Why Kids Lie…and What To Do About It (GUEST Episode 267)
At some point in parenting, it's pretty much a given that your child is going to tell a lie. Why do kids lie? Does it mean you've failed them as a parent?
Of course not! I talked with Kimball Lewis of Empowering Parents all about lying - this oh-so-common issue that every family deals with at some level. There are the little white lies and skirting around the truth that isn't always a bad thing, and there are those big substantial lies that break down foundations of trust and connection in a home.
So first, a quick intro in my guest, Kimball Lewis:
James Lehman was a therapist and child behavior expert who developed the popular parenting program of the late 2000s, The Total Transformation program. The Total Transformation was the instruction manual giving step-by-step solutions for the most challenging parenting problems: disrespect, arguing, severe defiance, motivation, and more. At the peak of his popularity, James Lehman suddenly passed away. It was a devastating blow to all those who worked with him and used his programs to change their lives.
5 years ago, Kimball Lewis, a parent of 2 teenage boys, an admitted self-help junkie, and a technology executive, abruptly quit his successful corporate career and bought the company that produces The Total Transformation in an effort to keep James Lehman’s Total Transformation parenting tools available for struggling parents.
As owner and CEO of EmpoweringParents.com, Kimball Lewis had transformed The Total Transformation from a set of books, CDs, and DVDs into an online learning system accessible to parents worldwide. In the process, he has learned to be a better parent and gained an appreciation for what it takes to parent kids with challenging behavior problems. He loves to share his favorite James Lehman quotes and discuss their meaning and application for parents in homes with disrespectful, obnoxious, or abusive kids.
Watch the full video interview:
Why Do Kids Act Out?
First, to reference my first interview with Kimball, we dug deep into the topic of why kids act out. Most acting out occurs because a child has a problem they are trying to solve, and they lack the tools to do it. This has become a solution for them, and, typically, they'll keep it up as long as it's working for them. The older they get, however, the more serious the consequences can be for acting out, so it's important to help them with tools to navigate as soon as you can.
There are three areas where children typically act out:
- Emotional - when they are dealing with their everyday emotions (frustration, sadness, anxiety, etc) and may not know how to express them.
- Social - do they understand social cues and their impact on others? Are they clear on appropriate behavior?
- Functional - have responsibilities been broken down into easy steps where they are able to function independently? Do they have a grasp of time management and organization, and how to navigate if they are completely scattered/unmotivated?
This isn't just the battle in the heat of the moment. It's the child who always balks at washing dishes, so you don't feel like a battle and resign yourself to do them vs. argue. They have figured out how to get out of it. Acting out is not an effective problem-solving skill. Yet kids have found it does solve problems with parents when it works.
Why Kids Lie
Lying is not uncommon - people of all ages lie. As small children, lying is a way of problem-solving when they haven't figured out something different.
Oftentimes lying comes from children not meeting responsibilities or adhering to rules in your household. They can either learn to step into those responsibilities with a toolkit that allows them to succeed, or they can combat it by acting out. And lying and skirting around it is a coping mechanism for a child who hasn't refined a better skill to use in that moment.
Behavior issues can directly relate to problem-solving skills in life. It's not just children. We all act out when we lack the tools to navigate something in any other way. It's a reactive survival technique.
Think about lying as an immature response when someone is unwilling/unable to step into responsibility for their actions.
This Isn't a Moral Problem
Be careful about identifying lying as a moral problem. Kimball talks in the interview about how lying needs to be specifically viewed as a behavior problem - one that you can get other tools to navigate - vs. a moral problem.
Any child who hasn't figured out a better way to solve their problems is going to resort to lying - and that doesn't make them morally corrupt. They are using what survival tools they have.
Lying and other forms of acting out are natural problem-solving skills...and if they work for them, it's a hard thing to let go of. Yet these are not natural problem-solving skills that will serve them well in life. It's up to us parents and mentors to open the door to more life-friendly problem-solving strategies that won't bite them back in this big world.
Seeing this as a moral issue may imply your child is "defective".
When your child's lying is seen as a moral issue, it paves a way for shame, or even taking it on as a part of their identity; seeing themselves as defective or this is just their only coping skill.
Yet when you help them understand it's simply behavior, then it's a choice - and there are other solutions.
Setting and enforcing limits and demanding compliance communicates belief in the child through expectations. When you don’t hold your child to a reasonable standard, they start to suspect that there’s something wrong with them. That they can’t behave properly.
View behavior as a performance issue, not a moral issue. Limits and consequences are not focused on thoughts and feelings, but on actions and behaviors.
Caught in a Lie
So what do you do when you catch your child lying? How to you address them and call it out while not shaming them in the process?
Kids typically lie because they either did...or didn't do something they were supposed to do. So now you have two issues - what they messed up on, and now the fact that they lied about it.
Kimball recommends we keep these separate. Have a different consequence for the lie vs. what they are actually lying about. Even in the court of law, when someone lies, there are two separate trials - one for the crime they committed, one for perjury. See these as two different transgressions.
If you do this, the next time they mess up, they now have the choice of either one or two consequences. Knowing they most likely will end up getting caught, they can either fess up once, or risk getting two consequences.
You want your consequences to not be wrapped in punishment and shaming, but to equip them with a better tool to navigate the situation if it were to come up again.
You want to have realistic consequences. And there is a natural consequence to lying - it's simply a betrayal of trust. They have to build back that trust from you to take them at their word when their actions have shown you otherwise.
You want your child to learn from consequences - not for it to be a harsh punishment. If the punishment doesn't match the "crime", it's more likely to promote more lying than stopping it. When you deliver a super harsh punishment, it can further solidify lying or other forms of acting out simply as self-preservation for perceived unjustness.
Make the consequence match the transgression...and make it short-lived. Look at this list for how to navigate natural consequences.
Be careful grounding for a week. When they do something else, then, what do you do? Keep extending the time they are grounded? How long will it go?
Quick consequences allow them to move through them, gain the tools to handle it differently, and move forward faster.
You don't want to be so consequence-heavy you've bankrupted your child.
When we talk about effective consequences, they are not extreme and drawn out. You don't make them heavier and heavier; you simply repeat ad nauseum until they get tired of that consequence and see the merit in the change. Yes, you can expect they will err in the process, just like we all do in our growth. Until they have learned and internalized better coping skills, they are going to go with the lowest hanging fruit that has been easy for them in the past. Be consistent - not extreme. Think of a coach on a field who continues to coach and support, even when the player missed a ball. It happens.
Be careful about setting your child up for failure. You want little wins that build on each other. Don't do anything out of line for a week and you'll get your phone back is pretty unrealistic, especially when they are just learning how to navigate disagreements or independence with maturity and grace.
Default to Trust
If your child is generally flowing well and learning new tools along the way, don't create friction that isn't there. You don't always have to have a big talk about consequences for something your child isn't even considering. Be careful just trying to look for the negative or catching them in the act. If they are doing well, be grateful for that, and don't stir up something that isn't there.
This is a key component for me, as our children can walk into the stigma we create for them. When we as parents talk about how we're dreading the "angsty teen years", for example, are we paving the way - and the expectation - for our kids to fulfill that? They don't have to be that way, and sometimes perfectly thriving children will shift into bad behavior simply because that's what everyone is bracing for.
Don't anticipate them rejecting you, defying you, not liking you, lying, etc. Default to trust and connection. Work with gratitude for the positive relationship you have, not fearing what might be lost. That's a sure way to create a chasm. Trust your gut, and start with gratitude for a positive relationship. Pay attention to any uneasiness and get real with whether it's a legitimate fear you're seeing in them pulling away, or if it's unfounded speculation on your part.
Get real with your own influence and actions. Kids will only listen to us for so long - our actions will become the more evident proof of what's truly important.
Your Line of Communication
Keep the lines of communication open. Don't get stuck in lecture mode. Keep it short and sweet, and communicate clearly what the values are in your household. This is a great time to go back to your family vision. Give clear notice. State your concerns vs. a stealth operation. Put them on notice.
Respect their privacy unless you truly have reasonable cause. At that point, if you're seeing clear issues, you have every right to investigate - you are the parent, and the one paying for and providing all the resources and support this child has. That being said, when they earn the right for privacy by being open and honest with you and responsible for their actions, give them the space to navigate it indepent of you, without you looming over their shoulder. And if they lose it, make sure they are aware of exactly how they can earn it back.
That's autonomy - as they earn the right to stand on their own two feet, they are getting equipped for their independence and personal responsibility beyond your household. They need to learn that lying hurts their credibility - not just in the home, but beyond. As they learn how this does not serve them well, they can adjust with different tools to navigate their situations.
It's not just a negative in your household. It hurts someone professionally. It hurts their relationships with others. It can even erode self-esteem, as no one really prides themselves on being untrustworthy. Empower your children to see they have a choice. They can choose to be that kid who doesn't lie.
Get Clear With What's Expected
Some kids need to see reminders. Print off your family vision and/or house guidelines and put them in prominent places. Key spots are in the bathroom by the toilet, by mirrors, and on the fridge. Make them prominent so it's an easy "third-party" approach to point to. It doesn't have to be you shaking your finger at them reminding them of the rules. It doesn't have to be spoken on repeat because it's clearly stated and visually apparent in your home.
Work with your family and create this binding and uniting statement in your home, where it's not just parents saying what has to happen, but it's something your whole family has mutually agreed on and will abide by as a written contract in the home, not between the people. This is the protocol for what comes out of this household - the guidelines and values we live by.
Pay attention to the tone and culture you are creating in your household.
We're all human. And we as parents don't get it right all the time. Yet we have a bit more experience and discernment under our belts typically than our children. When we mess up, fess up. Be honest with yourself and others, and model the growth mindset you want in your home.
Don't Take It Personally
The last point Kimball left us with in his interview was for parents not to take things personally. Remember, kids acting out are typically due to them lacking the tools for more effective problem-solving. So a kid saying "I hate you" can sound horrible - and we can carry that hurt with us. And when we take it personally, and hold on to that resentment of those hateful words, we create a wedge between us and our children that can last even after they've figured out a better way to navigate.
If you take it personally, it's going to be that much more difficult for you to offer grace and forgiveness when they inevitably turn things around, and you don't want to have that held over them. As they learn how to better use their words and behavior, you don't want to hold that against them - that will hurt your relationship with your child.
Don't take it personally - view it as a behavior problem. And don't freak out - don't give the lie more power than it deserves.
Remember these tools. Be proactive with the culture and family vision you want to intentionally create in your home, and ensure the whole family is on board and has come to an agreement with it.
View lying as a behavior issue vs. a moral one, and recognize there are other tools you can help your child use to navigate it.
Treat a lie as a stand-alone transgression with a clear consequence beyond whatever they lied about.
Have you equipped them with tools to -
- navigate their emotions?
- understand social cues and their impact on others?
- manage time effectively and stay motivated even when it's hard?
Parenting is hard. Yet it doesn't have to be drudgery where you hate the whole process. If you're willing to show up, be aware, and do the work right alongside your kids, the more enjoyable it can be in the process. Be aware of what they might be mirroring from what they see in you.
If you're fully at your whit's end and looking for a comprehensive approach on how you're interacting with your child, you can learn more about Kimball and the Total Transformation Program HERE.
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