Lying in older children can really scare us but it can be a cue to connect and troubleshoot.
Rather than seeing parenting only as an ongoing quest to help our children develop positive character traits like telling the truth, we can be more curious, dig deeper and understand them better.
For children over the age of about 9 who are lying, cheating, or stealing, it may be a sign that the child feels powerless and we need to help empower them. They are often trying to fit in with peers, boost self esteem, respond to a dare, get revenge, or think it’s fun.
They may misunderstand boundaries, have poor impulse control, or are testing and exploring rules.
So as a parent, we have to study the situation and spend a lot more time talking and trying to figure out what is happening rather than turn to punishment. Is there a relationship issue? Is there an attention issue? Is the child experimenting with something learned from others? All children are different and some children lie more than others, but only for a very few is it something more serious.
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Most of the time, we help by focusing on the good thoughts and strengths of the child, and we really focus on our relationship with the child and building trust.
As with young children, we don’t want to set older children up for a lie. If we know the truth, we can acknowledge we do, which is honest in any case. Interrogating and threatening can result in fear and pride that make children dig their heels in further and refuse to reconcile their actions with reality. Children can become more comfortable with lying and more skilled, and it becomes more challenging to know the truth. Coming down hard can further strengthen their skills and we miss the real reasons behind their fears. Rather than accusing and isolating, try using “I” statements: “I value being told the truth.” “It’s important to me to have trust.”
Encouraging our child to tell us about what happened can reveal more and give more clarity, even more empathy for the circumstances. Empathy changes our responses, and telling the truth, sometimes very hard, is made safe in our families. It helps to prepare ourselves to not react negatively when the truth is hard, and give ourselves time to reflect without immediate reaction. Most broken or lost things can be dealt with but relationships take time to repair.
As children grow older, we prepare for the change in our relationship and their increasing independence. It helps to remember to not take it personally, that opposition to rules is not opposition to us as a parent, and is normal and part of growing.
Sometimes the lies are convenient for us parents to believe because conflict is hard and we don’t face the situation as we should. It really helps to have parenting support and experience to lean on at these times, giving us patience, strength, and encouragement, and even tips. Teens tend to see through shallow attempts at relationship and have respect for authenticity, so integrity does matter to them.
As parents, living our own lives of authenticity goes a long way in sustaining a good connection and communication. We parent from a more stable place as well as provide good modeling.
Consistent gentle coaching and teaching, along with checking ourselves and our own temptations and truthfulness, are at the core of fostering honesty and integrity.
Resources referenced include“Responding to Lying Positively,” by Rita Brhel, Attached Family Lying, The Developmental Truth by Dedra for APtly Said, “Parenting Tips: Praise Can Be Bad: Lying is Normal,” by Po Bronson (NPR) and Attached at the Heart.
Samantha Gray and her husband Dan are the parents of three children. Her parenting work includes Coordinator of Bristol’s Promise Parenting Education Network (BristolsPromise.org), Attached at the Heart Parenting Program Educator, Nurturings Board Member (Nurturings.org), and author of Directing Confidence: Cathy DeCaterina’s Theatre Bristol (TheatreBristol.org).