One of the most volatile triggers for parents is lying. I have heard parents express fear that their child was going to become a pathological liar or anger that their child disrespected them.
Parents — including me — also have said they felt hurt that their child did not trust them enough to tell the truth.
Children — especially between the ages of 5 and 8 — experiment with lying. Adolescents and teens lie for multiple reasons. It is developmentally typical, not a symptom of future pathology.
Here is the really important part — your parental response to lying is instrumental for having influential conversations with your child about truthfulness.
If a child is punished for lying or if there is a big charge on your response, they may feel discouraged about telling the truth in the future.
For example, if you discover that your child is failing in school after they said they were doing well, punishing them for lying will not inspire them to confide in you down the road.
The next time you encounter a lie from your child, please consider the following ideas for handling the situation with love, understanding and a “big picture” viewpoint.
Before responding, pause. Notice any feelings that come up. Allow yourself to fully feel them. Do you feel angry, sad, hurt or afraid? What thoughts come up? Seek guidance to assist you in this process if needed. Respond to your child after you are calm; otherwise, they will see only your behavior rather than their own.
Don’t add energy to any judgment about lying. We all lie. We tell small lies as well as some whoppers. Getting locked into judgment about lying does not assist you in responding to a lie with understanding. We do not need to accept, like or ignore the lie. We can, however, accept the person while avoiding the judgment.
Become more comfortable with yourself when making mistakes and guide your children to do the same. This does not mean feeling comfortable making mistakes. It means getting curious and more comfortable with yourself when you make a mistake so that you can do it differently the next time. Without that level of self-acceptance, children and adults may lie to avoid admitting to a mistake. If children believe mistakes are unacceptable or grounds for punishment, they may be more inclined to lie to avoid the consequences.
If you know what happened, address the situation directly without an inquiry. For example, if you know that your son did not return a library book because it is sitting on his desk, avoid asking, “Did you return your library book?” You already know the answer. Instead, say, “When will you return your library book? I saw it on your desk today.”
Separate the behavior from your child’s character. If we label or judge, it is about our child’s character. Address the behavior instead. Your child is so much more than that lie he may have said. Separating the behavior from who your child is will lower the heat and avoid a hit to their self-esteem. It will support you in being more creative so that you leave a conversation feeling great about the outcome.
Make your focus on setting a safe space for truth telling. That takes courage and caring, especially if lying is a trigger for you. The truth is that both of those qualities — courage and caring — are already there within you and at your service.