Kate Roberts Ph.D.

Savvy Parenting

When Parents Lie

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

Posted Jun 15, 2014

When a child knows the truth but 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 if their parents encourage it. This teaches the child that he or she is a reliable source of information. However, when a child is told that their truth is a lie, their self-doubt generalizes to the point where they distrust the outside world.

Being able to trust oneself as a child is a vital building block for a healthy personality. Unfortunately, children will begin to act out in response to the contradiction they are being told.

Also, 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.

Researchers at MIT have found that children are not gullible, and 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.

So, 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 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. Acting in their own interest and missing an important event, and not acknowledging it to the child. Parents need to own their failure in this scenario 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. Denying marital discord and telling a child that everything is "fine" between Mom and Dad, when in fact one parent is never home and 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 nothing's wrong.

4. Saying, "Trust me, I'm only acting in your best interest," while doing the opposite. For example, parents might use a child's "allergies" as an excuse for not allowing a pet, or refuse to buy a child something he or she needs, only to spend that money on their own needs. In this case, the parents are lying to their children about resources and how much they will sacrifice for their child.

5. Offering false reassurances. These never provide comfort. Parents will tell children it's okay that they failed or that things will work out, when there is no guarantee. This doesn't take away a child’s fear. It’s better to acknowledge problems and address them head-on, rather than present a charade that is transparent and false.

6. Denying or lying about a child’s drug problem or other problematic behaviors. When parents do this, they refuse to see a child’s actions for what they are: a cry for help. And in extreme cases of overdose, parental denial can result in death.

7. Telling kids that they really aren’t having the feelings that they're having, or that they really didn’t see or hear things correctly. Parents may say things like, “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. Not telling the truth about negative events. 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. Lying about being sick, having lost their job, or suffering in some other way. Kids know these things. It’s more reassuring for parents to admit the situation in terms that the child can grasp. Parents can then talk the child through their feelings about it while they process the hard reality, whatever it is. When kids are left to fill in the blanks, often their guesses are so much worse than dealing with the truth.

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