March 21, 2017

Why students lie and what you can do to help curb it

Dishonesty can suggest natural development of social awareness, but being dishonest can damage relationships, impair academic achievement, and place additional stress on a child. Yet, more and more children are not completely truthful about their academics, leaving parents at a loss for what to do. In the hopes of getting to the bottom of this incredibly complex and often sensitive issue, Engaging Minds interviewed local neuropsychological and developmental experts, who provided explanation and support strategies for parents and students struggling to uncover the truth.

Why Children Bend the Truth

Every child is different and may manipulate information about academic responsibilities for unique and personal reasons. But children under the same pressures, in the same school systems, and with the same busy schedules share similar reasoning for their behaviors. Children and adolescents may be dishonest because:

  1. All people lie: Kathy Janzen, a Child and Adolescent Therapist working in a private practice in Brookline, asserts that “Lying is incredibly common and most adults lie regularly. However, it’s very hard to be a good liar if you don’t have strong executive function skills, because you lose track of what you have said…children with executive function challenges may be more likely to get caught because they are not as good at it” (Janzen). Nonetheless, both Janzen and Dr. Lauren Krumholz Marchette, a Child and Adolescent Psychologist at Harvard Medical School, agree that “It is helpful for parents to know that many children lie. Lying is not necessarily indicative of psychological problems. In fact, lying is often a normal part of children’s social, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive development” (Marchette).
  2. They cannot properly differentiate between fact and fiction: “Not all children are completely aware that they are being dishonest,” especially if they have executive functioning weaknesses and have trouble monitoring or interpreting details (Janzen). Janzen explains, “Sometimes children will start off knowing that they are being dishonest, but they convince themselves that what they are saying is true.” However, there are students who have greater difficulty with attention, inhibition control, or self-monitoring “who don’t pay enough attention to actual reality and will create a different understanding of what is happening around him. Fabrication happens sometimes in an attempt to interpret reality” (Janzen). For example, your child might conclude, “The teacher didn’t tell me to give it to her, so it must not be due.” (Janzen) While this conclusion is definitely not true, your child’s interpretation will feel like reality to him or her.
  3. They lack control and independence in their education: Family therapist Susan Stiffelman uses an apt metaphor to explain why students are dishonest in order to regain control over their daily lives: “Imagine that I get to choose your profession, and I’ve decided it will be doing taxes. You’ll do taxes five days a week from eight in the morning until three in the afternoon, and then you’ll do more tax work in the evening to ‘improve your skills.’” When students get tired of “doing taxes” assigned to them without their input, they may bend the truth to get out of the work and seize control of their hours of free time. Lack of choice correlates strongly with dishonesty. Accordingly, when students learn that bending the truth can result in a positive outcome, like reestablishing their ability to choose TV over homework, they are more likely to build a habit of consistent truth-manipulation.
  4. They may feel cornered and want to get off the “hot seat”: People are wired with an instinctual fight or flight response; when we feel threatened, whether the threat is real or imagined, we try to escape the threat as quickly and safely as possible. The proverbial “hot seat,” the place your child sits when you ask if he’s completed his homework, is just one location where your child may feel threatened and tempted to fib, since lying provides an easy escape from confrontation: “A lot of students feel very vulnerable about academics. If cornered, those same students may lie to get off the hot seat, avoid a consequence, or save face. There are all kinds of questions that we ask our kids that push them to lie to us. It’s much better to go to a reliable source, and let the source speak for itself. Asking them directly if they have everything turned in will only encourage them to lie to you. It’s a natural impulse” (Janzen).
  5. They are protecting their self-esteem: Dr. Krumholz Marchette explains that cumulative disappointment from parents, teachers, or even peers can deteriorate students’ self-esteem, so students may be dishonest to “preserve self-esteem.” When students struggle in school, they often get “caught in this vicious cycle” in which they “tend to receive negative messages about themselves from some of the people they care about most, which can erode self-esteem.” Psychologist Dr. Ravi Gatha offers that being dishonest may, in the short-term, keep that vicious cycle from starting and help students to “manage the impression others have of them” (Gatha). Gatha argues that, “As a professional and parent, I see avoidance and lying driven by anxiety related to expectations or task demands, and/or hopelessness over self-efficacy and ability to rise to the occasion.” When confronted, students may not tell the truth to deny negative perceptions that truth-telling would admit.

What Parents Can Do to Help

  1. Avoid putting your child in a position where he may feel tempted to be dishonest: Of course, it is important to acknowledge that your child is not being truthful, and to reiterate that dishonesty is not an effective way to manage situations or stressors. However, according to Janzen, psychological literature consistently asserts, “the best way to [reduce instances of lying] is not to corner your kid. There are all kinds of questions that we ask our kids that push them to lie to us,” especially questions about task completion. “It’s much better to sit down and say ‘Let’s look at your portal and see which assignments are turned in and which assignments are not turned in.’ Go to a reliable source, and let the source speak for itself. Asking them directly if they have everything turned in may prompt dishonesty. It’s a natural impulse” (Janzen).
  2. Withhold your emotional reaction: Children are the most adept of learners, because their brains are still developing and therefore ready to absorb anything and everything from their environments, including their parents’ affect: “When parents are so worried that their kid is not going to be academically successful, that worry permeates conversations between parent and child. They want their parents to stop stressing, [so they may lie]” (Janzen). When a parent finds out that their child is not being truthful, Dr. Krumholz Marchette emphasizes how important it is to stay calm, so as not to encourage additional lies: “If and when children are dishonest, it is important that parents do not take lying personally. Taking the lying personally, and getting angry or upset, may encourage children to lie even more in the future to mitigate their parents’ emotional responses” (Marchette). Dr. Gatha agrees: “Try not to take it personally, take space if needed, and do not shame your child for being dishonest to you. Withholding your emotional response may mean more leg work for you, but it will allow for a conversation where you can be empathic and problem solve together.”
  3. Show that you empathize with your child’s feelings and reasoning: At Engaging Minds, we always emphasize finding the root of a behavior in order to devise an appropriate solution. One way to do that is to “identify with the anxieties or fears that might be driving the behavior in question (being dishonest). Listen to your children, try to really understand what they are saying, and empathize with their feelings. Then, try to problem solve WITH them when everyone is calm” (Gatha). If you can make a meaningful connection with your child, and show them that you can understand what they are going through, they will be less likely to be dishonest. Instead, they can begin to build emotional maturity and the communication skills required to be truthful and have their truths accepted by supportive friends, family, and teachers.
  4. Help your child determine the root of the problem: One of our Engaging Minds mottos is: “If he could, he would.” That is–if your child were able to independently get his homework done, ace a test, or remember to wake up on time, then he would. Of course he would! But some students can’t do those things on their own, and that’s okay, as long as you and your child take steps to resolve the problem together: “Either they are doing it or they are not. If they are not doing it, then you need to figure out what kind of support and help they need in order to start doing it. Kids [with executive functioning weaknesses] have to struggle through very normal things. It’s very hard to understand what goes wrong in the thinking process for the child. Most often, they just don’t get it. Instead, think about what the child can do, what we want him to be able to do, how we can get from point A to point B, what kinds of structures and support we need to make this work for him. Getting kids to accept that they need help, and helping them to find someone to support them is worth their weight in gold.” (Janzen)
  5. Anticipate struggles before they happen: It is much harder to put out a fire than it is to prevent a fire. If you can help your child to anticipate challenges and prepare with appropriate strategies, then you can set your child up for success that won’t require being dishonest: “Anticipate struggles. What are your child’s weaknesses? Can you find ways to work around or support those weaknesses? For example, if your child struggles with sorting, then create files for drawers, determine a protocol for where things go, and where your child can find them” (Gatha).  Especially for children with executive function weaknesses, structure is paramount: “The more structured everything is for a child who has executive function issues, the more things are straightforward and clear. It becomes easy for everyone to access information that is accurate,” and students won’t feel tempted to be dishonest (Janzen).

There are many reasons behind why children may present as dishonest, and many ways to best support them. Consider employing any of the above solutions in your home to watch your child develop honesty, responsibility, and motivation to succeed.