So, your son or daughter lied to you. What should you do? The most important first step you can take, the one that can preserve your relationship, is to remain calm. No amount of yelling will solve this problem. But the ability to keep your cool and discuss this challenging moment – openly and honestly – will accomplish yet another essential goal: Make it less likely they will be dishonest with you again.
I’m angry. How can I remain calm?
Of course you’re upset. Nobody enjoys being deceived. Yet, if you think about it, lying is a normal human behavior, so it’s vital not to lose your cool. Adults tell roughly two lies every day. (If you’re being honest with yourself, have you stretched the truth, even a little today?)
The ability to lie begins during the toddler years and surges during late adolescence. That increase is likely due to this age group wanting to assert their independence from their parents. However, as teens gain more freedoms in young adulthood, they don’t lie as much and are less tolerant of lying.
Consider the type of lie
All lies are not created equal. Decide if your teen’s lie is acceptable or unacceptable to you. Acceptable lies generally fall into the “pro-social” category of dishonesty. These are white lies, distortions of truth that are meant to protect feelings or relationships. An example of a pro-social lie is telling a friend you like her shirt even if you don’t. Children as young as five recognize fibbing protects feelings and makes individuals feel better.
Unacceptable lies are considered “anti-social” lies. One illustration of an anti-social lie is a student insisting she didn’t cheat on a test when she did. Another is a teen telling a parent the marijuana found in his room doesn’t belong to him but a friend, even though he later confessed when pressed further. (If your child is making a frequent habit of lying and continues to do so over the course of several months or years, you may want to seek professional guidance.)
Determine the best response
Generally, parents aren’t concerned with pro-social lies. After all, these untruths tend to be viewed positively. Angela Evans, Associate Professor of Psychology at Brock University in Canada, says white lies have important social value. “They’re important to maintaining friendships. Teens may find their peers don’t want to interact with them if they’re honest all the time.”
Anti-social lies don’t usually get free passes. If you’ve caught your teen blaming another teen for something he’s clearly responsible for doing, you’re faced with this question: What should I do?
Perhaps your mindset goes immediately to punishment. But a far more effective approach is discipline. Discipline and punishment aren’t the same at all. Discipline means to teach or guide; it does not mean to penalize or control. Remember: One of the most important responsibilities parents have is shaping children into becoming adults who are prepared to thrive in a world full of rules and expectations.
Don’t get the wrong idea. There should be consequences for unacceptable behavior. For example, if your child lied about where she was going after school, it would make sense to insist she comes home directly after school the next day. Whatever consequence you choose, it should be clear to your teen: “You did X. Therefore, you have lost this privilege.”
“Assuming your teen is caught lying, there seems to be value in asking a bunch of ‘why’ questions,” says Scott Seider, Associate Professor of Applied Developmental & Educational Psychology at Boston College. “A parent might say, ‘There are some things I’d like to understand.’ By following this approach, you can turn these experiences into teachable moments.”
Decide how to move forward
Teens often lie because they’re not getting what they need from their parents. When a parent-teen relationship is built on trust, when parents give adolescents the space they need to make decisions on their own, teens are more likely to volunteer information and not alter the truth.
Parents enjoy the best relationships with teens when they embrace a balanced style of parenting. This means offering plenty of love. It also means having open and honest communication. Teens raised in this type of environment are encouraged to make decisions on their own and be independent. And guess what? They tend to lie less frequently.
Making room for teens to regain trust
Always remember, your son is better than his last mistake, and your daughter must see a way to regain your trust after she’s caught telling a lie. Parents should never hold grudges or assume their teen won’t grow and learn from negative experiences. Parents must continue holding their adolescent to high expectations. For help repairing a fractured relationship, read Create Opportunities for Teens to Regain Trust.
Image by: Samantha Lee/Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia