Dear Dr. Linda,
My wife and I can’t believe this is happening to us, but we feel we can’t trust our daughter anymore. She was always an “A” student. In fact, we visited Yale on our way home from vacation this past summer because she always talked about going there. Then, at the end of eighth grade she started lying to us about school. We were so upset that we didn’t let her go on the eighth-grade trip to Washington, D.C. After all that, we just found out that she’s been lying to us about school issues again. Now, we even feel we can’t trust anything she tells us, in or out of school.
We have no idea what’s happening. Is this common teenage behavior?
Yes, lying is a common strategy that children use to conceal from their parents the problems they are having in school.
When any of us lie, it’s because we don’t want to tell the truth. Why not? Because we perceive the consequences of the truth will be worse than the consequences of lying. It’s as simple as that.
For many children, the consequences for lying will be less severe than the verbal or physical abuse they believe they’ll face if they tell the truth about their troubles.
The abuse extends beyond shouting and punishment, though most parents don’t recognize it. For instance, to many children, recopying an entire paper because it is too messy is torture. So is correcting 20 math problems or looking up 30 misspelled words.
For them, the risks associated with lying are worth taking. If the worst-case scenario happens and they are caught in a lie, the focus changes from school issues to lying issues, territory that has more predictable consequences. However, though lying seems like the way to go, especially to a child or teenager, it has negative consequences they’re unaware of.
The major consequence of lying is a loss of trust. And that’s where you are now. But another breach of trust happened first. It won’t be easy, but take a giant step backward and think about what you did (or didn’t do) that might have made your daughter not trust you enough to tell you the truth. How did you react? What was different about the end of eighth grade? Did something happen that caused her to feel that she could tell you what’s going on without being punished? How can you restore this trust again?
These are essential questions to ask yourselves and they’re not easy to answer. You may not know the answers. Improving family relationships where trust has been lost is hard work for everyone involved and it takes time. Sometimes one or more of the people involved find change too difficult. If this happens to you, consider family therapy.
In the meantime, how do you become someone your child can trust, someone safe to talk to when they’re having problems—in school or out?
Here are some important things to know with respect to developing trust:
• From infancy on, children need to learn to trust others. Starting with Mom and Dad, they learn to trust that their earliest cries of hunger and discomfort will bring relief of some kind. They learn to “trust” that their parents will take care of them.
• Where school is concerned, children need to know from the very first day that their parents and their teacher(s) are on their team. Once again, if they need help, they’ll get it. Children need to know that their parents are their allies—not their adversaries.
• Talk with your children every day about what happened at school, even if it’s just for a few minutes. This does not mean to interrogate, ridicule, or punish, as these are the kinds of behaviors that kids who are lying seek to avoid. Instead, this should be an opportunity to see problems when they develop before they become more difficult to address. If a child is struggling in school, he knows it already and doesn’t need to be punished because if he knew what to do about it, he would already have done it.
• Predictability is key. Be consistent so that your child knows what the consequences of certain behaviors (good or bad) will be.
• If you want your child to grow up to be a trustworthy and trusting adult, be a trustworthy and trusting adult. Keep your promises, do what you agree to do, and when told something in confidence, don’t share it with someone else.
Best of luck,
Dr. Linda is co-author of “Why Bad Grades Happen to Good Kids” and director of Strong Learning Tutoring and Test Prep. If you have any questions you’d like to share with Dr. Linda, email her at Linda@stronglearning.com.