How to Stop Making your Kid Lie to You

July 20th, 2010

By Billy Kaplan, LCSW
HCC President and Clinical Director

Parents so often ask me how to get their child to stop lying. They tell me he/ she lies all the time. When I ask them how they know their child is lying, they tell me they already knew the truth of an incident; that they just wanted the kid to admit it.

These parents don’t like my short answer to their question: “Stop making your kid lie.”

Now my full answer, of course, is more complex than that. But essentially, when parents already know what happened, I believe forcing their child to admit “the truth” in a sense forces them to lie. No one wants to admit something when they fear the consequence for what they did. It’s like having a finger waved in your face – no one likes it, and the only reasonable response is to defend against it.

So, to decrease lying in children, I begin with encouraging parents not to even ask the question, “Did you do it?” The only answer to that question, from a child’s perspective, is “No.” In turn, the lie frustrates parents, creating a lose- lose situation for both parent and child. The child feels forced to lie, which he/ she knows is bad, and the parent is left feeling disappointed and annoyed.

In order to create a more constructive learning opportunity, I work from the assumption that all behavior has meaning. Therefore, it is important to address that meaning when looking at the things children do. I encourage parents to get to what is underneath an incident; to get curious about their child’s experience. What caused the child to have a feeling which, in turn, led to the misbehavior? I ask parents to look back at the day with their child, to explore what was going on earlier that may have made the child have some sort of “big feeling.” I usually look for disappointments, things that made them mad, things that went wrong, and with children with attachment-related issues, things that might have made them feel abandoned.

I encourage parents to objectify the situation, rather than personalize it. By shifting the issue from their child (“You broke the vase”) to the thing (“The vase is broken”), the parent can avoid emotionally overwhelming the child and causing him/ her to shut down. When caregivers focus on the child’s actions, the child can feel blamed, shamed, and in turn become defensive and dysregulated; all of which break down the potential for constructive communication. By talking about the thing and not the person, the child may, instead, feel like he/ she is being invited to help solve the problem of the distressed object. This can make a conversation about something the child is ashamed of much easier for the child to deal with. Another helpful trick is in the delivery: instead of addressing the issue in the form of a question (“Why did you do that?”) — which can make the child automatically defensive; a calm statement (“Hey, look, the vase is broken!”), can allow the child to be more receptive to a conversation about the incident.

Speaking of blame, it is important to understand how it differs from guilt. Both deal with differentiating right from wrong. Yet blame comes from an external source and is often perceived by children to be a comment on their global sense of self (“I am bad”), while guilt is an internal recognition of right and wrong deeds (“What I just did was wrong”). Therefore, working to minimize children’s overwhelming feeling of shame can help lead to a discussion of what is really most important: what were they feeling that might have caused them to do what they did? This, in turn, can lead to an awareness of feelings and how to regulate them, so that similar incidents do not continue to happen. It is important to note that children with attachment-related problems are always on the lookout for confirmation that they are bad; they are looking for confirmation of their shame. Working to minimize those feelings may help to open them up to a broader range of emotions, a more healthy sense of identity, as well as a greater capacity for interpersonal connection.

Now, getting back to the lying, I let parents know that it is important for them to prepare for their child to defend themselves even when the parents have objectified an incident. I encourage parents not to get pulled into that shame spiral, but to bring focus back to the object, away from the person.

Lastly, to address the underlying issues, I encourage parents to play the “if… then” game; to talk about “if” the child did cause the incident to happen (break the vase), then it would be understandable given what was going on for the child (whatever happened earlier in the day that could have led to a “big feeling”).

I think that an example might make it clear. What follows is a conversation I hope illustrates the point.

“Hey, I noticed that half the cereal box was empty this morning. I found that kind of strange, since I just got it at the grocery store last night. Do you have any ideas about what happened to the cereal?”

“I didn’t do it! Why are you always accusing me? You’re so mean!!!”

“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry that you feel like I’m accusing you! How terrible that must be. It makes sense that you’d be mad at me if you felt like I was accusing you. You raising your voice, just now, really let me know that. Thanks. I don’t really care how the cereal box got half empty. What matters to me is that last night you seemed sad about getting a “D” on your social studies test. Now, I hear you that you didn’t eat the cereal. Even so, if you had eaten it, that would have made sense to me because I can see how it might have made you feel a little better. But it makes me sad even thinking of you eating the cereal to feel better, because while eating cereal might have made you feel better immediately, it could have given you a tummy ache, and that would not have felt good. I can think of lots of other ways you could have made yourself feel better other than eating. What else do you think you could have done to feel better, if that was what was going on?”

This approach may not completely cure your child of his/ her lying, but it will certainly create a climate in which your child is more likely to feel understood, loved, and receptive to engaging in the process necessary to develop skills of self-awareness, self-soothing, and affect regulation; all of which can in turn help prevent these types of incidents from continuing to happen.