We adults lie, all the time. Sorry, but it’s true, and it’s one of the reasons why children lie. How often have you told your child everything is fine when you’re upset about something? I have. Have you ever told a telemarketer you can’t talk because (fill in your reason)? I have.   

Life can be messy. Making sure that everything looks perfect on the outside is one way to feel in control of something, especially when other parts of life feel out of control. One of the challenges this presents is that parents unintentionally teach children to lie.

Sometimes the lie is about presenting an ideal image of the family to the outside world that all is well. When a family member is struggling (i.e. learning differences, addiction, not getting into the ‘right’ college), the family will close ranks. It’s normal for them to feel that others may not understand what they’re going through, maybe judge them or pity them. The children are swept up in keeping the family secret, learning that problems and challenges and less-than-perfect are not acceptable and not to be shared.

Sign Up for E-News

Other times the lie is told to protect people, or not hurt their feelings. Children aren’t stupid; they’re actually quite insightful. I remember mine asking me what was wrong because they sensed my upset. They weren’t fooled with “I’m fine.” Looking back I recognize that it caused them to be even more anxious. Without information they had to imagine the reasons, and the imagination can run wild with worry. 

Then there are times we just don’t want to look bad. The ego is fragile and we want to be seen as good and right and darned close to perfect, whatever that means.

And so, through our words and actions, we unwittingly teach children to lie.

A lie can take many forms.  Here are the lies that have a connection to parents’ high expectations for their children:

1) an outright lie – “No, I didn’t do that.”

2) fabrication – creating a story around the lie

3) an excuse – “I didn’t have time, I was too tired…”

4) plagiarism – copying someone else’s work and claiming it as your own

5) omission – leaving out important details

6) minimization – making it sound less important than it is

The role of high expectations in why children lie

Here are two big reasons that children lie: they don’t want to disappoint their parents, or they have a problem they don’t know how to solve. The two are closely linked. Either way, they feel they are falling short.

You have high expectations for your kids. This is a good thing! Where you can get into trouble is when you have no tolerance for anything less than perfect.  Whether it’s chores, grades, getting along with siblings, or staying out too late, everyone slips up once in a while.

Your children know what your expectations are. You’ve told them so many times that they sigh, roll their eyes, or tune out (or all of these). They know they’ve fallen short, and the reasons are varied:            

  • A task is too difficult.
  • They’re bored.
  • They’d rather be doing something else.
  • Everything feels like a power struggle.
  • They’re overscheduled and overwhelmed.
  • There’s frustration, anxiety, and tension due to school, family and social relationships.
  • Divorce, illness, substance abuse (theirs, yours or their friends’).

Whatever the reason, and whether or not your teen is aware of the reason, he is struggling with something. He may be disappointed with himself and doesn’t want to disappoint you. That’s where the lie is born.

As much as he protests, your teen really does care what you think of him. He takes a big hit when he loses your trust and approval. That’s not to say that you have to approve of everything he does. Absolutely not! The key is in how you discuss it.

We come back, as always, to listening and acknowledging and talking about the difficult things with love.  

When you do more listening than talking, you give your child the chance to process her emotions and clear them out. Then she’s better able to think clearly and come up with solutions.  

When you acknowledge her emotions (You sound… That must have been… It’s normal to feel that way) she knows it’s okay to feel what she’s feeling.  

When you respond without nagging, criticism and judgment, you’re telling her that mistakes happen and she’s still lovable. She doesn’t have to be perfect.

When you do all this, you build trust… and with trust, it’s no longer necessary that children lie.