By Maggie Macaulay, MS Ed
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 – have also said that they felt hurt that their child did not trust them enough to tell the truth.
Children, especially those between the ages of five and eight-years old, experiment with lying. Adolescents and teens lie for multiple reasons, including fear of punishment, fear of having made a mistake, or discomfort with someone being upset by their behavior.
Lying is developmentally typical, not a symptom of future pathology. It is also something that is best handled lovingly and respectfully. Which leads to the most important part: your parental response to lying is instrumental to having influential conversations with your child about truthfulness.
If a child is punished for lying or if there is a big charge in the parent’s response, they may feel discouraged about telling the truth in the future. For example, if the child is failing in school after they said that they were doing well, punishing them for lying will not inspire them to be truthful down the road.
When a child lies, parents and caregivers should consider handling the situation with love, understanding, and a “big picture” viewpoint.
Below are some suggestions:
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? By processing what you are feeling and thinking, you can respond from a place of composure rather than reacting from a big feeling. Seek guidance to assist you in this process if needed. Respond to your child once you are calm; otherwise, they will see only your behavior rather than their own.
De-energize any judgement about lying. We all lie. We tell small lies as well as some whoppers. Getting locked into judgement 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 judgement. Judgement also drives us to label someone. Labels not only limit those we label, but they also limit our own flexibility and creativity. The keep us locked in a “micro-view” rather than a “big picture” viewpoint. Labelling someone a “failure” after having made a mistake discourages future healthy risk taking, exploration, and discovery. Labelling someone a “liar” is like a life sentence. Discover what charge lies below your judgement and diffuse it.
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.
Focus on setting a safe space for truth telling. That takes courage and caring, especially if lying is a trigger. Tapping into the courage and caring that already exists within you, will lead to a more trusting and transparent relationship.
Maggie Macaulay, MS Ed, is the owner of Whole Hearted Parenting, offering coaching, courses, and workshops including Parenting Week by Week, a new and comprehensive virtual course. Maggie is a certified coach and course leader through Your Infinite Life Training & Coaching Company. She also serves on the Children’s Services Council’s Trainer Cadre. You may read more articles in her column in The Santa Fe New Mexican and on her website at www.wholeheartedparenting.com. She may be reached by phone at 954.483.8021 and through email at Maggie@ WholeHeartedParenting.com.