It’s not time to freak out … yet.
Kids and lying isn’t the most popular parenting topic. Most of us don’t think our kids lie, but studies show that upwards of 40% do. Call it a positivity bias — or naivety — but most parents don’t believe their children lie, despite data to the contrary and the fact that most parents have lied to their kids at one point or another.
Why is this?
Part of it may have to do with how hard it is to determine if someone is lying — even in our very own children.
So if you have been “lucky” enough to catch your child in a lie, resist the urge to dismiss it as a one-time thing, and instead, pay attention.
Chances are, your child is struggling and needs your help — no matter how they protest otherwise. After all, you’ve just caught them lying. It’s totally reasonable to question what they are saying.
Here are 7 things to think about when you’re trying to get to the bottom of why your kids are lying — so you can turn things around (before it’s too LATE):
1. Take a deep breath.
You have every right to be angry, but you need your best parenting hat on for this. Losing your cool will only make it hard to think straight, and speak to your child in a way they can’t hear.
If you need a few minutes to calm down or consult with your spouse, tell your child this, and take the time you need to regroup. But DON’T let yourself, or your child, off the hook. You have an opportunity here to make an impact, and your child deserves your best.
2. Realize that lies should be taken seriously.
Because lying does sometimes work — especially with practice — it’s subject to the most powerful behavioral reward that exists … intermittent reinforcement. Like with slot machine reinforcement, BF Skinner’s learning theory holds that the random “rewards” (getting away with it) generate the most consistent ongoing effort (lies).
Not only is getting away with a lie exhilarating, but a random reward schedule powerfully motivates your child to keep at it.
While it might be hard to consider, looking for other evidence of lying can help you get a handle on how pervasive a coping strategy lying might be for them.
3. Understand that it’s not personal.
Yes, they are deliberately defying something you asked — or told — them to do. They’re being disrespectful, violated your trust, and disregarded your family values. But their choice to lie wasn’t fundamentally about you, or primarily about defying you.
The decision to lie was about THEM, and their futile attempt to find an EASIER WAY to cope with a reality they don’t like, or don’t think they can handle. Keeping the focus on them will help you get traction sooner.
4. Know that they are also lying to themselves.
Sure they’re deceiving you and whoever else they lie to, but they’re also deceiving themselves. It’s easy to confuse getting away with a lie with thinking that it WORKS — especially in a child’s mind that is still developing and overly concrete. This means it can be hard for kids to understand long-term negative consequences when short-term gains are so prolific.
This is where you come in.
Tell them some stories of people you know, of what happens when people become known for lying, or never learn how not to lie. Pick something they CARE about (having friends, earning good grades, enjoying freedoms earned from trust) and then explain how lying can jeopardize those things in the long run.
5. Recognize the cry for help.
This is perhaps the hardest piece — recognizing their lying as a symptom of underdeveloped coping strategies. Even though they’re making poor choices, remember they’re not a bad kid, and need to see they can do what is expected of them without cutting corners.
Do they need homework help? Do they need more of your time? Could they be depressed?
Once they know you understand what they’re going through and want to help, they will be more willing to tell you the truth. Listen to what they say with their words and behavior, and commit to helping them.
6. Work with your child to determine consequences.
Administering consequences and limits are a key part of extinguishing unacceptable behavior. What do they need to help them not repeat the same mistake?
The best consequences are natural — meaning they relate directly to the infraction — and inherently inspire different choices. Involve your child. They know where their challenges are, and it can be empowering for them to work with you to solve the problem.
For example, if they were watching Netflix on the computer instead of doing their homework, perhaps an appropriate consequence (assuming their homework requires a computer) would be losing freedom on the computer (ie. no headphones, no separate room, working with her back to you so you can see their screen, or increasing parental controls on the computer or the home Internet).
7. Praise honest effort.
No matter what, be ready to praise the efforts your child makes to face their difficulties head on, rather than avoid them. Every one. This is positive reinforcement, and probably what they’re craving most.
No parent wants to hear, or face, that their child is lying. And few of us are really prepared to deal with it when it happens. The reality is that this is probably the closest feeling we can have to understanding how our child is feeling — alone, frustrated, and forced to face something noxious.
Remember, a lying child doesn’t want to face what is in front of them anymore than you do, and they don’t feel prepared either … use this awareness to your advantage in understanding your child’s experience.
Like with all parenting crossroads, it’s not so much about knowing what to do as it is about listening with your full attention to what is really going on. The hardest part is resisting the urge to do the very thing your kid is doing — turning away in avoidance, denial, and frustration — and instead respond to your child’s call for help.
You don’t have to have all the answers, you just have to show up and let him know he’s not alone. You will figure this out together.