Parents understandably get very upset when their teens lie. Just the other day a mother expressed anxiety to me about whether or not her son's lying behaviors will worsen. Parents often also feel disappointed and hurt consequent to hearing lies from their children. They may blame themselves, thinking that they did not create an emotionally safe enough environment for their kids to be more honest. The good news is that you can help your child be more open about the concerns that are truly bothering him and/or share about the poor choices he may have made.
Below are four stratgies to encourage your teen to be more truthful while concomitantly building his or her self-esteem:
1) Try to keep in mind that kids can be quite self-absorbed (can't we also be as adults?) and they often don't understand how hurtful lies can be. Calmly discuss versus lecture about honesty and dishonesty, and why they chose to lie. Do not use a judgmental tone, as it just usually fuels the "See, I can't tell my parents anything" reflex from preteens and teens. You may not be able to stop your teen from creating those every day lies, but you can convey that there are other options available.
2) I suggest that you think of yourself as an "emotion coach" versus over the top disciplinarian out to show who is boss. Talk about how telling the truth can feel scary and how we can all feel scared and that it's okay. Share how calming down and solving problems are the keys for a successful life. Relate how lies can give the tempting illusion of calm and avoiding problems (e.g. homework not completed) but in the long run lies just create stress and emotional chaos.
3) If you feel that your child is making lies a "go to" way to cope then acknowledge this observation.Talk about the problems they face as a consequence of lying but don't use shaming tones as you speak. Join with your child about his fears. For example, does he believe that saying something dishonest helps him fit in?
4) Remember, above all, to help your child see her value. I often remind my own children and my clients about KYV (Know Your Value). In fact, I wrote a past blog on this very topic. For example, if your child is exaggerating a story, you might ask, "What you were telling me really held my interest, but then it seemed like you started to add things to it that weren't true. That got in the way of seeing how you really are becoming so mature. Can you tell me why you decided to do that?"
Keep in mind that addressing lying behaviors is a process versus a quick fix. Some kids may take a while before they feel safe to level with you. But if you keep your own emotional reactivity and judgmental responses at bay, your child or teen is more likely to eventually open up. While in the short term you may just get a shrug, keeping yourself calm will help your voice of truth and reason be heard.
Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein is a psychologist, personal, and executive coach, and motivational speaker in the greater Philadelphia area. He has been on the Today Show, Radio, and has written four popular books, including the popular 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child. You can also follow him on twitter.