My nine-year-old daughter lies about the stupidest crap. This is a safe place, right? I can say this here.
She lies about how much homework she has to accomplish, as if my wife doesn’t work at the school and can get to the bottom of it pretty darn quickly. She lies about brushing her teeth, so now I have to stand in the restroom with her, a timer on my phone, and watch her complete the task. She lies about interactions with friends, and how much screen time she’s used, and whether or not she cleaned her room, as if the evidence wasn’t available. She’s only 9, but I’m already not looking forward to her actual teen years, because I feel confident that it’s going to be one big house of lies built on a foundation of lies.
I have to assume that if you are reading this, you have a little lying liar pants in your house as well, and you’re trying to figure out why anyone would lie so much to accomplish so little. Jeffrey Bernstein Ph.D. has a few tips on how to handle a child who just can’t, for the life of them, tell the truth. The first is to not take it personally.
“The ‘truth’ is that often pre-teens and teens will shade the truth or downright lie. It is best as parents not to take the lies personally,” according to Bernstein. “This is not easy but if you step back and stay mindful that kids can lie for different reasons, this realization alone may help you stay calm.”
And yeah, I’m with you. I just love it when someone tells me to “stay calm” too. But according to Bernstein, reacting to your child’s lies with raw emotion, or flat out anger, can come out sideways pretty quickly. It’s kind of like that age-old Internet axiom, “Don’t feed the trolls.” Did I just call teens and preteens trolls? Well, kind of, but let me explain.
If you go online and pick an argument with a commenter who is already looking for an argument, it’s just going to get worse. It’s the same with your teenager, only instead of being able to log out of the argument, you actually have to live with them. And let’s be honest, everything with a teen is magnified and over the top … am I right?
According to Bernstein, what happens when you get judgmental with a teen about their lies is they begin to say to themselves, “See, I can’t tell my parents anything.” What Bernstein suggests is to take the emotions out of it, and begin to see yourself as an emotional coach.
Now listen, when I’m arguing with my daughter over brushing her teeth, and she is repeatedly lying about it, the last thing I want to do is turn off the judgment. What I want her to do is cut the crap, and tell me the truth. Wait… scratch that, what I really want is for her to just brush her stupid teeth so they don’t rot out of her head, and I have to pay more in dental bills. Trying to stay calm, and see myself as an emotional coach in that moment feels like I just walked into a Kafka novel.
Luckily, Bernstein gives a pretty powerful tip to help overcome that emotional obstacle — know your value. Children don’t often see their own value, so they tell lies to sound bigger than they really are. I know I did this all the time when I was a teen. I told all kinds of stories to other kids about winning fights, stealing things, and having sex — and all of it happened in some other town, or with some girl from another school.
And this is why the know your value strategy becomes so important. Bernstein puts it like this, “[I]f 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?'”
Wow! Talk about some psychologist mind work, but if you can put this in your own words, I think it might actually give your child enough pause to come clean. And honestly, I know how insecure a teenager can be. I was one once, and so were you. Finding any way to flip the script so they can stop lying, while also helping them to develop a better understanding of their own value, is pretty awesome.
One more type of lying that drives parents bonkers is when it’s to get out of trouble. As long as I’ve been a parent, I’ve been struggling with this crap. And it’s a slippery slope because you want your child to tell the truth, but you also don’t want to lose trust. Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer here. Carl Pickhardt, psychologist and author, advises that for this concern — and lying on the whole — it’s best to make truth and honesty a family value. Discuss honesty as the glue that holds the family together. By making truth a part of who you are as a family, rather than just something that comes up when there is a lie, children will be more willing to tell the truth, even when they are in trouble.
Please keep in mind, if your child is lying to cover up drug activity, or violence, or really anything dangerous or illegal, you need to call them out. You must get help. But if it’s just to get out of doing something, or to make themselves feel bigger than they really are, take a moment and try to figure out why they would do that. And don’t feel bad if your child lies. There really isn’t a one size fits all answer to this problem, and trust me, we are all dealing with it. Stay calm, and talk to them about it rationally. Try to help them understand their own value. And above all, don’t feed the trolls.