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When a kid lies

What do I do when I catch my kid lying? a Mom asked me recently.

It's a tricky situation which most parents get immediately triggered by. I used to think, 'How dare she lie to me!?'

This Mom's 7 year old son was sneaking candy to school even when he knew it was against the rules. The Mom wouldn't have known, except she saw him with candy in the playground at school when she unexpectedly went to pick up her daughter.

When she asked him about it, he lied saying, 'I didn't take it from home.' then, 'It isn't mine.' even though it clearly came from their jar on a high shelf, and finally, 'Dad said I could.'

So what's going on? Is this just 'bad' behavior or is lying more nuanced than that?

Dr. Becky Kennedy is a Mom, therapist, & parenting expert I often turn to as she wrote, Good Inside, the book that validates all I've learned over the past 18 years. She says, 'The reality is that lying is almost never about being defiant or sneaky. It is much more about a child's basic desires (needs).'

What doesn't work when your kids lie to you:

  • giving your child a 'disapproval face'

  • telling them that they are 'in trouble'

  • punishing - 'your allowance is gone for 2 weeks!'

  • threatening - 'just wait until we get home and your father hears about this!'

  • yelling at them

  • demanding a confession in the moment

This shames them and makes them feel small and bad and alone.

But you also don't want to "let your kids off the hook" when they lie either. Brene Brown says how crucial accountability is for growth and resilience.

No wonder lying is so tricky for parents and their kids.

So what does work?

The idea is to find out what the unmet needs are underneath.

One thing that helps is to imagine all the good reasons it actually makes sense for them to have lied.

Consider why you lie sometimes (not telling someone that their new haircut looks awful, not mentioning that you didn't get your work deadline finished...)

You want to create a safe environment that is aimed at getting to the core of what's DRIVING the lying head-on. To know your child is good inside and having a tricky moment.

To know that even when we are triggered, when we feel disappointed and hurt by their behavior, when our heart is racing and our fists are clenched, we are good inside and having a tricky parenting moment.

This helps you understand them, relate with them. Connect with them.

Put your oxygen mask on first and give yourself a break. A deep breath. A walk outside to listen for birds. Stretch your arms up over your head. Relax with warm water and good smelling soap.

Then from this more centered place, create an environment where truth-telling becomes more possible.

Realize that lying can also show intelligence and imagination. Consider there are many possible motivations for lying:

  • wanting whatever they are lying about (candy in this case)

  • an unmet need for friend approval, being seen as 'cool'

  • excitement, fun, play

  • power in their world (kids are so often told what to do and where to be)

  • coping with guilt from having broken a rule

  • fear of disappointing or enraging you, breaking their attachment

  • not wanting to get in trouble and feel ashamed

The goal is a 180 shift from triggered/yelling/punishment/bad to being open and curious which is where 'truth-telling' is possible. Show your child you can tolerate the discomfort of being triggered, own it, and be in relationship with them even when they do 'bad' behavior like lying.

Do this by saying,

  • 'I believe you had a good reason for not telling the truth. Would you be willing to share with me what that is?'

  • 'You aren't in trouble. I love you regardless. You were in a tricky situation, let's figure this out together.'

  • 'It makes sense you would want to lie. It's OK. You aren't alone and we're in this together. Yes, there will be a consequence for your actions, and it'll be so we can rebuild trust and have more fun and connection with each other.'

A tool to support them from lying in the future:

Reframe a lie as a wish. That gives them a middle ground between a lie and the truth. This is from Becky Kennedy, Good Inside.

It could sound like,

  • 'Sometimes I do things, and then wish I hadn't done them. Is that what you are feeling right now?'

  • If your child knocks over their siblings tower, then lies saying it just fell, say, 'You wish that tower was still up don't you? I wonder if it's hard right now, are you worrying about getting in trouble?'

  • 'I wish we could wave a magic wand and have a do over. What would your do over look like?'

  • For older kids: 'I'm wondering if sometimes I make it hard to tell the truth? What do YOU need from ME to feel comfortable sharing your truth? I'm not blaming you, I'm just wondering if there are things I'm doing that makes truth-telling hard or scary or you worry about me judging you? I wish we both felt we could trust each other enough to be able to share with each other.

I hope you can play with these practices. Ask questions if they feel like they won't work in your family as maybe I can support so they will.


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