Do Lies Make You See Red?

seeredMany times a year parents come to me for guidance about dealing with their child’s lying.  Usually the situation is that the child has been involved in some activity that she knows her parents disapprove of.  It could be sampling the frosting on a birthday cake before the occasion, or talking to strangers on line or downloading songs on iTunes without permission to use the parents’ credit card.  Parents are very upset about the problem behavior and about the lie.  Often they are somewhat surprised when I recommend that they focus on the behavior the lie was covering up rather than the lie.  I sound like one of those touchy feely psychologists who lets anything go.  Well, not really.  Here are parents’ worries and my responses.  And let me clarify that I’m talking about grade school age children here.

“I told him that if he would just tell me these things, I wouldn’t be so angry.  It’s the lie that makes me mad.”  Really?  You wouldn’t be mad to find out that your child was disobeying you?  We can’t know for sure because you can’t go back and have your child do it differently. I think that the problem started when your child decided or got tempted into engaging in forbidden behavior.  From that point on she had a secret to keep and the lie was a given.

“Why does she do this?  Is she going to be a criminal?”  I encourage parents not to  “jump into the future” about these lies.  In this situation a lie is really what we call “denial.”  Psychologists say that adults use denial when they do things like keep smoking even when they have heart disease.  Part of them is pretending there’s no problem.  Your child’s mind is essentially saying to her, “Let’s pretend this never happened.”  It’s an immature response, but what do we expect from a child?  In addition, when tempers run high, children are more likely to fall back on immature strategies.

In fact, I find more lying in families where parents are likely to fly into a rage about misbehavior and to punish harshly.  In those situations children become more angry and sneaky and they try mightily to avoid being found out.  Hence, they lie.

The lies I worry about happen with older children who might make detailed fabrications to cover up behavior that is planned, not impulsive.  Younger children who are caught in the act, or who are tempted by very attractive online options are in a different situation.

“So do I just let this go? That doesn’t seem right. I’ll always be worrying that she’s lying.”  Well, no, you can’t just let it go.  It’s very important to emphasize that you need everyone to be truthful in your family.  Just don’t make it the main issue.  Focus more on the behavior that your child is trying to hide.  Find out why this behavior was so appealing (not too difficult with the cake).  Explain what your concern is and come up with some ways to deal with it in the future.  Maybe you need better internet controls to protect your child.  Maybe you just need to get your child to help you patch up the frosting or apologize for spoiling the cake.  Those are the real problems.

I’m very interested to hear responses to this piece as I expect that some will disagree.  Let me know what your experiences are with lying in your household.

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Photo credit:  Visual Artist Frank Bonilla on Flickr

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