Jess called me hoping that, as a school counselor, I could reassure her that Anna wasn’t a pathological liar. “She’s so convincing,” Jess told me. “The details are really specific.” She had no idea what to do next, and she felt like she had failed as a parent.
Parents often ask me how to handle kids’ lies. What should they do if their son claims his homework is completed when he hasn’t even turned on his computer? How should they respond when their daughter falsely denies cutting math class or sending derogatory texts to a friend?
Lying is a complicated developmental milestone. Children must be able to sell a false reality and then recall the details of their lie. “It’s a really big day when children realize they can get away with it, and it changes their self-image,” explains Ashley Merryman, co-author of “NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children.” By middle school, children are attuned to the subtle nuances of deception.
“It really pushes parents’ buttons when children lie,” says Mary Alice Silverman, a clinical psychologist in D.C. She advises parents to address their own anxiety first so they can rationally determine the reasons behind the dishonesty. Their kids may be trying to escape academic or family stress, or looking for a way to cope with insecurity about their social status.
Everyone twists the truth at times to protect someone’s feelings or to get out of an awkward social situation, says Pamela Meyer, the author of “LieSpotting” and presenter of the TED talk “How to Spot a Liar.” “We would kill each other if we were honest all the time.”
Lying is not always a clear-cut matter of right and wrong, and parents need to convey that complexity if they want to promote a culture of honesty. Here are eight ways parents can teach teens to be truthful.
Maintain a mind-set of curiosity. Stay calm, curious and nonreactive. “The best research about lying shows that it’s not about the lying, it’s how you respond to the truth,” Merryman says. “Kids are testing you. If you freak out because they didn’t do well on their quiz, you are never going to know why there is a dent in a car.” She notes that children will pull away or omit more information if they sense that telling the truth will invite drama or disappoint their parents.
Help them take the long view. Lying is often about short-term gratification, and parents need to help teens understand how it hampers their longer-term goals, Silverman says.
Maybe they want their parents to stop bugging them about their schoolwork, or to give them a later curfew, or to stop monitoring their texts. Parents can underscore that trust is the key to increased independence and privacy.
Teens also are hypersensitive to rejection, Merryman says, explaining that they live their lives in front of an invisible audience, and they think that everyone is watching and judging them. Parents can use that to their advantage by pointing out that if their friends catch on, the situation will become 10 times worse.
Consider the root cause. If a teen is lying repetitively about a specific issue, parents should dig deeper. Perhaps they need to talk to the school about their child’s academic struggles or take a closer look at their peer group or any underlying insecurities.
Teens lie for a number of reasons — to avoid judgment, establish a connection, protect someone, or cope with frustration or fear — but the vast majority are lies of omission, Merryman says. “A child may ask if he can go to Sue’s house to study, but then not mention that there will be 100 other people there partying.” To mount an effective response, parents need to identify and address the motivation.
Model honesty. Whenever parents can demonstrate that they are doing something honest, Meyer recommends they say it out loud. “I may say, ‘I would love to take a U-turn here because we’re really late, but it’s against the rules.” She talks to her daughter about how good it feels to choose the hard way to get something done instead of taking a shortcut.
To set an example, Merryman says, “Don’t call your boss and lie and say you can’t come to work because the street hasn’t been plowed.” Teens also take note when their parents don’t keep their word, or punish them when they promised not to penalize them for telling the truth.
Provide a runway. Parents can encourage honest dialogue by acknowledging that it might feel difficult to tell the truth. Meyer says that parents can “give them a way out to tell you so you’re not just throwing it in their face, judging or embarrassing them.”
When parents try to trap kids in a lie, Silverman says, there’s at least a 50 percent chance they will be dishonest to avoid getting in trouble. She urges parents to validate that there may be an unacceptable but understandable reason they would lie, and to tell kids that while they don’t expect perfection, they do expect honesty.
Carefully consider consequences. Parents need to be clear about whether they are punishing the transgression or the cover up, Merryman says, adding that parents need to specifically address both wrongs. “Don’t make them guess why you’re angry, and don’t collapse them into one thing.”
Punishments also should be logical, consistent and fair. If children lie about using their phone at midnight, the consequence might be loss of phone privileges. If teens lie about where they are, the consequence might be increased monitoring, and parents can explain that it’s safety-related.
“When it comes to safety, most teens think mom has a right to information, but if they have a crush on a guy, mom doesn’t need to know the details,” Merryman says. “Respect that need for personal space.”
Don’t be afraid to have it out. The opposite of lying is arguing, Merryman explains, and it can be a positive sign that teens respect their parents. When kids are debating an issue, she explains, they are sharing details of their life and trying to understand their parents’ point of view. “They consider it a productive exchange,” she says. “Arguing is communicative, and kids appreciate knowing what mysterious thing is going on in your head.” She notes that teens are much less likely to lie and rebel if they think their parents have been reasonable and care about their perspective.
Talk about values. Parents need to discuss trust and explain how lies strain relationships and hurt others. “We need to say, this is not who our family is,” Meyer says. “A lot of times, kids lie because they think they’re getting away with it,” she adds, “and we need to be pointing out that we live in a world where the truth comes out.”
Parents can pose hypothetical ethical questions, challenge kids to look at situations from another person’s point of view, and share personal stories about times when their own character was tested. They also can talk about issues such as fake news or professional athletes who cheat.
Meyer notes that kids need to feel okay saying, “I wish I hadn’t said that. In fact, I lied about it.” To encourage this, she is verbal about when she makes a mistake, feels embarrassed or wishes she had done something differently. When kids do step up, parents can praise them for taking responsibility.
After Jess and I talked, she calmly told Anna that she accidentally overheard her conversation. “I heard you mention a boyfriend,” she said. “I just wanted to check in. Everything okay?” Anna shared with her mother that Julia had been taunting her about spending Saturday nights with her parents. She hadn’t wanted to subject herself to more humiliation by admitting the truth.
As Anna opened up about her reasons for lying, she realized how much effort she was expending just to keep one person off her back. The following week, she simultaneously “broke up” with her imaginary boyfriend and pulled away from Julia. She told her mother that no friendship was worth feeling like a liar.
Phyllis L. Fagell is the school counselor at the Sheridan School in D.C. and a licensed clinical professional counselor at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda. She tweets @pfagell.
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