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Outreach: Lying, Honesty & Trust

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Lie, deceit, evasion, fib, forgery, misrepresentation, perjury. ‘Lie’ has many synonyms to describe the gravity of the action.  Is it a little white lie? Or is there a true effort to be deceitful? Is it chronic, or perhaps just once in a while? Are there long-term adverse consequences from the incident?  

Lying is a significant cognitive development in children; by the age of 3, children begin to realize that parents are not mind readers, and that other people hold different beliefs. While this may be considered clever, the child whose lying is not addressed is more likely to use it as they grow and mature. And just to be clear: if your child lies, they are normal. According to research from the University of Pennsylvania, 98 percent of teens interviewed had lied to parents within the last few months.   

Many other things can influence whether a child chooses to lie, including their moral understanding, executive function, as well as how they perceive the specific situation at the time.

When children lie, how should parents respond in order to build honesty and trust? Here are a few tips from the experts: 

Listen more than you talk. You need to be the safe haven as they explore their mistakes. Use affirming phrases. Being present and providing space to problem-solve is critical.

Reward your child for telling the truth. They need to admit this mistake; but consequences (or no consequences) should be determined by their honesty.

Have fewer rules, and enforce them. Make lying the crime above all others. 

Have them promise to tell the truth and recognize that behavior whenever you see it. A child confessing to messing up is huge. Acknowledging how difficult it can be will build critical trust.

Respect their privacy. Growing away is part of growing up. However, if you suspect something is wrong, then privacy is waived.

Consider an “amnesty,” but consider it only if personal safety or risk to someone else is not a problem. Friendships are important to them as they develop ways to say no. Allow them space to do that. Don’t make them choose between you and their friends.

Be open to negotiating. And follow through with it in good faith.

Resist threatening them with punishment for lying or trapping them. Spend the time to explore the reason for the behavior. Kids who are punished for lying are more likely to lie in the future and trapping them leads to shame. Remind them that it takes courage to tell the truth, and reward positive behavior. 

Accept that conflict is part of growing up. Being heard is what is important to your child. The ability to speak honestly and openly is what allows trust to develop. 

What are the reasons behind the lie? Are there control issues for your child? Remember they do not want to disappoint or disconnect from you; the behavior is an attempt to meet a valid need. Again, take the time to listen. 

If your child is used to confrontational reactions, this sort of honesty may take time to accept.  It needs to be nurtured in order to build a capacity of trust between parents and children. Diligence and patience for both yourself and your child can instill feelings of safety and honesty in your relationship, and is well worth the commitment.

Learn more at www.outreachteen.org [1]