Now Is the Right Time!
Trust is an essential foundation for healthy relationships. As parents, you play an essential role in your child’s/teen’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child/teen relationship, and understanding how to promote a trusting relationship with your child/teen, one in which they tell you and others the truth, is key.
Lying represents an important milestone in your child’s/teen’s thinking as they learn that others have differing beliefs and perspectives than their own. Experimenting with lying is a normal part of child development. Children/Teens can begin to lie and understand deception as early as preschool to cover up actions that they know are against the rules. A full understanding of lying and its consequences continues to develop (not fully formed) throughout childhood and adolescence as part of their cognitive and moral development.
Children/Teens ages 11-14 are in the process of understanding and making predictions about others’ thoughts and feelings. As they do, they also may seek to hide the truth particularly if they fear harsh judgment from respected adults or peers. They are also testing boundaries and taking more risks socially and academically. Often that risk taking can lead to mistakes, misbehaviors, or even failure.
Often lies relate to struggles with impulse control. For example, an eleven-year-old might think, “I wish I had more friends and was popular. If I tell those boys that I have the most expensive gaming system, maybe they’ll think I’m cool and invite me to hang out with them.” Though younger children cannot distinguish between the subtleties of deception, those eleven and older can understand the differences between honest mistakes, guesses, exaggerations, as well as sarcasm and irony.
The key to many parenting challenges, like raising children/teens who grow in their understanding of the value of truth telling, is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your child’s/teen’s needs are met. The steps below will prepare you to help your child/teen learn more about your family values, how they relate to lying, and how you can grow and deepen your trusting relationship.
Whether it’s your eleven-year-old lying about eating the lunch you packed them for school, your twelve-year-old lying about failing a test, or your fourteen-year-old telling you a friend’s parents are home supervising them when they aren’t, our child’s/teen’s ability to tell the truth can become our regular challenge if we don’t create plans and strategies for dealing with them.
Today, in the short term, honesty can create:
- greater opportunities for connection and enjoyment;
- trust in each other;
- a sense of wellbeing for a parent and teen; and
- added daily peace of mind.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your child/teen:
- builds skills in self-awareness;
- builds skills in social awareness, perspective taking, empathy, and compassion;
- builds skills in self-control; and
- develops moral and consequential thinking and decision making.
Five Steps for Teaching Your Child/Teen About Honesty
This five-step process helps you teach your child/teen about honesty. It also builds important skills in your child/teen. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your child/teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child/Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child/teen thinking about honesty by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s/teen’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to honesty so that you can address them. In gaining input, your child/teen:
- has the opportunity to become more aware of how they are thinking and feeling related to lies and truth;
- can begin to formulate what it means to be in a trusting relationship;
- can think through and problem solve any temptations to lie they may encounter ahead of time;
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themself (and with that sense of ownership, comes a greater responsibility for implementing new strategies and taking responsibility for their own relationships);
- will have more motivation and courage to take responsibility for their actions; and
- will be working with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their life.
- Ask questions and listen carefully to your child’s/teen’s responses since they will shape how you will talk about lying and honesty. Questions you could ask include:<
- “Who do you trust and why?”
- “What’s important to you about honesty?”
- “Have you ever been lied to? How did it feel?”
- “When are you tempted to lie?”
- “What’s the worst thing that could happen if you tell the truth about a misbehavior?”
- Listen carefully to their responses since it will shape how you will talk about and problem solve around lying and honesty.
Teens don’t want to be in the spotlight. And, at times, questions can feel like an interrogation, so look for comfortable windows of opportunity to introduce the questions. For example, is your child/teen telling you about a friend who lied to her parents? Or, are you watching someone lie on a reality television show together? Those are ideal moments to move into these kinds of questions.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Being honest with ourselves and others about our motivations, feelings, limitations, and choices can test adults; so, it’s no wonder children/teens struggle to figure out when, how, and why honesty is important. Learning about developmental milestones related to honesty and moral development can help parents know how to help their child/teen.1 Here are some examples:
- Eleven-year-olds can be more impulsive so they may speak before thinking through what they are going to say. Lies might be blurted out without much thought either trying to impress friends and fit in or attempting to cover up mistakes with parents. They can be defensive about their mistakes and more sensitive. They desire testing limits and may do so more at home than at school.
- Twelve-year-olds are gaining confidence in sharing ideas and opinions with peers and with adults. They need adults to listen well and provide support as they consider serious issues such as drugs or alcohol. Lying can begin to occur at this point about higher risk issues, so building trust with this age group is key.
- Thirteen-year-olds are very sensitive to peer pressure and may be exerting it on others as well. Lying can enter discussions about peers with other friends. They may experience more moodiness as they attempt to establish greater independence.
- Fourteen-year-olds may act like they “know it all” and could lie to cover up the fact that they do not. They are searching for more independence and may be distancing themselves from their parents more. But, they tend to be more willing to admit mistakes, and they are more invested in understanding the bigger world.
- Fifteen to nineteen-year-olds are striving to figure out their adult identity and may be pushing parents away as they attempt to gain independence. If your early teen was not exposed to substance use, sex, or violence, it’s more likely that they’ll be tempted by new and greater risks in these years. Lying fits into this equation if they are experimenting in dangerous areas and don’t want parent intervention to end it. Older teens have a much greater sense of logic (though their rational brain capacity will not fully form until their mid-twenties) and fairness in larger social contexts. They can wrestle with ethical dilemmas (and may enjoy it) and think them through in a much more sophisticated way than ever before. This helps them exercise their responsible decision-making skills.
In addition to understanding the developmental milestones your child/teen is going through, it can also be helpful to consider where they are challenged with honesty. Reflect and ask yourself, “In what circumstances have I noticed my child/teen lie?” If it involves several areas, write them down and think about how you might use one or several of the following teaching tools to help your child/teen learn.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child/teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems. This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences for when expectations are not met.
- Model honesty. Modeling honesty can mean sharing aloud what you might be thinking when you are saying how you feel since this is an area where adults tend to not fully share their honest feelings. For example, you could share the opposite of the truth first, and then share what the truth for you really is. This shows your child/teen the contrast and makes apparent your own internal debate. For example, “I am tempted to say that I feel just fine in response to your ‘How are you?’ But, the truth is that I am upset about a conversation I had at work, and I can’t seem to get it off my mind.”
Children/Teens who fear punishment when they misbehave are prone to lie to cover up their mistakes. Part of our modeling as parents requires learning more about how to teach responsibility and self-discipline through alternative strategies.
Avoid asking questions in a way that makes it easy to lie. For example, instead of “Did you do it?” try asking, “Tell me what happened.”
Children/Teens who are left alone frequently and whose needs are neglected often turn to lying to find attention, take unhealthy risks, and meet their needs in ways that can be self-destructive and potentially destructive of others.
- Teach your child/teen to take a breath before answering. It gives your child/teen a moment to allow their thinking brain to catch up with their reactive/emotional brain and allows them the opportunity to share a more honest response.
- Talk with your child/teen about the impact of their lies on you. You could say, “I am sad that there is something about our relationship that isn’t safe enough that you need to lie to me.”
- Catch your child/teen telling you the truth, particularly when it is difficult for them. You can say, “I know it was hard to tell me the truth, and I so appreciate you taking the risk.”
- Talk about trust and how it is built slowly but can be broken quickly. Help your child/teen understand that lies today lead to a lack of trust that will then have a large impact on them tomorrow. For example, if you can’t trust their word about whose house they are going to today, you will not trust them about whose party they are going to when they are older.
- Learn about moral development. In understanding how moral development emerges in our children/teens, Carol Gilligan proposed three stages she called “The Stages of an Ethic of Care.”2 These can help you understand and empathize with your child’s/teen’s point of view and also help you set goals for guiding them forward. The stages are:
- Every person’s worldview begins with a survival perspective focused only on themselves. This worldview, from infancy through nine-years-old (varies as all developmental milestones do), assists young children in focusing on secure relationships and establishing their own supports for survival so that they can open their minds to other possibilities later in life. That focus on a secure attachment allows children to form healthy relationships and gives them the confidence to explore school and their world beyond home.
- In this worldview, rules are given by authorities, not questioned but obeyed, and taken literally. If they are disobeyed, there is punishment. But, if a child/teen remains stuck in this survivalist worldview, it limits their growth and ability to demonstrate care for themselves and others. It also limits making decisions that take responsibility for one’s role in a larger community. As a person moves out of this phase, there is questioning of authority, which is necessary to move from a sense of selfishness and survival to responsibility.
- In this phase of moral development, caring for others takes primacy. A core sense of responsibility is established, an awareness of others around the individual, and the impact they have on others takes focus. In this stage, self sacrifice is good. Individuals may care for others while ignoring their own needs. They may even do harm to themselves (perhaps inadvertently) in an effort to help others.
- In this stage, the individual becomes aware of the rules of the wider society and obeys them to avoid guilt. Moving out of this phase into the final phase, the individual moves from goodness to truth, from responsibility in order to gain approval to an internalized compass for not hurting self or others in concert with or despite societal rules.
- Most people never evolve their worldview to this place though this is the final stage. In this stage, the person’s thinking evolves to valuing nonviolence and making decisions, however complex the situation, relative to doing no harm to self or others. Though this kind of thinking and the actions that follow are rare, it certainly is a level to pursue and promote with our children/teens.
- As with all stages of development, individuals can dip into former stages depending upon the circumstances. The previous stages are always a part of a person.
and Trap Moving forward in development is a human need. But, parents or other influencers in a child’s/teen’s life can halt development through fear, guilt, or shame. These children/teens are the most at risk for depression, anxiety, and suicide. Parents who offer support, understanding of development, and independence within boundaries balanced with taking responsibility for actions ensure that a child/teen moves forward in their development.
- Teach positive behaviors when you identify misbehaviors. Children/Teens are most tempted to lie when they make a poor choice or mistake. With that knowledge, each time your child/teen breaks a rule, consider the question: “What positive behavior can I teach my child/teen to replace what I’ve told them not to do?” Use the following simple process called interactive modeling (used by teachers) that can become a powerful teaching tool for parents.3
- Say what you will model and why.
- Model the behavior.
- Ask your child/teen what they noticed.
- Invite your child/teen to model.
- Ask what they noticed with their own modeling.
- Practice together.
- Provide specific feedback starting with strengths using “I notice…”
- Share your family values and need for trust.
At a family meal, share a personal story about how trust between family members has been critical in a safety or other important situation. Talk about how you come up with alternative solutions when you are tempted to lie.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of cooperatively working together or trying out a new skill with you as a coach and ready support. Practice is not only nice, it’s necessary in order for children/teens to internalize new skills. Practice makes vital new brain connections that strengthen each time they perform the new action.
- Use “I’d love to hear…” You may want to offer your child/teen practice in truth telling when it’s tempting to lie. When you notice a misbehavior, before your child/teen can attempt to cover it up, you might say: “I imagine that part of you wants to lie right now, so I’d love to hear how you take responsibility for this so we can both learn.”
- Follow up when your child/teen makes mistakes helping them repair harm. If they know there are action steps they can take to make things better after a poor choice, they are far less likely to feel the need for lying.
- Find small opportunities to help your child/teen mend relationships. Siblings offer a regular chance to practice this! If there’s fighting, then talk to your child/teen about how they feel first. When you’ve identified that they had a role in causing harm, brainstorm together how they might make their sister feel better. You might ask, “What could you do?” Allow your child/teen to supply answers. Support and guide them to follow through on selecting one and doing it. Your follow through will help your child/teen follow through while internalizing a critical lesson.
- Recognize effort. Frequently, we offer feedback on what children/teens are not doing right, but how often do we recognize when they are working on their behaviors? Recognize effort by saying “I notice…” like: “I notice you told me you broke the plate even though you were worried about how I would react – I appreciate your honesty!”
- Focus on the logical consequences of dishonesty. If your child/teen lies about taking an extra piece of candy, talk about and, better yet, show the logical consequences.
- Discuss characters in stories. Courage to be true to self is a universal theme that is used in literature time and again. Find these heroes, particularly those who are flawed and human. Point out their faults and frailties and then learn together how they triumph. Be sure to discuss how the conquering hero has to make choices that do not align with what others want.
- Proactively remind. So often parents have a sense of when a child/teen is tempted to lie. Just before they do, you may whisper in your their ear, “Remember to tell the truth even when you make mistakes, and then we’ll figure out the rest together.”
The best way to turnaround a misbehavior that may be taking place is by recognizing when and how your child/teen makes good choices and acts positively in similar circumstances. They need to learn what to do as well as what not to do.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s/Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child/teen some strategies for telling the truth and also understanding why lying is destructive. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and when appropriate, applying logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child/teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions before jumping to responses or decisions for action. Parents are often in a position where they have to direct their child’s/teen’s actions but jumping in and directing their actions can become the default if we are not careful. Look for chances to ask questions before stepping in with directives. Good questions promote thinking and help children/teens internalize the evaluative process of responsible decision making – thinking through the action to consequence before they act. Examples might be, “How do you feel about making that decision? What does your heart or inner voice tell you?” or maybe, “What are some options if you break a rule?”
- Learn about development. Each new age and stage will present differing social challenges. So, becoming informed regularly about what developmental milestones your child/teen is working toward will offer you empathy and patience.
- Reflect on outcomes and past experiences with honesty. For example, “Remember when you forgot to take the dog for a walk? You said you were sorry and immediately took the dog out. It was all okay, and we appreciated your honesty.”
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for ways to respond to mistakes and poor choices can help offer additional support and motivation for your child/teen when tough issues arise.
- Engage in further practice. Create more opportunities to practice when all is calm.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequencesshould come soon after the negative behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own emotions in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your emotions are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your child/teen into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2. Third, if you feel that your child/teen is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
Though adults tend to forget, our attention is our child’s/teen’s sweetest reward. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and business of getting tasks accomplished. But, if your child/teen is working hard to be honest with you and take responsibility for their choices, it will be worth your while to call it out. After all, your recognition can go a long way to promoting more of the same positive behaviors and expanding your child’s/teen’s sense of social competence. Add to their motivation with the following actions.
- Notice! It may seem obvious but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When your child/teen is telling you the truth when they make a mistake or a poor choice, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I notice you told me when you forgot your laptop at school. I appreciate you telling me.”
Be specific. “Good job” seems to not carry much meaning. However, a specific compliment about a pointed behavior – “You admitted when you were wrong, and I know how hard that can be” – can promote more of the same.
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments in order to recognize. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. They need to happen along the way. Find small ways your child/teen is making an effort, and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. Encourage opportunities for fun and further connection.
Avoid gifts or other physical rewards for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on children/teens. When you remove the money or extra screen time, for example, have they internalized the skills and also the sense of responsibility for performing them? There’s less of a chance if you’ve offered a “bribe.” Focus on your attention as the best reward. This is an essential strategy in discipline for skill building.
Engaging in these fives steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your children/teens. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children/teens to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.
Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2019). Lying. Ages 11-19. Retrieved from https://www.ParentingMontana.org.