Parents, like anyone, feel angry when they are lied to. It’s common for parents to feel agitated, disrespected, and even hurt when their children lie to them. In this quick tip episode, we discuss why kids lie, how parents can respond to lies and how to prevent lies.
Why Kids Lie
There are various reasons kids may lie. Some of the more obvious reasons include, to get something they want, avoid consequences, to get out of something they don’t want to do. But there are also less obvious reasons kids lie. Psychologist Matthew Rouse says that one reason children lie is because they have discovered the idea and want to try it out to see what happens. They are curious about what would happen if they lie in a situation and whether it would hurt or benefit them.
Children who lack confidence may fabricate the truth to make them look or feel impressive or inflate their self-esteem. On the other hand, some children may lie to get the focus off of themselves. Kids who suffer from anxiety or depression might lie about their symptoms to avoid the spotlight. They might minimize their symptoms or issues going on because they don’t want people to worry about them.
Dr. Becky Kennedy says that children lie to their parents to protect their connection with their parents. According to attachment theory, children are tuned to pay attention to what keeps their parents close and what pushes them away. If kids believe that if they tell the truth in certain scenarios, their parents will react with anger, judgment, and punishment which pushes them away. But if they think their parents would react to the truth with wanting to know more information and understanding behind a bad decision or behavior, kids will be more likely to tell the truth. So if you want your kids to feel safe enough to be honest with you, them telling the truth must bring about more connection than distance between you.
Responding to Lies
Dr. Kennedy gives a great example of how parents can respond to a lie by de-shaming and connecting. For example, if your children are playing and one says “I didn’t knock over the tower! It just fell!” You’d want to respond something along the lines of “Well if someone did push down the tower, I think I’d understand. Having a brother and sharing can be hard. If the knocking down did happen, I might be upset but I’d give a hug and try to understand and help.” Then you could follow with offering a hug.
If parents prioritize connection, the truth telling will follow. Dr. Kennedy gives another example of how parents can respond to a lie from an older child. If your child says “Yes, I did all my math homework,” responding in a way that de-shames and connects is best. You could say something like, “Hm, I got an email from your teacher saying most of the work was missing. Listen: You’re not in trouble. What I care about is our relationship, not your homework. I’m guessing that something about the work felt tricky and something about talking to me about it felt tricky. I’m hoping we can talk about it. I promise not to lecture, I want to listen and understand.” This doesn’t mean consequences are not applicable, they are but you should connect and try to understand first.
Avoid Lying in the First Place
Lastly, there are additional ways to help your kids avoid lying to you in the first place. Let them know that the truth reduces consequences. There’s a hard balance to strike between having an open dialogue and setting appropriate limits when necessary. Your children and teens should know that consequences aren’t extremely negotiable, just because they tell the truth doesn’t mean their behavior goes unaddressed.
Parents can also make it easier for children to tell the truth by reminding them that you don’t expect perfection. Tell them that if they ask you a question and the answer isn’t what you want to hear, their behavior isn’t who they are. You will love them regardless and people make mistakes. This gives them a chance to think and reflect which may lead them to tell the truth.