Last month, I wrote about lying (Smudging the Truth, October, 2012). This post was mostly about Cover Your Ass (CYA) lies, but I mentioned two additional types of lies that parents may have to address. If you haven’t already done so, it would be helpful to read Smudging the Truth before proceeding. A reader requested that I address the second type of lying mentioned in that post. This type of lying I have termed Whatever It Takes (WIT). In the earlier post, I wrote
The second category (of lying) is somewhat more concerning and involves using lies to manipulate others and/or to achieve desired outcomes. It tends to be planned and will sometimes involve safeguards against getting caught. Near the end of the last school year, a teenage client of mine told her parents an elaborate lie about why she was exempt from the calculus final. She did this so her parents would not make her miss two graduation parties to study for the final. She asked a friend, who actually was allowed to skip the final because he had an A in the class, to mention in front of her mother that he was exempt from the exam in order to make her story more believable. This lie did not come to light until several weeks later when her parents received her report card. This type of lie requires intervention and can present some real challenges for parents, especially those who don’t possess excellent lie-detecting skills.
I have to be honest; I did not quote Izzy in my journal so I cannot tell you exactly what she said in her defense. I may not remember her words, but I do remember her sentiment, and it was something like this:
My parents leave me no choice. If I don’t lie, I have no life. (paraphrased) Izzy, 17
Izzy was a bright and successful student who, on the surface, appeared to be doing well socially. Her mother told me in private that she was afraid that Izzy was a “mean girl” and that the kids her daughter considered friends feared Izzy more than they liked her.
Ongoing trouble with friends was the stated reason that Izzy’s mother had brought her to therapy; however, Mom had several additional concerns. One was frequent lying, of the WIT variety, such as the example of the calculus final. This behavior caused frequent and intense conflict with Mom who simply could not understand how Izzy could treat her so disrespectfully. Lying also created problems with Izzy’s father who was divorced from Mom but played an active role in his daughter’s life.
Finally, both Mom and Dad described their daughter as “self-centered.” They gave examples of behaviors they thought illustrated this egocentrism such as Izzy refusing to miss a school field trip to attend a relative’s funeral and complaining frequently about her high school’s community service requirement. Now, we all know that adolescents think the world revolves around them, but Izzy was even more egocentric than the typical teen.
Mom and Dad were quite worried about where they saw their daughter heading in terms of social and emotional development. My challenge in working with this family was that Izzy had very little insight into the problems. She blamed her parents for being so over-protective that she had to lie to them to have any freedom at all. She attributed recent conflict among her peer group to jealousy on the part of the other girls. Izzy simply didn’t see herself as self-centered, but when I asked her why she objected so strongly to the community service requirement, she told me she didn’t see how working in a soup kitchen was going to help her achieve her goals in life.
What we could all agree was a problem was the conflict that was caused by Izzy lying to her parents, so this was the first target of therapy. Mom and Dad agreed that, even though they no longer lived together, they were going to need to approach this difficult problem as a team. A lot of time was spent helping Izzy to see that her behavior (lying) both caused and resulted from her parents’ behavior (setting strict limits). We then agreed to an amnesty; Izzy would be allowed to start with a clean slate. The purpose of amnesty is to give a child an opportunity to do the right thing with clear expectations about future behavior and consequences as well as forgiveness for past transgressions. I often encourage amnesty because, as a therapist, I have no way of sorting out what happened in the past. Amnesty allows us to focus on moving forward and enables all parties to enter into the discussion with a hopeful attitude.
The family, over the course of several sessions, agreed to the following:
- Moving forward, Mom and Dad expected Izzy to be truthful with them at all times and would trust her unless she gave them reason to doubt her honesty.
- Moving forward, Mom and Dad would adhere to what they considered “minimal” safety rules. Izzy would need their permission to use the car and would need to tell them where she was going. If plans changed, Izzy was expected to text them and let them know her new location.
- If Izzy were caught in a lie regarding her activities or whereabouts outside of school, then stricter safety rules would be enforced such as Mom or Dad contacting hosting parents regarding parties and requiring Izzy to check in more frequently by phone or text. If she resisted these rules, she would lose access to the car and would not be permitted to go to parties.
- If Izzy were caught in a lie relating to school, Mom or Dad would begin checking in with her advisor and/or monitoring the school’s website regarding grades, exams, etc. on a regular basis.
- Consequences would remain in place until Izzy had not lied to her parents for a solid month.
There was a great deal more detail than this, but you get the idea. The message is clear: If you are honest, we will trust you and therefore grant you greater freedom; if you are dishonest, we will not trust you and therefore limit your freedom. This approach uses a logical consequences paradigm which simply means that parents employ negative consequences or punishments that are logically connected to the misbehavior. Those who have read my blog or know me personally may be surprised at this approach. Generally speaking, I am not a big fan of punishment because I believe there are much better ways to teach children and because it does nothing to promote a healthy and collaborative parent-child relationship.
For this particular child, who at this stage of her development had tendencies to be egocentric and manipulative, and for this particular behavior, WIT lying, logical consequences made sense. Izzy was not likely to respond to interventions that rely on her desire to have good relationships with her parents. She had demonstrated over and over that she valued her freedom more than those relationships. Effective consequences for this child at this particular time in her life would have to “hit her where it hurts.” For Izzy, that meant restrictions on her freedom. If you are a parent dealing with WIT lying, your guiding principle should be to make sure the behavior does not work for your child or that, if it works in the moment, it comes at great cost in the long run.
This approach was difficult for Izzy’s parents to implement. Early on, they had trouble allowing their daughter the freedoms they had agreed to as part of the amnesty. She had lied and manipulated so often, it was natural for them to distrust her. They needed a lot of cheer-leading from me during this time. Later, when Izzy was caught lying about her whereabouts (she was supposed to be participating in an all-night dance-a-thon at school, but her parents learned through the grapevine that she was sleeping at a friend’s house), it was hard for her parents to follow through on the agreed-upon consequences. This was hard largely because Izzy made their lives miserable with her negative attitude and sharp tongue. Lots of time in my office was spent listening to Izzy’s complaints about boredom and unfairness. I listened patiently and asked a lot of gentle questions that reminded her why she was in this predicament. Initially, she blamed her parents, but gradually, she began to accept increasing amounts of responsibility for her behavior and its consequences. Izzy only showed this subtle change in her self-awareness and accountability to me; for her parents’ benefit, she continued to act blameless and angry for quite some time.
I worked with Izzy for close to two years before seeing her off to college. I wish I knew how she has made out in life since then, but I had a lot of hope for this bright young woman when therapy ended. During the time that I worked with her, she was developing greater capacity for self-reflection, was valuing her relationships with her parents and peers more, was recognizing the reciprocal nature of those relationships, and was beginning to think about how her behavior in the present would affect her goals for her future. All of these are normal developmental trends for adolescents that served Izzy well.
WIT lies have to be addressed very differently from CYA lies. The two types of lies have different origins and serve different functions. Because it is often part of a larger constellation of problematic behaviors, professional help may be necessary for WIT lying. Even though this is a serious behavior that parents need to address, parents dealing with WIT lying should not despair. There is a tremendous amount of brain development and learning still to take place for adolescents, and most youngsters will come out of this developmental phase as solid citizens.
[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed.]