Family Therapy: Getting Kids to Tell the Truth

Carl Grody

We want to trust each other. It’s not always easy to do, which is why parents show so much angst in session when they say to their kids, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know how to trust you.”

Life is so much easier when you trust your kids. You don’t worry about missing something important, so you relax rather than wondering when you’re going to get blindsided by some problem you never saw coming.

But kids lie sometimes. Heck, most people do. Sometimes kids lie because they’re embarrassed about something; sometimes they’re feeling lazy; sometimes they just don’t want to be bothered with you. (Hello, teenagers!) Sometimes they’re testing to see how much they can get away with. And sometimes they’re playing a game to see how much they can annoy you.

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All children lie sometimes. If they break the bond of trust, help them earn it back.

But knowing most kids experiment with fabrication won’t help you trust them again after they mess up. What can you do to help them rebuild that trust?

  • Try to remember times they told you the truth. How about that time they admitted to taking the last cookie? Or the time they promised to sign off the game system at 9 o’clock and then actually did? Our brains are trained to notice negative things (it’s a survival skill), but that means we don’t always notice kids doing what we want.
  • Praise trustworthy moments when you see them. Attention increases behavior, and when you only pay attention to what kids do wrong, it reinforces their negative behaviors.
  • Create a reward program around being honest. This is tricky, of course, because parents often rebel against this idea. They think kids should do the right thing because it’s the right thing, and that rewarding good behavior is a bribe. But basic behavioral theory doesn’t care why someone changes what they do; it just says to repeat the desired behavior until it becomes a habit or the kids start noticing benefits.

    Children are also more likely to try to earn a reward than they are to avoid being in trouble. Trouble is, after all, attention to the behavior. Keep in mind the difference between a bribe and a reward. A bribe is giving the reward before the behavior, then hoping the child follows through. A reward follows the “first-then” rule: First you do the behavior, then you get the reward.

  • Some parents worry they’ll never find out about a lie. But nobody knows your kids better than you do, which means you generally know when they’re telling the truth by how they’re acting and the tone of their voice. I’m also a big believer in this Ben Franklin quote: “Three people keep a secret if two of them are dead.” You’ll eventually find the trash they didn’t take out. I often use this theory with teens to explore ways to talk to their parents; if their parents are going to find out the truth eventually, it’s better coming from them.
  • Create opportunities for kids to earn your trust again. For example, your teen might be grounded for missing curfew, but they’ll need another chance to prove they learned their lesson. Use the techniques above to give them the chance while also setting expectations.

    “First-then” works wonders here. For example, if they make curfew Friday, then they can go out with their friends Saturday. When they do, praise them and repeat “first-then” for the following weekend. But if they miss curfew, it was their choice, not yours, to miss going out the next night. Instead of getting caught in an argument, you repeat the offer for the next time they want to go somewhere. Eventually, they’ll learn to make curfew, and you’ll learn to trust that they will.

  • Finally, don’t push yourself to trust too soon. You feel how you feel, and if the kids earned your lack of trust, they also need to earn it back. Each time they follow through will be a step closer to creating a history that makes you feel comfortable trusting what they say. 

Carl Grody is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Online Family Counseling.