Finding the Hidden Truth

Kids are often reluctant to tell their parents the truth.

Posted Nov 13, 2020

Augusi de Richelieu/Pexels
Source: Augusi de Richelieu/Pexels

I wanted to believe my kids when they told me what they did or who they were with. But sometimes I suspected that they were not being completely honest or were reluctant to discuss a sensitive topic. Kids, especially teenagers, tell their parents the truth when they know their parents would approve of their activities and become evasive or even outright lie when they know their parents would disapprove of their activities.

As concerned parents, you care about what your kids are telling you. Fortunately, most of the time children and teenagers tell the truth and you need not worry. However, the time to worry is when they become evasive or deceptive because they know they have either done something that you would not approve of or are reluctant to discuss a sensitive topic. 

Elicitation is a technique to obtain sensitive information from your kids without asking direct questions. Direct questions trigger defensive responses to protect information kids would prefer to remain unsaid. Elicitation works because elicitation techniques are based on behavioral characteristics that predispose people to reveal sensitive information they would not normally reveal when asked a direct question.

Elicitation skills can also help parents create better relationships with their children, especially teens, who are often reluctant to discuss their true thoughts, feelings, and activities with mom and dad. Elicitation techniques, when properly used, create an environment wherein children want to talk to their parents. This, in turn, provides the parents more time to teach and advise their children on how to cope with their present circumstances and the future challenges they will face as adults.

The presumptive statement is the easiest and most effective elicitation technique at your disposal. Presumptive statements take advantage of the human psychological tendency for people to correct statements perceived to be wrong or to affirm statements that are right. The presumptive statement presents a fact that can be either right or wrong.

If the presumption turns out to be correct, your kids will affirm the fact and often provide additional information. If the presumption is incorrect, your kids will typically provide the correct answer, usually accompanied by a detailed explanation.

The following example demonstrates how my wife and I used the presumptive elicitation technique to obtained sensitive information from our daughter.

My wife and I went away for a weekend vacation. We believed our high school-aged teen was old enough and responsible enough to be left alone for a few days. However, we did have lingering doubts. Upon our return, the house was spotlessly cleaned. This was our first clue that something happened over the weekend. The house is never that clean even when we prod our daughter to straighten up her room or do other household chores.

That night at dinner, I casually mentioned that we talked to one of the neighbors and they told us that the party got out of control and the police were called. My daughter spontaneously replied, “The police didn’t come.” I countered, “So, the party did not get out of hand” (presumptive statement). My daughter suddenly realized she had admitted there was a party.

She stammered for a few seconds and said, “We had a few friends over.” I gave her a quizzical look and said, “Really, a few friends?” My daughter explained that a bunch of people just randomly showed up. I observed, “It must have been a big party for the house to be so messy that you had to do so much cleaning. I haven’t seen the house this clean since I don’t know when” (presumptive). “Yeah,” my daughter finally admitted, “It was a big party.” My wife and I were disappointed with our daughter’s decision to throw a party in our absence. It took a while before she regained our trust.

A few days later, I told a colleague at work about our daughter’s attempt to hide the fact that she had a wild party and how I elicited the truth from her even though I did not know for sure whether she threw a party. My colleague chuckled and told me that he had a similar experience. He noted that he instinctively used a similar elicitation technique, but he did not know what he did had a formal name.

He, too, suspected that his son threw a party in his absence. When he arrived home, the house was clean. However, when he walked through the living room, he noticed that the carpet had a sticky spot. My colleague backed up and stepped on the sticky spot again. He told me his son grimaced and look worried. My colleague stepped on the sticky spot again and said, “Someone spilled a drink here. It must have been a wild party you threw” (presumptive statement). His son immediately confessed that he invited a few friends over, and the party got out of control. My colleague said he was glad that we talked because now he had a name for what he did.

The presumptive statement is a powerful elicitation technique to obtain sensitive information from your kids. The beauty of using the presumptive and other elicitation techniques is that your kids won’t know that you are testing their veracity.

For more information about elicitation and additional elicitation techniques refer to The Truth Detector: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide for Getting People to Reveal the Truth.