Punishing Your Child for Lying Can Prompt More Lying

Kids will do almost anything to feel secure in their family—including lying.

Posted Feb 25, 2020

Free Image From Pixabay
Source: Free Image From Pixabay

However unconsciously, all children realize it’s crucial for them to closely align themselves with their family. Experiencing their parental attachment bond as less than secure or stable feels really scary to them. And the younger the child, the more anxious they’ll be when this critical connection feels precarious. Instinctively, they can’t help but regard their parents’ acceptance and support as vital to their survival.

No matter how strongly a child may wish to have their wants, needs, thoughts, and feelings known to their parents, over time they learn that there may be significant risks in doing so. And it’s precisely this recognition that can make kids “strategically” shut down, or resort to lying. For once they appreciate the dangers of letting it all out—that it can lead their caretakers to harshly criticize, frighten, or shame them—they’ll increasingly monitor their speech to safeguard themselves from hostile reactions they haven’t yet developed the resources to effectively cope with.

And here I’m not talking about parents’ efforts to deliberately teach their children to avoid saying anything that could make others uncomfortable. They might advise their child to avoid making remarks or asking questions that could embarrass or offend others, withhold a hurtful or damaging truth, or even tell white lies. And children do need to be made more sensitive to the possibly harmful effects of their words. So it’s only appropriate to teach them both how and why to develop greater tact and self-restraint.

Otherwise, with their relative lack of empathy, children are susceptible to making comments gravely disconcerting to their family. The cartoon “Dennis the Menace” frequently illustrates such awkward situations, since the impulsively outspoken Dennis is apt to share things with relatives, neighbors, and strangers that cause his parents to wince in consternation.

To cite a biographical instance of my needing as a child to be taught to suspend my curiosity and, well, keep my mouth shut (vs. putting my foot in it), here’s an example from when I was maybe 10 years old. My family’s having been invited for dinner at one of my aunt and uncle’s, I assumed it would be an interesting conversation-starter to ask my cousin Rosalyn—their daughter, then in her mid-30s but still living with her parents—why she wasn’t yet married. At that tender age, what I understood was she ought by now to be out on her own. So I thought my query was certainly worthy of a response.

But as soon as my family was driving back home, my mother proceeded to lecture me on my insensitivity. She could tell from the expression on my cousin’s face immediately following my question (which went over like a lead balloon) that I’d seriously embarrassed her. Obviously, being taken to task for my lack of discretion didn’t feel very good to me back then.

But in retrospect, while I think my mother could have shown more sympathy for my simply not knowing any better, I still see her as doing what the occasion required. For if one of her maternal roles was to properly socialize me, then I needed to learn that I didn’t have the freedom to heedlessly pose questions that might indirectly “expose” another’s dilemma.

But what I’d like to focus on here are messages from caretakers—whether they be of omission or commission—that discourage a child from being truthful in ways that later can have detrimental repercussions for them. As I suggested earlier, because children are so dependent on their parents’ acceptance, they’re likely to conclude that in many cases they have no viable choice but to lie. That they must be super-cautious about saying whatever spontaneously might pop into their head.

The example below illustrates how parents’ misguided disciplinary efforts to prevent their kids from lying can have the opposite, paradoxical effect of programming them to lie. For in many instances, that’s what children are likely to do to protect themselves from further punishment.

The following scenario relates to a client, Jerry, whom I worked with when he was in his early 30s. In writing down the worst memories from childhood he wanted to work on, he recalled that when he was 11 and had just been transferred to a new school, that in order to better fit in with and impress his fellow students, he falsely shared that he was such a sterling basketball player that Nike had offered him a youth scholarship.

Unfortunately, this grandiose fabrication quickly got back to his parents. As he recounted:

I remember coming home and having my mom question why I lied. But before I could speak up, my dad started yelling. This was the first I had seen him this mad at me. It was like someone I had never even met before. He yelled so loud that I didn’t hear a word he said. I was just so scared that I nodded, cried and said it would never happen again.

That scarred me for the rest of my life. From there on out whether it was my grades, my social life or my sports life [and, like his dad, Jerry was extremely gifted at basketball], any time there was a chance my dad might get mad at me I lied. . . just so he wouldn’t yell at me. My answers to my parents’ questions became so pre-programmed toward telling them what they wanted to hear that lying became second nature to me.   

Expanding on what had become habitual and automatic for him, Jerry added:

This not only ties into my gambling [a serious addiction he’d spent many years struggling to overcome], but what I have recently read on assertive behavior—one of the key steps being taking responsibility for something you did  wrong. I have had trouble with this in relationships outside my family, too ... Afraid of their response/confrontation, I either lie or avoid the conversation altogether [and this is why so many people become staunch conflict avoiders]. I am afraid they may raise their voice, disagree or blame me like my father did.

Earlier, I published a piece called “‘Never Again!’ The Psychological Fallout of Trauma” (2017). And Jerry’s confession is a powerful example of how an experience—particularly as relates to one’s family—can be so disturbing that it engenders an extreme survival program that later (mal-)functions to sabotage one’s welfare and degrade close relationships.

How ironic, too, that it was his parents’ doing everything to “make sure” he wouldn’t continue to tell lies that compelled him to adopt this prevaricating strategy for emotional self-protection. And how much better it would have been for his parents to gently inquire what made him feel he couldn’t be accepted without fibbing about his stature and strive to convince him that lying was ultimately a lot riskier than being truthful.

Needless to say, the whole point of this post is to demonstrate that parents have to be extremely careful not to let their own emotions about their child’s errant behavior overwhelm the child. For if their child is left feeling unbearable levels of shame, pain, fear, or regret, that child will develop potent defenses against having to re-experience these so-upsetting feelings.

What’s perhaps most notable about Jerry’s portrayal of his trauma is his sharing that his father’s rage felt so threatening to him that he couldn’t even hear what he was saying. And that’s the whole point: Everyone—but children especially—react more to the tone of another’s utterance than to the words themselves. So unless parents are able to control their own agitation, the very intensity of their criticism may necessitate the child’s blocking them out.

For at the time, Jerry concluded not that he should stop telling lies but that he should do whatever was essential to keep his parents (and particularly his father) from blowing up at him. And ironically, that mostly meant lying to minimize his heightened sense of vulnerability with them.

If there’s a moral to this story, it’s that there’s a vast difference between teaching children what’s essential for them to learn and, however unintentionally, actually traumatizing them. And maybe that’s why parenting classes can be so valuable to parents who can’t foretell how the way they’re disciplining their kids might adversely impact them.

And not only in the moment but for years—maybe decades—to come.

© 2020 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.