My kid keeps lying! What do I do?

Here’s a question I often hear from the parents of my kid patients: What do I do about my kid’s constant lying?

99% of the time, here are the things I explain*:

  1. I hear this a LOT from parents of ADHD and/or anxious kids. Their brains are super sensitive to the feeling and expectation of rejection (ADHD kids often receive actual feedback- from peers, teachers, life in general- that they are “bad”). Lying is their faulty, short-term instinct to protect their most primal need, the acceptance and continued presence of a parent.
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“I DIDN’T DO IT. WHAT MUD?” = My primed-for-rejection brain tells me I better lie about this or Mom won’t love me.

2) Your task is to make it SAFE for your kid to tell the truth, even when all of the “rejection alarm bells” are going off in his mind.

3) One way to “make it safe” is to validate why your kid would have screwed-up. “I can see why you would not have stopped to think about your shoes before taking out the hose and rolling in mud. Rolling in mud is pure excitement. Duh.”

3) Another way to “make it safe” is to watch your tone, sighs, eye-rolls, body language, etc. when asking for the truth. Even if you SAY “I will be less mad if you tell the truth than if you lie,” your non-verbals could be telling a different story. (And lots of anxious/depressed kids pick up on non-verbal with superhuman ability.)

4) Another way to “make it safe” is to use humility, self-compassion, and self-disclosure of your own mistakes around your kid. If you openly and matter-of-factly admit the times when you yourself mess up, the kid will get the message that “messing up does not make me rejectable.”

5) Another way to “make it safe” is to obsessively notice and praise when he tells the truth even though he was scared. Yes, I highly suggest that you beam with pride and issue a huge hug when he actually admits he cheated on a test. Tell him you are so proud of his courage because you know it wasn’t easy to tell the truth, and mid-hug, add that of course he knows he won’t be playing video games for the rest of the week and he’ll be retaking the test, but had he not told the truth he would have been grounded for a month. Then issue the consequence and drop it.

6) Another way to “make it safe” is to get your kid in therapy so he can work on some of the automatic ways of thinking (I am worthless; I am rejectable, etc) that are fueling lying as a survival mechanism.

Just something to think about as usual, from the therapist who constantly preaches that compassion and imagining what it’s like in your kid’s mind goes a loooong way, even for getting him to tell the truth.

*The other 1% have more conduct disorder/antisocial features, very often related to attachment disturbance that makes emotional intimacy and conscience a foreign experience to them.)

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