It is very disappointing for a parent to discover that his or her child has lied. There’s anger at having been deceived and also a sense of betrayal; all parents want a trusting bond with their kids. And then there’s the constant doubt: if my child can lie to me about one subject, what other things has he lied about in the past and what is he lying about now? Indeed, a child’s first incident of lying can snowball into many other issues.
The good news is that lying to parents is something that can be addressed. Lying is a behavior, not a character trait. Parents can address this behavior in many ways, helping their youngster to become a more honest human being.
To help your child who has been lying, consider the following tips:
Confront Your Child with an Open Mind
If you suspect that your child has been lying to you, approach the subject cautiously. Don’t just rush up and call your child a liar! This is not the time for drama. Instead, consider the possibility that your child was confused or was given inaccurate information or forgot to give you pertinent information or made a simple mistake. The best approach is to objectively confront the inconsistencies in his story and ask for clarification. “I don’t understand… you’re telling me that you were with Jason at 9 p.m. but Jason called here at 8:45 looking for you. His phone showed a long distance number. Didn’t you tell me that Jason was going to the country with his parents this weekend? Was he calling from there?” This gives your child a chance to straighten things out for you: “Yes Jason’s family went to the country, but Jason stayed here in the end. He was calling from John’s phone which has a long distance number on it because John lives in Idaho but is in town for the weekend for his Aunt’s 90th birthday party. Jason was calling at 8:45 to tell me that he’d meet me at his house at 9 p.m. but I was already waiting for him on his porch by then. He showed up right at 9.” Of course, your child is not always innocent. However, your gentle confrontation will make it easier for him to confess when he has to. For instance, if the child in this scenario had lied about being at Jason’s house at 9, he could now straighten that out: “Yeah, I said I was with Jason because I thought you’d be mad if I told you the truth. I was with Sara. I know you told me not to see her again, but I really, really want to. I don’t want to have to lie about it because I feel crummy when I do that. I want to be able to tell you without you getting all upset.” Because you had been gentle in your approach, the child is not frightened into excessive defensiveness or worse, more lying.
Try to Find the Reason for the Lie
When a child lies, it’s important for parents to try to find out why. Addressing the reason why a child lies is a good way to prevent future lying behavior. Note that not all lying has a malicious intent. Sometimes children lie because they fear their parent’s reaction. Others lie to avoid conflict or confrontation. There are kids who lie to protect a sibling, or save themselves from embarrassment. If you can create a home atmosphere where telling the truth is always preferred compared to telling a lie, then your child will feel less of a need to lie to you the next time. One way to create this atmosphere is to be careful never to show intense anger when a child acknowledges wrong-doing. When the child sees that it is natural for people to make mistakes and correct them, then he won’t be afraid to confess to his own errors. However, when making a mistake in judgment and/or actions leads to parental rage and abuse, the child will be sure to try to avoid admitting errors at all cost. He’ll lie.
Emphasize Why Honesty is a Value in Your Family
It’s important that parents consistently explain to children why they prefer to hear the truth rather than a lie. Doing so can help prevent the “it’s-just-a-tiny-lie” mentality. Explain how your trust is broader than a small incident; for instance, share why saving one’s self from punishment is not worth a parent’s inability to trust a child’s word. Kids need to know that a rule is in place for a reason, a reason that is meant to protect not oppress. All information needs to be provided quietly and respectfully. It has to convey care and love. Do not deliver loud, angry sermons about the importance of truth-telling. All parental anger encourages rather than discourages, lying.
Reinforce Positive Behavior
Younger children are sometimes prone to thinking: “What’s the point of telling the truth? You never believe me anyway!” So reward and praise truth-telling as much as you can. And even if you have to implement negative consequences for misbehavior (for example, your child just admitted that he or she is the one who stole your money), still communicate how glad you are that they told you the truth. When children know that their effort to be honest is appreciated and they can trust that they won’t experience parental abuse or even harsh negative consequences, they are less likely to lie the next time. Instead of focusing on punishment for the wrongdoing, focus on correction or restitution. Help the child do better. If, despite your calm and positive approach, he continues to engage in undesirable behaviors, try to work out negative consequences WITH him – i.e. ask him to suggest what punishment should be in place for future episodes of incorrect behavior. If he still continues to behave badly, make an appointment with a mental health professional for more direction and intervention.
Give a penalty for lying. If your child does something wrong, he may require discipline. However, if he has also lied about his wrong-doing, the punishment can be doubled. The child will learn that he can save himself half the punishment by speaking the truth. For instance, suppose your child smoked cigarettes after you asked him not to. The punishment you already had set in place was that he would lose one week’s allowance if he was caught with cigarettes. If, when you question him about his smoking, he admits the truth (“Yeah, I was smoking yesterday”), then he loses one week’s allowance. However, if he swears up and down that he didn’t smoke (and you caught him on your cell phone camera with a cigarette in his mouth), then he loses two week’s allowance. In this way, the child can learn that truth-telling really pays off. Again, if despite your best efforts your child continues to lie, you should consult a mental health professional for further intervention.