Children and teens can become quite skillful at lying to their parents. They may even feel justified in doing so. For example, a teen may think, "I'm not telling them what I was really doing because they will never understand!" Similarly, parents may lie to their children and rationalize that they are protecting them by hiding the truth.
After twenty-three years of working with families as a psychologist, I can tell you this harsh truth: Lies erode trust and damage emotional safety in parent-child relationships! None of us are perfect in resisting the temptation to lie. We are, after all, only human. Below are four suggestions, however, on how to strengthen that valuable sense of emotional safety to help encourage your children to resist lying to you:
1) I suggest that you think of yourself as an "emotion coach" versus that over-the-top disciplinarian out to show who is boss. Talk with your child 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.
2) Try to keep in mind that kids can be quite self-absorbed (can't we also be as adults too?) 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.
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 children see their value. I often remind my own children, my clients (and myself!), 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 lying behaviors can become a habbit and that it is important to be patient--both with your child and yourself! 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. Remember, the best discipline you can give your children to choose not to lie is to have your own self-discipline to make it safe for them to tell the truth.
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 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child. You can also follow him on twitter.