What should parents do when they know that their kids are lying to them?
In my practice working with clients dealing with addiction issues, many parents come to me with this dilemma. They know that their kids are engaging in some kind of problematic behavior, but when they ask, their kid doesn’t give them an answer that seems truthful.
The following are some of my tips if you find yourself in this situation. They are some best practices that come from my experience working with families and from research in the field.
Before we dive in, I’d like to recognize that the issues that lead to this type of lying and mistrust in a parent-child relationship means that things are just hard. They are really tough. The thoughts that I provide here are not intended to be silver bullets or magical solutions. instead, I hope they are helpful things to keep in mind on your journey.
Take Care of Yourself
When a loved one is struggling, we end up dedicating much of our time and energy to supporting them. And in that process, it’s easy to forget about ourselves and put our needs on the backburner.
However, your ability to help your child directly relates to your own wellness. Think of the safety protocols in a plane. You need to secure your oxygen mask before you can help the person sitting next to you.
Remember to go out and spend time doing the things that you enjoy. Remember to get good rest.
And, consider pursuing professional help for yourself. It doesn’t need to be focused on the problems that are presenting with your child, and it may actually be more beneficial for you and your child to discuss what’s going on with you personally.
Dealing with your own health, wellness, and internal dialogue has a direct impact on how your messages land with your kids. UCLA Clinical Psychiatry professor Dan Siegel talks about how as parents, our unresolved issues are strong determinants of how our children develop.
“Children are particularly vulnerable to becoming the targets of the projection of our nonconscious emotions and unresolved issues. Our defensive adaptations from earlier in life can restrict our ability to be receptive and empathic to our children’s internal experience. Without our own reflective self-understanding process engaged, such defensive parental patterns of response can produce distortions in a child’s experience of relating and reality.”
- Dan Siegel, “Parenting from the Inside Out” 
The better that we’re able to take care of ourselves when faced with these kinds of crises, the more bandwidth we have to respond to them.
Ask the Right Questions
It may seem counter-intuitive, but focusing on the drugs or problematic behaviors that you think your child is lying about is not actually the best way to get at the truth.
We know from research on addiction that it’s not the drugs or problematic behaviors in and of themselves that cause misuse or addiction. They are the symptom, not the cause.
The idea that drugs are addictive because of their chemical compositions or effects is a myth. Surprisingly, only 10-20% of those who try even the most stigmatized drugs like heroin, crack, and methamphetamine become addicted. Instead, addiction most often occurs as response to pain that a person is experiencing. Addictive behaviors are a coping mechanism to deal with complex and dynamic personal and societal factors. At least two thirds of addicted people have suffered at least one extremely traumatic experience during childhood--and the higher the exposure to trauma, the greater the risk.
Instead, direct conversations to how your child is doing. Try to connect with the pain that may be driving your child’s usage, as opposed to the anger or disappointment that comes up from your child using and lying to you about it. Remember that when substance use or any kind of addictive behavior trips into problematic areas, it’s no longer fun. It is serving a purpose. It is solving some riddle of pain for the person affected.
Changing the conversation and getting curious about what’s happening with your child may help them solve that riddle. It can give erratic or seemingly irrational behaviors meaning.
Stop Asking the Wrong Questions
When a parent tells me that they know their child is using and that they’re disappointed that they’re lying about it, I usually ask them, “If you know, then why are you even asking the question?”
We put people in a bind by asking them questions that we already know the answer to. And especially when there’s been a history of mistrust and lying, your child may not be able to tell you the truth. And if they do happen to be telling the truth, it may be very hard to believe them.
You already know what’s happening. Instead, it’s important to focus energy into different kinds of questions and conversations that might be more helpful in that moment. What do you need? How are you feeling? It may even be helpful to just share with them how you’re doing.
And though, it might be tempting to confront your child, research has shown that “tough love” is not actually effective. In reviewing over four decades of research, Bill Miller and Bill White found that not a single study supported the confrontational approach as more effective than kinder ones.
Know Your Limits and Stick to Them
As problematic behaviors and lying escalate, it’s important to do some reflection on your limits as a parent. You hold certain values about what you are willing to allow in your family.
What are you willing to do if nothing changes? Are you willing to let your son or daughter live with you? Are you willing to give them food or buy them clothes?
Often parents’ anger or frustration with their children using is tied to their children using their resources to get drugs or continue problematic behaviors. Yet when a person is stuck in that addictive pattern, that’s what they’re going to do.
If you know your kid is going to spend your money on things you don’t want them to, yet you give them money anyway, you’re setting yourself up for frustration. You are also setting your child up to fail.
Conversely, if you threaten to kick your child out, but aren’t willing to follow through, your threat does only serves to weaken your relationship with your child.
Overall, the key here is to be aware of what your threats do, whether it’s making the threat or not following through on threats. Threats increase the pain threshold for parent and child. They raises the stakes and this can sometimes be counterproductive to the healing process.
In general, research has shown that people have a greater chance of recovery with more support. When you understand and make your limits clear, you set yourself up for success by aligning yourself with your child.
What you’re going through is tough. It’s tough on you. It’s tough on your children. It’s important to remember that you’re all in this together and to get the help that you need.
Evo Health and Wellness is an outpatient addiction treatment program that respects where you are and where you want to go. Clients set goals that work for them, whether they include complete abstinence or moderation. Evo sees success as lasting change in the client’s life, including physical health, movement towards personal goals, and their sense of connection and purpose. Evo’s program integrates psychotherapy, psychiatry, life coaching, and somatic therapy. Learn more about Evo’s program.
Alexander, Bruce K., M.D. The Globalization of Addiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
L. Khoury et al. “Substance Use, Childhood Traumatic Experience, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in an Urban Civilian Population,” Depression and Anxiety 27, No 12, 2010: 1077-86.
Szalavitz, Maia. “Genetics: No More Addictive Personality,” Nature 522, no. 7577, June 24, 2015.
White, W. & Miller, W. "The use of confrontation in addiction treatment: History, science and time for change." Counselor, 8(4), 2007: 12-30.