When Lying Is An Issue
“I didn’t do it, Jimmy did!” Lying, it starts so young and is a temptation throughout childhood and beyond. Whether it’s to avoid blame and punishment, save face or gain advantage it is inherent in being human. It seems that as soon as children can talk they find ways to stretch the truth, sometimes it’s simply imagination or a latent wish and often it’s an attempt to gain emotional control. We lie when we’re frightened and we lie to protect others and ourselves. So, how can we help our children understand its dangers and disruption to relationships?
First, let’s put it into context: for the toddler lying s a sign of intellectual development and the new concept of independent thoughts that are separate from their parents. They’re learning to use language to meet their needs and sometimes get confused about what’s real and what’s just their imagination. Their emotions can rule their behavior and lying can be a tool to keep everything manageable. When Mom gets really angry about something you did the first thing you want to do is calm things down and provide a suitable explanation, true or not. For school age children, who have the capacity to understand the consequences of their behaviors, it’s a way to avoid what you know is coming and for the adolescent it can be an attempt to take control of a situation when things aren’t going as planned or desired. But understanding the underlying emotions can help navigate the storm that lying can brew.
Staying calm is the key, ramping up the emotion can very likely enhance the lying. Consider the situation and the need for the lie rather than focusing on the lie itself. What or whom is your child trying to protect? Is avoidance of the harshness of consequences the issue? Is it an isolated incident or something that signals an underlying problem that could be harmful to your child? Is it something that can be easily corrected with humor (“Well, I haven’t seen Jimmy around here lately so I know he couldn’t have done it.”) or something that requires a discussion of family values and expectations (“When I feel like I don’t believe you it makes me question everything you do.”)? Avoid blame and accusations and concentrate on the issue (“That’s hard for me to believe, are you sure that’s what you want to tell me?”). Once the emotions are in check it is easier for the truth to come forward.
Think about the way you handle unpleasant situations and how you model truth telling. As adults we often find ourselves in the grey area of dishonesty and “white lies” are a common practice when we’re trying to teach our young children manners. Fantasy can sometimes be understood as lying to children who don’t understand that imagination is fun but not always the truth. Be aware of secrets on your part and your child’s because secrets need lies in order to stay concealed and things often spiral out of control when communication breaks down.
Decide what is acceptable in your family and what will not be tolerated and make clear what consequences will follow if the line is crossed. Lying leads to loss of trust which is difficult to overcome and can be more harmful to the family than the unpleasantness of the parental consequences when the child is caught in a lie.
Here are some things to consider:
- What is your child’s age and what is he/she trying to communicate to you?
- Stay calm and focus on the issue not the lying.
- Is just questioning the story and using humor enough or is more discussion necessary?
- Are the consequences in line with the offense? (Grounding a child for a week doesn’t address the lack of trust but restricting access to the car for a child who lies about where he’s been does.)
- Is the lie a developmental glitch or a chronic problem indicating an underlying issue like abuse or drug usage?
- Are you modeling honesty and good communication?
We experience different levels of dishonesty everyday in our relationships and in our society. It affects how we feel about ourselves and how we feel about others. It often shapes who we are and how we present ourselves to the world. So it’s crucial for parents to help their children understand how their family views dishonesty and what they expect from them. Trust is instrumental in maintaining relationships and good relationships provide the joy we all wish for our children.
Questions to consider:
- What are my family’s attitudes about honesty?
- Is my child clear about those attitudes/rules?
- How do I model honesty to my children?
- Is it time to revisit the honesty issue in my house?
- In this house, honesty is valued . . .
- I feel sad (or disappointed) when you lie to me because ____________. What can we do to make sure that doesn’t happen in the future?
- Honesty is the foundation of trust. I hope you feel you can trust me and what I say. As you grow and want more freedoms it’s important that we know we can trust each other.