Children's Lies: Rebuilding Trust after Your Child Lies to You
My daughter lied to me. She looked me straight in the eyes – and lied. I’m struggling…trying to pick up some pieces of respect and trust and I’m having great difficulty with it. Why did she lie? Because she was someplace I told her she couldn’t go – involved in activities I won’t allow her to be involved in. She certainly made a statement to me –I hear loud and clear that she believes she is old enough to be involved in these activities. I still disagree with her – passionately. I’m left feeling like a shell – I don’t believe anything that comes out of her mouth now! How can parents and teenagers regroup after such a lapse in trust?
As we approach the topic of lying, we need to remember that lying is a specific behavior – telling a lie – and needs to be understood as the specific behavior it is. Previous questions have dealt with other “adolescent behaviors” as examples of how teenagers “act out” what they don’t know how to articulate. It is from this perspective that I will address this question.
It is likely that in this question, the parent is struggling more than the daughter is with the fact that the daughter actually lied. As parents, we tend to read into these events in a “too much too fast” kind of way. We begin to think that if she lied this time, she must have been lying at other times in the past as well. Similarly, we tend to wonder about how comfortable our teenaged children have become – or are becoming – with resorting to deception as a default response? Undoubtedly, the parent in this question is scared, thinking that her or his daughter’s lying means, on some level, that this daughter is too comfortable to deception and that, perhaps most of all, the daughter seemed so cavalier in her willingness to jeopardize her relationship with her parents over an issue that seemed so minor.
In a recent article in Parenting Adolescents, entitled “On Lying in Adolescents,” Jean Walbridge states that “it is, simply, unreasonable to expect adolescents always to tell you the truth.” Walbridge addresses the issue of adolescents’ lying within the context of adolescents’ needing to find any and every way they can to separate from their parents, and from that theoretical context, Walbridge explains that teenagers’ lying often serves an important purpose, rightly or wrongly – to help them to “establish their own identities and separate from the identities of their parents.”
While I understand and agree with this perspective to some degree, I don’t think this perspective helps that much in answering the question above. The primary goal here is still to understand this daughter’s lying as an attempt at either asserting or communicating something important – she would not lie about something if she didn’t actually care about it enough to lie about it – and to respond to her in a way that not only maintains, but actually strengthens the parent-daughter relationship.
Underlying this parent’s question are the parent’s hurt and confused feelings (“I’m struggling…trying to pick up some pieces of respect and trust and I’m having great difficulty with it.”) Part of the hurt experienced here may come from the growing realization that this daughter does indeed have a growing social life of her own, complete with its own desires, commitments and objectives, a social life that does NOT involve her parents. While it would be impossible to know everything this (or any!!) teenager thinks and does, this parent still wants to believe that her or his daughter will act with responsibility and integrity when she is away from her parents! Does this daughter’s lying mean that she is not acting with integrity? Not necessarily. I return to the wider context of trying to interpret the lie itself as a particular behavior that is meaningful, and one that probably needed to be expressed, but also one in which actually talking about the issue(s) involved, for one reason or another, did not seem even remotely possible – from the daughter’s perspective. The big question here is, “Why couldn’t this daughter talk about these issues more directly with her parents?”
Psychologist and author, Robert Brooks, Ph.D., in his book, Raising Resilient Children, encourages parents to ask themselves the following questions about the degree to which they may or may not be empathizing with their children. Dr. Brooks warns that “failing to be empathic with our words and actions reinforces negative dynamics that DECREASE our children’s seeing us as helpful resources. If they don’t see us as helpful resources, they will seek help from someone else.”
- Am I saying or doing things in ways that would encourage open communication between my child and me?
- Would I want anyone to speak with me in the way I speak with my children?
- What do my children think about the choices I make for them?
- How would I hope my child would describe me? (How would he or she actually describe me?)
With respect to the question above, not only will teenagers “seek help from someone else,” but it is also likely that they will do whatever they need to do to meet their own objectives and social commitments – and according to Jean Walbridge, they will even lie. Put in this context, adolescents who lie are NOT criminals, but rather confused and anxious teenagers who are still trying figure out how to function meaningfully in a new and complex social life of their own.
What might this daughter have been trying to communicate by her lying? When this parent states, “she was someplace I told her she couldn’t go – involved in activities I won’t allow her to be involved in,” it sounds like there are several unfinished conversations, or possibly, conversations that have seemed “finished” from the parent’s perspective – but not from the daughter’s experience. How has this daughter experienced these earlier conversations with her parents? Has she perceived her parent(s) to be open to, and understanding of her way of seeing and knowing her experience? This can be very difficult, as there may be more to the daughter’s story than this parent has been willing or able to hear. In addition, it is usually the case that parents have deeper fears and concerns, based on their own experience of similar issues, that have not been fully expressed or articulated in conversations with their adolescent children. Regardless, it does seem that this daughter has not felt heard and understood about her experience or perspective. It is likely that when this daughter feels heard and understood by her parents, she will be more able to hear and understand her parents’ concerns – and THEN she may be more able and willing to adhere to her parents’ limit setting – and not need to resort to lying or any other “acting out” behaviors, as a way of trying to accomplish her social needs and goals. In general, an effective rule of thumb is that adolescents are so much more likely to tolerate and accept their parents’ limit setting when they – the adolescents – feel known, recognized and acknowledged, and that they have a sense that their parents really understand how they are experiencing their adolescent-life experience.
At the end of the day, it is the relationship between parent and teenager that is most important. Seen from this perspective, the daughter’s lying should be interpreted as an indicator for more effective communication between this parent and this daughter. As in all conflict situations, communication that is characterized by empathic listening BEFORE talking is the most effective. Stephen Covey, in his national bestselling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, refers to Habit Five as the most important habit to develop and maintain for all effective communication. Covey’s Habit Five is “Seek first to understand, THEN be understood.” Covey’s wisdom may be difficult to hear, but it may be particularly useful to this parent who is trying to understand her or his daughter’s lying. In the big scheme of things, the most important goal here is to understand how and why the lying occurred, and to use that learning experience to foster greater openness and mutual understanding in the parent-teen relationship. Any relationship that is characterized by openness and mutual understanding has no room for deception, no room for lying.
David L. Gleason, Psy.D.