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I'm A Child Psychotherapist – Here's Why I'd Never Lie To My Kids


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Father helping his son put his shoes on
Father helping his son put his shoes on

It’s completely natural for parents and carers to want to protect their children from difficult situations, like grief, divorce and separation, or tough current events. As a result, they often sugar-coat the truth, lie, or embellish the reality for their little people.

However, leading family psychologist Fiona Yassin, explains that when parents are dishonest - even with the best intentions - the impact on the child can be damaging.

Fiona, founder and clinical director of The Wave Clinic, said: “As parents we want to guard our children from difficult situations, but sugar-coating the truth can be dangerous. When a parent is dishonest to their child, it erodes trust in the relationship and may also distort the child’s moral compass. Age-appropriate honesty* is always the best policy with children.”

Why is it so important to be honest with children?

Fiona explains that sugar-coating a difficult situation usually backfires because the ‘little professor’ in a child will eventually uncover the facts, which can make for a bigger overall problem to manage.

“Not only does lying to a child chip away at the parent/ carer-child relationship - one that should be trusting, nurturing and safe - it often causes trust issues with friendship groups and peers too, and can be detrimental to romantic relationships and parenting relationships in later life,” shares Fiona.

A unique study found that parents who don’t practise open communication skills with their children - including lying to them - could contribute to being less resilient to stress and an increased risk of trauma symptoms in adolescents. However, the same study suggested parents who included kids in discussions around topics like trauma events, helped their children to cultivate resilience, quality relationships and overall life satisfaction.

Why do parents often hide the truth from children?

“Parental lies can come in all shapes and sizes. Maybe you’ve hurriedly replaced the pet rabbit with a lookalike when it died because you’re worried how the news would impact your child, or you’ve said Auntie’s husband has moved overseas because you’re concerned the news of the breakup will be upsetting,” says Fiona.

When parents lie to their children or tell half-truths, it’s often because of their own discomfort about the situation, not the child’s.

Fiona explains: “Parents tend to sugar-coat the truth because of their own discomfort around what’s going on. It might be that they haven’t come to a place of acceptance themselves, or they are holding onto hope that there will be a different outcome.

“Before approaching a conversation with your child, it’s important to ask yourself some questions, such as: Why am I finding it so tough to tell my child the truth? What is it that’s difficult to say right now? Do I want to lie so my child won’t dislike me?”

Five strategies to navigate honesty with children

“Children learn from what they see their parents and caregivers doing, rather than what they’re told to do. So, if we want our children to be honest, it’s important for parents to role model honesty in the family unit,” says Fiona.

A recent study - published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology - which investigated how parental lies can influence a child’s behaviour found that when children realised they were being lied to, they were more likely to lie back to their parents as a result.

Fiona continues, “Sugar-coating the truth or lying steals an opportunity for a child to learn and develop important life skills including how to confront difficult situations and how to set appropriate boundaries.”

“Honesty is incredibly important with children, but it’s not always easy,” adds Fiona, “I hope that these five strategies will help parents to navigate honesty with their children.”

1. Question yourself first - if you’re considering sugar-coating the truth or lying to your child, ask yourself why that might be. It’s important to work through your own discomfort before approaching the conversation with your child. Planning what you’d like to say will help to prevent you from tripping over your words and will help you to feel more grounded in the conversation.

2. Keep the conversation age appropriate - it’s important to be honest, whilst keeping the conversation and details age appropriate. ‘Age appropriate’ means using language and words the child will understand and keeping sentences short and simple. Teenagers and young people may be able to take on details and nuance better and your honesty with them is crucial as they shape their own values.

3. Open up the opportunity for questions - it’s important to allow plenty of time for questions after you’ve shared with your child. Pick a time to talk when you know you won’t be disturbed or rushed.

4. Check they understand what you’ve told them - ask your child to replay what they’ve heard back to you, to ensure they’ve understood the situation correctly. If you have a younger child, you could ask them to draw what they think they’ve heard.

5. Show compassion - it’s important for your child to hear from you that this is a lot of information for them to take in. Tell them you are available and open for questions if they have something to ask at a later date and that you can explain it in a different way if they don’t understand and need clarity.

“As a parent, it’s not just important to be honest about bigger situations, it’s also essential to avoid smaller lies such as, ‘if you watch too much TV your eyes will go square’. It’s completely understandable that parents want to ease the difficult realities for children. But dishonesty, in any case, will backfire in the long run,” Fiona adds.

Although it’s important to be honest with children, Fiona also stresses the need for parents to avoid oversharing or using their child as a confidant during difficult times. Putting a child in the role of a ‘best friend’ could have a detrimental impact on them in adulthood.

“Children cannot process information that belongs in the adult world, such as details about finances, divorces, violent encounters, addiction, and illness. It’s really important to remember that children are not little versions of adults, and we should not overshare or gossip with them, or use them as a confidant.

“Many parents believe the more they share with their child, the safer they will feel with them. However, this is a complete misnomer. Children deserve emotional safety and if, for example, a parent is asking a child to take sides during a divorce or is continually running the other parent down, there is no emotional safety.”