A parent submitted a question to this website, and I will answer it here in case any other parents have a similar one.
Q: My eight-year-old continues to lie. For example, if I ask if she has eaten breakfast, she says “yes” when she really hasn’t. When I ask if her homework is done, she says, “yes” – but it isn’t. This is going on and on, and has been since she was four. I have talked to her about trust, disciplined her by taking away dessert/ TV/ video games/ or her favourite things. Why does a child do this and what is the best course to follow to correct this behaviour?
A: Lying is often seen as a behavioural situation that needs to be fixed, however I look at it more as a symptom of a larger problem. What that underlying problem is will take a bit of detective work and thought, which is where I suggest parents begin when trying to put an end to lying. The issue could be as small as the child being temporarily distracted and not really hearing what the parent is asking, to using avoidance tactics to try and get out of a mistake.
The first question to ask is, “Does my child feel safe enough to tell the truth?” What have been the consequences of telling the truth when a mistake has been made in the past? If punishments have been used when a child comes clean, that child might feel too scared to admit a mistake. The goal is to not make lying a better alternative than getting punished for admitting wrong-doing.
The next questions for parents to ask are on the topic of connection and attachment:
“How is my relationship with my child?”
“Is my child’s attachment tank full or empty?”
“Does my child feel connected to me?”
Marilyn Price-Mitchell, a Developmental Psychologist, offered some great insight when I spoke with her about the topic of lying with teens. I believe her words apply to younger children as well. She said, “Teens do not lie to people with who they have positive ‘relational experiences.’ These are relationships where they feel seen, feel felt and feel understood. These kinds of relationships actually change the way our brains are wired to care for and respect others. When teens don’t have this kind of relationship with parents, they feel disconnected. It’s easy to lie when you feel disconnected because you have nothing to lose.” You can read some of her excellent articles over at www.rootsofaction.com.
Examine the relationship with your child: does your child feel seen, felt and understood by you, as Price-Mitchell mentioned? If you believe that answer could be “no,” think about how you can build a relationship with your child to really demonstrate that she matters. Turn your love into action.
Finally, examine how you are handling the situation. Is there open communication?
To the mom who submitted the question, I imagine that you must be frustrated with your child’s responses and I can see why you tried taking things away to change the behaviour. I’m sure you have discovered that this likely won’t stop the lying, and may actually make it worse. Children can shut down, go into defensive mode, or get very angry with parents when things they love get taken away. Please do not feel that your child is trying to hurt you. I bet she just isn’t sure what to do when you ask if she has done something when she knows she has not, and will likely disappoint you.
Here is a suggestion for what to do when you believe your child has done or not done something properly. For the common question, “Did you do your homework?” parents can address this with the following steps:
1) Do not set the child up to lie. Don’t ask a question — make a statement about what you see.
“I see your homework pages are still blank.”
2) Identify what the child likely wanted to accomplish.
“I bet you wanted to finish that work.”
3) Use friendly and firm limits.
“I know you probably wanted to finish your homework, but I see that the pages are still blank. How can I help you to get that done? Do you have a question?” You could also use a WHEN/THEN technique like this, “When you are finished your homework, then I’ll be ready to read a book with you.”
If you have been using threats, bribes, reward charts or harsh punishment with your children and would like to change that, I suggest these books: IF I HAVE TO ASK YOU ONE MORE TIME… by Amy McCready, and PEACEFUL PARENT, HAPPY KIDS by Laura Markham, PhD.
Also, I continually post free parenting resources on my Facebook page.
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