Savvy Parenting

A strategy for each (parenting) moment

When Parents Lie

When parents lie to their children they are hurting them deeply.

When parents lie to their children they are hurting them deeply. When a child knows the truth and when his parents contradict this knowledge, the child ends up doubting himself. Healthy children learn to trust their inner sense of right and wrong at a young age because their parents encourage this. This teaches the child that he is a reliable source of accurate information and a capable resource for the truth. When a child is told that his truth is a lie, his self-doubt generalizes to a distrust of the outside world. Children will begin to act out in response to the contradiction they are being told; what they know is true, is untrue. Being able to trust oneself as a child is a building block for a healthy personality.

When parents tell a child that what they know to be true, in fact is not, they cause their child to choose between trusting themselves and trusting their parents. This is not a choice a child can make and remain intact and healthy.

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Researchers at MIT have found that children are not gullible and they can in fact sense when parents are lying to them, causing them to distrust the very people who are their caretakers. Children also know when parents are withholding information.

What should parents do when they want to protect their children from the truth? Parents need to accept that they can’t protect their children and that lying only leaves children knowing the truth and wondering why parents are lying about it.

Here are very common mistakes parents make in the name of protecting children from the truth:

1. Telling a child that mom and dad love each other and we just can’t be together anymore. When parents divorce, they don’t love each other. Parents need to tell it like it is. They need to acknowledge that they no longer want to be married.

2. When parents act in their own interest and miss an important event, they need to own their failure by sincerely apologizing. If not, they will teach their child that they can’t count on their parent to follow through and that lying is an acceptable way of avoiding responsibility.

3. When parents deny marital discord and tell a child that everything is fine between mom and dad when one parent is never home and the one is always unhappy. When parental problems are apparent it’s better to state that mom and dad are having differences than to lie and pretend things are typical when they are not.

4. When parents state trust me I only act in your interest, when they do the opposite. For example, when they use allergies as an excuse for not allowing a pet or refuse to buy a child something he needs only to spend that money on their own needs, they are lying to their children about resources and how much they will sacrifice for their child.

5. When parents offer false reassurances, they never provide they comfort. When parents tell children its okay that they failed or things will work out, when there is no guarantee they do not take away a child’s fear and feelings. It’s better to acknowledge problems and address them head on than present a charade that is transparent and false.

6. When parents deny and lie about child’s drug problem or other problems behaviors, they are refusing to see a child’s actions for what they are; a cry for help. And in extreme cases of overdoes, parental denial can result in death.

7. Telling kids that they really aren’t having feelings that they are or they really didn’t see or hear things correctly. “You don’t miss your dead dog that much or that’s not what I said”. These denials are invaliding and leave the child feeling alone, and misunderstood.

8. Parents can tell the truth about negative events without focusing on ugly details. A violent act can be described as a troubled behavior where someone was hurt without saying it was a gory rape for example.

9. When parents are sick or lose their jobs or suffering some other things, kids know this. It’s more reassuring for parents to admit the situation in terms the child can grasp and talk through their feelings about it while they process the hard reality, whatever it is. When kids fill in the blanks often their guesses are so much worse than dealing with the truth.

 

The reality is that children can deal with almost any disappointment if provided parental support. It works the other way as well whereby if children are repeatedly lied to by parents they begin to doubt and distrust even the simplest realities.

 

Kate Roberts, Ph.D., is a consulting school psychologist and former professor of psychiatry at Brown University.

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