR CHILDREN'S LYING
Clinical Psychologist Dr. Shefali Tsabary says, "There is only one reason a child lies to its parents: the conditions for it to feel safe have not been created.” You may well bristle at the idea that you have caused your child to lie, but having dealt with kids’ lying at school over the years, it feels possible to me. When I talked with kids about why they lie, these are some of the answers I have heard over the years:
•My parents will over react and won’t listen to me.
•My parents just won’t understand.
•If my parents found out I did that, they’d judge me.
•All my mom cares about is X; she doesn’t understand that X isn’t that important to me. (Or that Y is more important).
•All my dad cares about is how it will look to other people.
He doesn’t actually care about what happens to me.
I have certainly seen parents over react, and with some parents I do feel that the parent cares more about his own reputation than about what his child is thinking and feeling. But in most cases, lying occurs in households where communication has broken down. Because kids have not felt seen, heard and valued, kids have stopped sharing. They don’t want the hassle of arguing with their parents because they feel they don’t get anywhere with it, and at the same time they still have powerful unmet needs. The drive to get their needs met—even if it means accepting negative consequences—makes lying worth it to them.
The next question, then, is how do you keep the lines of communication open. I think first and foremost, you own up to your own foibles as a parent—own that sometimes you do over react. Own that you get triggered—by safety concerns, by fears for the future, by wanting to seem like a perfect parent. Own that you grew up in a different generation and/or a different culture and that what seems okay to your kids feels really wrong to you. Own your own hang ups. Maybe your parents didn’t let you drive into the city on your own, so now your automatic response when your child asks permission is to say No Way without even giving it any real thought.
IDENTIFYING THE NEEDS BEHIND THE LIES
Next, even if you do end up saying no to your kids (and I fully support your right to do that), really take the time to listen to what they want. Be curious about why they want it (what need would get met if they got to do whatever it is they want to do). Then, work to see if the underlying need can be met in some other way. Maybe you can find a compromise. Let’s say, for example, that you catch your son stealing money to buy junk food at school. He knows you have a strong value about healthy nutritional choices, so he sneaks behind your back. The first question is what is the need—sweet food? Or is it to have the cool packaging of snacks from the vending machine? Or does he like having the whole vending machine array to choose from without having to agree with his siblings? Each of these is a very different need and requires a different approach. That’s why it is so critical to putting your own concerns aside so you can first be open and curious.
BRAINSTORMING ALTERNATIVE WAYS TO MEET NEEDS
Once you know what the unmet need is, you can work on that. Brainstorm ideas. What sweet foods would be acceptable? Is the need to be cool about the need to fit in, and if so, why is that so important? How else could a person find a group he feels included in? How could the family provide more opportunities for the son to have some things just as he wants them without having to consider the rest of the family?
Even the act of brainstorming and trying to find a solution acknowledges your child as an individual with his own needs, preferences and desires. In a particular case, you might not find a way to compromise. If you have found workable solutions other times, however, your child will be able to accept when no compromise is possible. He will know that you care about his feelings and are not shaming him for having those feelings.
In summary, I would let a consequence for the poor choice stand, but I would go deeper to find out the underlying motivation for the poor choice.
STAYING CONNECTED EVEN THROUGH CONFLICT
Lying is complex. We lie for so many reasons, and I have really only addressed a few of them here. No matter what the reason, though, I urge you to approach your child as a work in progress and use the lying incident as an opportunity for growth and self-reflection. Finally, assure your child that as he matures, he will find it easier to find ways of getting his needs met that do not make him feel that it is necessary to lie.