“My nine year old daughter is physically aggressive—kicking, screaming, hitting, and spitting. It seems completely unprovoked. Can you help me?”
“My child is defiant. He says ‘no’ to every request I make. How can I get him to do as I ask the first time, or at least the second time, without a screaming fight?”
“My daughter gets up in the middle of the night, eats massive amounts of sugar, and then takes food and hides it under her mattress. We have never deprived or neglected her. Can you tell us why she does this and how to stop it?”
“I cannot take my child into the grocery store. He steals and runs around like he is crazy. How do you explain this, and what can be done to stop it?”
Many childhood behaviors are frustrating to parents, but few are as challenging as lying. Lying is something that most parents say they “just will not tolerate”. However, it is also such a universally common problem that it is rare to find a parent who has not had lying take place in their home, in some form or another. Whether it is omitting the truth, evading the truth, not telling the whole truth, or a blatant lie; this issue becomes the “pet peeve” of many parents.
Steve has just received his first speeding ticket. He was showing off in front of friends and happened to be in a school zone. He didn’t even see the blinking lights.
His consequence? Well, not only was Steve speeding, but he was going 45 mph in a 25 mph School Zone, which doubles his ticket.
The problem (other than the speeding ticket)? Steve just received his driver’s license two weeks ago. He was given the privilege of driving his family’s standby car, a 1985 Honda Accord, to school so that he wouldn’t have to ride the bus and his father wouldn’t have to pick him up after basketball practice. Surely he will lose this special privilege and lose face with his friends. Maybe he will even lose his license or lose his parent’s trust. He might not be allowed to drive again until he is eighteen! After all, all of these things are possibilities.
Steve’s answer? He just won’t tell his parents. He will pay the ticket himself, out of his savings account. They’ll never know, he’ll drive slower, and the world has just become a peaceful place again.
Bigger Problem? Steve is only sixteen and the ticket occurred in a school zone, so not only are his parents notified by the local police department, but the school is also notified and they subsequently contact Steve’s parents to inform them of the incident. Steve had not expected his parents to be notified, so he is taken by surprise when they ask him about the ticket. Just when he thought he had things under control, he is sent into a panic again. So, when Steve is questioned about the ticket, he lies! He says it wasn’t him, he doesn’t know about the incident, and surely the police must have him confused with another kid.
One you understand the motivator behind Steve’s behaviour, you can transform the behavior of lying into a magical opportunity for teaching responsibility, developing morals, and increasing family harmony.
The Key is that you must be willing to patiently carry out each step and let the process work itself out, even when it does not look like it will work. You cannot interrupt the process with your own attempts to teach or punish. This is the single greatest obstacle preventing parents from applying this approach with success.
Kids lie out of fear.
This is a simple, but profoundly transforming truth. It starts with a threatening event, causing the child to become stressed, resulting in fear. If this fear is not alleviated the child may go into panic mode and do the first thing that comes to mind, including lying. Worse yet, if the fear is exacerbated by the threats of a well-meaning teacher or parent, it could turn into sheer terror.
There are only two primary emotions: Love and Fear. This means that all other feelings are the display of one of the primary emotions in disguise. Underneath lying, there is first the experience of stress. Stress leads to fear. For example, there is the fear of rejection, the fear of being caught, the fear of abandonment, the fear of abuse, etc. To alleviate one of these fears, a child may lie. Therefore, lying is based in fear. The sooner you can grasp this concept, the quicker you will see your child’s behaviors begin to transform.
When a child feels compelled to do something that they innately know is not right, they stress. The problem is that in the moment of stress, they are not thinking clearly. In fact, brain researcher, Joseph LeDoux, tells us that in times of stress our thinking becomes confused and distorted and our short-term memory does not work effectively. Therefore, in the midst of a stressful situation; such as showing off in front of friends, receiving an “F”, or stealing money to impress friends, the child is no longer thinking clearly. Furthermore, any attempts to teach the child in such a moment will be ineffective because the child will not clearly process or remember what is being taught.
Let’s go back to Steve – the boy with the speeding ticket.
Steve’s father is currently employed at a local mill, and has watched as several of his friends and co-workers have been laid off over the past month. Every day when he goes to work he fears that he will be the next. Steve’s father completed 10th grade and has worked at the mill ever since. He works very hard in his job every day in hopes that his efforts will keep him employed. Steve’s father is very proud of being able to provide a good life for his family. He is very proud of his son, Steve, and wants for him all the things he did not have himself. He sees Steve as having a bright future, graduating from high school, going on to college, and becoming a professional. Steve’s father is determined that Steve will not have to work in a manual labor job, but that he will be a professional who has a good paying job with full benefits, and will be able to provide for his own family with ease.
When Steve’s father receives the call from the school, he is upset. He immediately approaches Steve about the ticket and Steve lies. Steve’s father “hit’s the roof”! He yells at Steve for getting the ticket, but is more upset about the lying. The more he yells, the more stressed and fearful Steve becomes, and the harder he clings to the lie. Steve’s father’s anger reaches a boiling point and nearly escalates to physical assault, when Steve’s mother enters the picture in an attempt to calm Steve’s father down. Steve’s father processes with his wife how upset he is that Steve is not taking advantage of the opportunities he is offering him. He expresses in his ranting that everything he does day in and day out at the mill is so that Steve can have a good life, and the way Steve repays him is by getting a ticket they cannot afford; and then worst of all, he lies about it! Steve’s mother listens quietly as her husband goes on and on. As his anger begins to dissipate, she quietly tells her husband that she loves him and that he is a very good husband and father. Steve’s father let’s out a long, deep breath. He begins to talk about all the good things he wants for his son and for his family. Steve’s mother and father talk about all the great things that they have accomplished as a family, and all the great qualities of their son, Steve. Steve’s father realizes that his feelings of anger are really connected more to fear. It is the fear that he is not a good enough father, that he is not a good enough provider, and that in general he is just not good enough! He realizes now that he has been laying his fears and issues on his son.
Any parent facing a scenario such as these, containing lying, would typically react with anger and frustration. Since there are only two primary emotions: Love and Fear; which one do you think drives your anger and frustration? You guessed it: FEAR. In reality, you are not angry at your child for lying. You may feel angry, act angry, yell, spit, and fuss; but the truth is that you are scared about your child’s lying. You may think it means they do not trust you, you are not safe, they are not safe, you are not a good parent, or any number of other distorted thoughts.
Just as your child’s lying is driven by his stress and fear, the actual lie itself triggers stress and fear within you, thus driving your own negative behavior. And do not forget, in the midst of stress you are not thinking clearly either, and neither is your short-term memory working effectively. If you were thinking clearly you would have learned, over the past however long that your child has been lying to you, that your repeated reaction of yelling, giving a consequence, or getting angry is not working to end the problem behavior. Furthermore, because your short-term memory is not working effectively in the moment, you forget that handling the lie the same way as the last time did not change the behavior then and probably will not change it now. So, you must be willing to do something different. In the words of Bishop T.D. Jakes, “If you always do, what you’ve always done, you will always be where you’ve already been!”
The angry parent is not an effective teacher. You will only cause the guilt, remorse, shame, and fear that your child is already feeling to be redirected toward you, thus delaying the healing process of this situation. It does not allow the child to internalize the feelings of his conscience telling him he has done wrong, and urging him to take responsibility for his own actions. When you become angry towards your child, you get in the way of the lesson that is inherent in the problem, giving your child an opportunity to blame you for the problem rather than taking responsibility himself. Don’t do this. It is a rather common problem with both today’s and yesterday’s traditional parenting approaches. Rather than discipline, which means to teach; we punish, which only creates more stress and frustration that is then directed outward, or sometimes even inward, which can be worse.
The loving parent may also be a scared parent, but rather than blaming the child for the fear, the loving parent uses the fear as an opportunity to teach; thus allowing the lesson to be learned naturally without force, fear, shame or blame.
Mahatma Ghandi’s grandson tells a story about a time when he was young and was charged with picking up his famous grandfather from the airport. However, on this particular day he was running late. When he arrived late to the airport to pick up his famous grandfather, he was asked by Ghandi, “Why were you late?” Ghandi had called and knew already that his grandson was running late, so he was not reprimanding him, but merely inquiring as to the cause. Nevertheless, the grandson lied. In relating this story he says, “I lied to Ghandi!” He says that his grandfather, obviously realizing the lie, turned to look at him and tears began to well up in his grandfather’s eyes. He spoke these words as tears streamed down his face, “I must give repentance for whatever it was that I did to you that would cause you to be so afraid of me that you would have to lie. So… I will walk home these fifteen miles.” The grandson states that he still remembers following his famous grandfather, five miles per hour in the dark, as he walked the fifteen miles because his grandson had lied to him.
This story is instructional on several levels; however, for our purposes the importance lies in three areas:
1) The most powerful teaching occurs in the process. When we follow the process without obsessing over the outcome, very powerful forces of nature are able to work through the child and become far more educational than our words or consequences could ever be. However, it is difficult to trust the process until you become comfortable with it. The process does not try to force, control, or dictate the future. It is only focused on now, this moment. Lecturing the grandson about the spiritual and moral reasons for not lying would have done little to influence the core cause of the lie. Making the child walk the distance home as punishment for the lie would have only led to the child being resentful towards his grandfather and feeling as though the punishment was not warranted or justified for such an insignificant action. In such an instance, the core cause of the lie would still not be addressed; rather, it would actually be reinforced.
2) There is a difference between being made to feel guilty and ashamed and being allowed to feel guilty or ashamed. The first only breeds more fear, which typically turns into defensiveness and anger. The latter is an effective teaching tool, more powerful than we can even imagine. When you make a child feel guilty or ashamed by becoming angry and acting in an aggressive or manipulative way towards him, he only turns the feelings back on to you. In this way, rather than internally processing the experience, he externalizes it and makes you the perpetrator. When you take responsibility for your own feelings, rather than blaming or threatening your child, you set up the mechanisms for self-reflection and internal growth to take place in the child.
3) There is a difference between a fear-based consequence and a love-based consequence. A fear-based consequence is punitive and blaming. It is one of the most common parenting mistakes. Typically you will hear, “Well you have to teach children responsibility.” However, this approach is more based in shame and punishment than in actual teaching. A fear-based consequence stems from parental fear about the behavior and the prediction that if the behavior does not change something bad is going to happen in the future. It is seldom effective for any long-term duration. Such an example would be had Gandhi made his grandson walk home because he lied. As discussed, this form of consequence does little to truly teach, and generally breeds more resentment and ill will. What was practiced in actuality, was a love-based consequence, delivered without blame or shame. By taking complete responsibility for the situation, Gandhi changed the moral course of his young grandson’s life. To this day, the grandson offers, he does not lie. A love-based consequence is imposed when the adult takes responsibility for the action, but the child is allowed to feel the emotional impact on the adult.
The Formula for eliminating lying is so simple that you will miss the impact if you do not give it concentrated thought and consideration. Talk about it with others, listen to your own internal stirrings that are triggered, and read this entire booklet at least four times over. Warning: this Formula will go against everything you have ever been taught or have believed to be true about the solution for lying. But remember, if the solutions you had learned before were in fact working, you would not be reading this booklet to begin with. You have nothing to lose by trying something different, but everything to gain.
Here is The Formula:
First Step: Own Your Part (and breathe).
Second Step: Ignore the Lie, Don’t Ignore the Child.
Third Step: Wait (and breathe again).
Fourth Step: Take Responsibility.
Let’s take one more look at the situation with 16-yr-old Steve, as his parents try out the new Formula they have been studying.
First Step: Own Your Part.
Steve’s parents realize that the dynamics in their family have put Steve in a bind. He has been expected to meet great standards of learning and accomplishment as set out by his father. His father suddenly realizes that these standards are less about Steve and more about proving that he is a good father. He also understands that Steve experiences pressure to be a “tough guy”, since the history of men in his family is all about being rugged and quick-tempered. Steve’s father acknowledges that he and Steve are at a crossroads, and that if he continues to approach Steve with force, the relationship will likely be broken, just like the relationship between his own father and himself.
Steve’s parents already know about the ticket and now he has just lied to their faces. Internally they are very upset, sad, scared, and disappointed - not about the ticket, but about the lie. Both taking a deep breath, they look at one another and begin to apply the formula.
Remembering to breathe in the midst of stress is the single most important factor during the first step. Breathing is considered to be the one proven way that we can interrupt our stress reaction. When you feel your stress level starting to rise, take at least 3 to 10 slow, deep breaths and remember to also stay connected to your fear. Doing so will hold your anger and frustration at bay, because you will be removing the roots of the stress by focusing on your fear.
Second Step: Ignore the Lie, Don’t Ignore the Child.
Rather than protesting or arguing as they typically would, Steve’s parents turn to him with sadness in their eyes. His father steps forward, giving Steve a hug. Steve immediately becomes rigid, not sure what to expect and his father gently says, “I’m just glad you are safe son.” With that, both parents turn and walk away.
Steve obviously is shocked, overwhelmed, confused, wanting to be defiant, wanting to protest, but not feeling compelled to do so. He just stands there and the waves of guilt, shame and remorse begin to course through him.
Third Step: Wait.
Calm yourself down. You must find a place of love and compassion within your heart, having faith that the process will dictate the outcome.
After one hour, Steve’s father knocks on his door. Steve invites him in. Steve’s father says gently, “Son, your mother and I love you and want you to be safe. It hurts us very much when you tell us a lie. It makes us feel like we can’t trust you and that you don’t trust us. We love you and only want you to be okay.”
Fourth Step: Take Responsibility. In order to teach responsibility, we must first be willing to be responsible ourselves. Giving a consequence is not an act of responsibility, it is an act of reactivity; therefore it does not teach responsibility, it teaches reactivity.
Steve’s father continues, “First of all, you and I need to figure out how to make the money to pay for this ticket. Do you have any ideas?”
Steve replies, feeling somewhat relieved, “I can use my savings.”
Steve’s father responds, “That’s not what your savings is for. In some ways this is my fault. I should have taught you to be a more responsible driver. I want you to give some thought to what we might be able to do in the neighborhood to earn the extra cash, or maybe the court will let us do some community service or something.”
Steve says, “Dad, it wasn’t your fault. Why should you have to do anything? Just let me take care of it.”
Steve’s father insists, “No, it is my fault. I should have taught you better. You aren’t going to like this very much, but for the next week I will drive you to and from school. This will give me time to teach you again how to drive responsibly. Until then, I can’t let you drive on your own. I just wouldn’t feel very safe about that.”
Steve feels a combination of shame and anger rising to his reddened face. He wants to protest, but feels it is better just to let things happen the way they need to happen. He thinks to himself, “Geez, for a smart kid, I can be really dumb sometimes.”
After you have followed steps 1-3, then leave it alone. Do not lecture. Do not mention it unless the child brings it up first, and then only listen. And do not attach any of your own shameful consequences. Remember, giving a consequence does not teach responsibility. Being responsible teaches responsibility.
Sound simple? Maybe even too simple? Well, of course. But it IS just that simple!
The only thing that may vary is the intensity of your reactions to the lie. But the root of the lie, the fear, never changes. Fear is always at the root. Think about that over and over, before you are put in the situation to have to deal with lying. Then, when you are placed “in the moment” you will already have The Formula in mind. If you immediately feel extremely reactive and angry towards your child for their lie, in spite of what you have learned here, remember that it is a normal reaction, and maybe some fear is being triggered from your past. Remind yourself of the Key to The Formula – realizing that stress has triggered the fear, which has caused your child to feel the need to lie. Calm yourself, try to find the fear you are feeling, and think about when you have felt that way before. It will help you to calm yourself and your child if you take a moment to ask yourself this series of questions:
What am I afraid of?
And if that happens, what will that say about me?
How will that feel?
When was a time I was lied to in the past and how did that make me feel?
You can also make your own list of questions that might help you think more about the stress behind your fears.
Remember, underneath the lie, is stress and fear. If the behavior continues, spend more time listening to your child and try to figure out what it is in your relationship with him or her that has caused so much fear. Fear is at the root of it all, even when you will not know what the fear is, or even feel that your child has anything to be frightened about.
Bryan Post’s E-book “Why kids lie and what you can do to stop it now”, contains a wealth of information and advice, a Must Have for especially parents of adopted children.