Dr. Gayani DeSilva MD
Children and Parenting
Gayani DeSilva is a Child Adolescent Psychiatrist with 20 years experience. She is the author of A Psychiatrists Guide: Helping Parents Reach Their Depressed Tween, and A Psychiatrists Guide: Stop Teen Addiction Before It Starts.
"Lies" are a part of a healthy developmental process. Children learn cause and effect not only to physical actions but also to expressions of experiences, ideas and feelings. Lying or pretending is all a part of learning how to meet their needs, express themselves, and to affect their dynamics with others. Every manner of representation, be it the raw truth or a lie, gives a message of that person's truth. So the boy beeping as he pretended to sleep, gives the true message that he is not sleeping, but seems to think he should be or that he knows his parent expects him to be sleeping, and he wants to please the parent.
There are socially and culturally acceptable lies that we tell our children--Santa Claus, the Tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny, and others. They are innocent and part of a larger belief system. Those kinds of stories are in essence lies, but no one seems to be harmed by them. Aside from those lies, I do not encourage parents to lie to their children. The relationship between parent and child is the most important relationship children will have until they start to have more adult relationships. The relationship children and parents develop will be at the foundation that all other relationships will rest on. Thus if we can agree that healthy relationships need mutual trust in order to thrive and grow, then the parent-child relationship should also be one where trust is strong. Every lie weakens trust between two people. Every lie that parents make to their children weakens their child's ability to trust. I will not tell parents to never lie to their children, but I will remind parents that you are the one shaping your relationship with your child. If you want to have a deeply trusting relationship with your child, doing everything you can to be authentic and honest will facilitate the development of a lasting, trusting and deeply satisfying relationship with your child.
Parents' reactions are significant to the way children adjust or modify their behaviors. from a very early age, children learn what behaviors, expressions, and verbalization please or displease their parents. They look for subtle clues. They may not be consciously aware off all the details they gather from a parent's reaction. It is helpful to children to give an honest reaction, but tempered with calmness and patience. Also, keep in mind that negative reinforcement is a strong factor in triggering more of the same behavior that triggered the negative response in the first place. So that multiple lies and multiple shaming episodes only serves to continue the undesired behavior. Instead, hear the lie, do not react immediately, and in a calm voice say, " I believe that is not true and you have lied to me. I want us to be able to trust each other. Your lie does not help grow the trust we have between us. If you want me to trust you, I need you to be honest with me." Focus on the trust issue, instead of the actual lie. The context of the lie is much more important that the actual content.
I believe that we do not talk enough with our children about relationships and how relationships develop. Engendering trust is the key to healthy relationships. The more parents talk with their child about dynamics, and factors that impact relationships, the more children will value and appreciate their responsibility and power in creating the relationships they want and need.
1) Parents need to look at themselves and their level of lying. Children catch nuances, and learn from what parents actual do, not just what they say. Stop lying--stop lying to your children, and stop lying to yourself.
2) Take an interested stance when trying to understand why your child lied, instead of a punishing stance. Explain what the lie does to your relationship. This way the child takes responsibility for choosing to lie. It is not the parent's responsibility to correct the lie. Put the onus of choice and accountability on the child. Do this by asking the child to analyse the reasons behind lying. Ask, "How did telling a lie in that situation help or harm you?" "Did you have other choices?" Why didn't you choose one of the other choices?" "What do you think you might do next time?"
3) Support the child when they rectify the lie. I am not a proponent of punishment. Change happens when people are motivated to change and they feel supported during the process of making changes. Take a cheerleader position when your child practices being authentic.
4) Model for your child what being authentic looks like. Be courageous and honest. Challenge yourself to be authentic. Share your experiences and struggle to be brave and real. Being authentic takes practice. Refraining from lying takes practice.
5) Reward your child when he or she chooses to be vulnerable and honest. Appreciate their bravery. Delight in their authentic self, even when they "beep, beep, beep" when they can't sleep.
I encourage parents to look at these moments when their children lie, cheat, or otherwise misbehave as opportunities to help them express themselves in more authentic ways. If one takes the stance of needing to correct or punish their child, they will miss out on the opportunity to trigger meaningful change and development. And they miss out on an opportunity to bond and create deeper relationships with their child.
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