Listen: Collett Smart chats to Katrina Roe
It’s one thing when your five-year-old fibs about sneaking a cookie. It’s another thing entirely when your teenager starts lying about where they’ve been, and who they were with.
Adolescent psychologist Collett Smart spoke to Hope 103.2’s Katrina Roe to share some advice on how to respond. One of the first steps when you have caught your child or teenager in a lie, Collett says, is to find a gentle way to have a conversation about it, instead of simply asking “are you lying to me?” in a confronting tone.
Gentle Ways to Start Talking About It
For a young child, you might use phrases that show them you know the truth, but that you’re being gentle and giving them another chance. For example:
- “Hey, this sounds like a bit of a tall tale. Why don’t you try again and tell me what really happened?”
- “You’re usually really honest with me, but I just really can’t understand what else could have happened to that last cupcake? Could you help me?”
For older children or teens who are lying about something more serious, speak to them in a way that makes them feel safer to tell the truth. Try the following:
- “I’m going to ask you a question, and maybe you’re not going to tell me something that I really like, maybe it’s something I really don’t want to hear. But I want you to remember that your behaviour is not who you are. I love you, no matter what you tell me, and sometimes people make mistakes.”
Collett also recommends a technique described by the psychologist Dr Carol Brady known as a “truth check”. This approach might sound something like:
- “I’m going to give you a chance, I’m going to walk away and give you a few minutes. And then, I’m going to come back and ask you again. If you change your mind and want to give me a different answer, this is just a truth check, and you won’t get into trouble.”
What Not to Do
There are some approaches to avoid altogether:
- Don’t aggressively corner your child, in a criminal-policeman kind of scenario. This will breed fear or resentment, and won’t help them to tell the truth.
- Don’t label your child a liar with phrases like, “You’re a liar” or “You’re always lying to me”. It’s counterproductive, says Collett. “That label can get your child to think, ‘Well, I’m the liar in the family, I might as well just keep lying, that’s who everyone thinks I am’.”
Find Out What Motivated Your Child to Lie
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Once you’ve started the conversation, use the opportunity to talk to your child or teen about the importance of truth-telling – and try to get to the bottom of why they chose to lie. Some of the common reasons for a child lying include:
- To get something they want
- To get out of something they don’t want to do
- To avoid getting into trouble
- To test boundaries and see how you will respond
- Because they sometimes speak before they think (e.g. in children with ADHD)
- To take the focus off of themselves
- To make themselves sound ‘better’, ‘smarter’, or ‘more clever’ in order to gain approval or attention
- To avoid hurting someone else’s feelings
Once you understand what’s motivating them to lie, it will help them to tell the truth, and give you a chance to help them work through any issues they might be dealing with.
Should We Punish Our Kids for Lying?
When children are punished too harshly, there’s a risk they’ll avoid telling the truth in future, for fear of more harsh treatment. So while punishment or repercussions for lies are important, they need to be kept in balance.
“In the most serious or repeated behaviours, like older kids lying about where they’ve been or who they’ve been with, we definitely do think of consequences,” Collett said. “Be clear with your children that there will be repercussions or natural consequences for repeated lies, so it’s not coming out of the blue.
“A scenario might be, your child has just got their license. They’ve driven to Newcastle again with the car, when you’ve actually said that can only go as far as Parramatta. What you would then say is, ‘Unfortunately, now you don’t get to use the car next weekend, because you need to earn my trust again, around the car’.
“A child might take the iPad into their room at night, even though the boundary is no technology in the room. You might say, ‘Well, this has affected your sleep. So tomorrow night, you’ve got to go to bed early’, or ‘For tomorrow, you don’t get your iPad’.”
She stresses that consequences must be “short lived, not overblown”. Avoid severe punishments like, ‘No more TV for the rest of the year’, or ‘I’m taking your phone off you until Christmas‘ (when it’s only August).
How to Help Your Child Improve and Re-establish Trust
When someone lies, trust is broken. It’s important to talk to your child about this, and teach them how their lying affects relationships in the family. Explain that it can be harder for others to trust them in future.
It’s also important to give your child or teen a chance to practice better behaviour, and rebuild that broken trust. Collett’s advice is to let them know that truth-telling will reduce their punishment or consequences.
“That gives them chances to become more trustworthy.That’s not something a child can negotiate on all the time. The parent does set the boundaries on that. But they need opportunities to show you they can earn trust.”
Also, praise your child for telling the truth.
For example: “When [they ask you to] pick them up from a party they had promised they wouldn’t [go to], praise them for being honest with you,” Collett says. “Because you want your child to ask you to pick them up from a party – even if they’ve done the wrong thing.”
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