How To Manage Kids Who Lie and Steal

Sneaky behavior such as lying and stealing are some of the hardest issues for parents to deal with. When your child lies and sneaks around, it can feel like a betrayal and begins to feel like a moral issue. You start to question their character. You may start to dislike your child.

Let’s face it—many of us were guilty of some type of sneaking around when we were younger. We may have stolen cigarettes from our parents. Perhaps we lied about where we were going or who we were going to be with. We may have even thought we were justified at the time and came up with all kinds of reasons to explain our misbehavior.

Don’t Take Sneaky Behavior Personally and Stay Calm

These are the times when parents need to be able to step back, focus on the behavior, and not take it personally. Lying and sneaky behavior is not okay, but it doesn’t make your child a bad person. Instead, it means your child has a behavior problem that needs to be addressed.

Kids are not being sneaky to hurt you. They’re being sneaky to get what they want or to solve a problem that they have. Either way, being sneaky is not the right approach, and it’s your job to give consequences and to coach them to solve their problems the right way.

Stay calm and focused on the behavior. If calm, the situation will be much easier to deal with. Even if you feel as if it’s a personal betrayal, try to take the emotion out of the discussion with your child. Just be businesslike and objective and focus on the behavior and the consequences. Think about how a good boss would handle things—professional, calm, and honest.

Call Out Sneaky Behavior When It Happens

When you catch your child in a lie or doing something sneaky, tell them immediately. Remind them that the behavior is unacceptable and issue the consequence.

If you think your child has been lying to you and sneaking around but you don’t have the details or the full story, let them know your suspicions. Tell them that you’re going to follow up to get more information and that you will be monitoring their behavior more closely.

Have a Problem-Solving Conversation With Your Child

Later, when things are calm, you will need to have a conversation with your child about how to solve their problems without resorting to lying or sneaking. Give yourself time to prepare for this important discussion, and do it when you are calm and without getting emotional.

A way to begin these problem-solving conversations is to have your child do some “homework” ahead of time. Ask them to think about their behavior and be prepared, either verbally or in writing, to let you know what they were thinking when they did this, what the problems were with the behavior, and how they might behave in this situation in the future. It’s always most helpful when these ideas come directly from your child.

How to Handle Lying

It’s helpful to remember that kids don’t understand how hurtful lies can be. Their thinking is immature, and they generally lie without even considering how these lies affect others.

The truth is, kids know lying is wrong. But they lie anyway. And they usually lie because they just have a really poor way of solving problems. They lie to get out of a consequence because they think it’s their only option left.

If you look at lying as a problem-solving issue, and not a moral one, you can help your child develop strategies so they can stop lying in the future. Don’t spend all your energy stressing the right and wrong nature of lying. Conversations about right and wrong have a place, but the most effective approach is to focus the conversation about finding a better way to solve problems that don’t entail lying.

If your child’s lying seems to be getting worse or is particularly worrisome, there may be a need to reach out to others in their life to find out what’s really going on. Let your child know that you are concerned and suspicious of their behavior and that you will be keeping an eye on them.

They won’t like this, but you have to let them know that you care about them. Tell them they have to be truthful with you. You can even tell them that as a parent it’s your job to help them follow the rules in your home.

How to Handle Stealing

If your child’s sneaky behavior has hurt someone else, this needs to be addressed. Stealing is an example of one of these behaviors that hurts others. If you find that your child has stolen something, the consequences need to do the following:

  1. Address the misbehavior – stealing
  2. Make amends to the person who was hurt

For example, if your son is caught taking money from his sister, your conversation with your son should set a consequence for the stealing. He might lose all electronics privileges until he makes amends to his sister. Then, he must make amends to his sister by paying her back and then adding an additional gesture, like doing her chores for a week.

If your child sneaks money from your wallet, this is also stealing. You tell them that the behavior is unacceptable and that you will be watching your money much more closely.

If your child continues to steal from you, it’s time to try to find out what he is spending this money on. This may lead to uncovering other behaviors that will have to be addressed. There could be issues with drugs or alcohol.

Related content: Kids Stealing from Parents: What You Need to Know

Sneaking the Phone

If your child sneaks her phone at night and texts into the wee hours with her friend, there will be a natural consequence for her because she’ll be tired the next day. But remember, you control the phone. You’re paying the bills. And you can and should let your child know that she has broken the phone rules and won’t have the privilege of using it for a reasonable amount of time (depending on the age of your child and whether this is a one-time thing or a pattern of misbehavior).

Related content: How to Give Kids Consequences That Work

Sneaking Out at Night

If your child sneaks out at night, you need to reiterate your rules around his curfew and then consider the risk of the behavior. Is your 15-year-old son sneaking out to his friend’s house just to hang out? Or is your teenage girl taking off every night to go to her older boyfriend’s house where drugs and alcohol are present? Some behaviors and patterns of sneaky behavior are much more dangerous and risky than others and have to be dealt with more seriously.

When your child is calm and can talk about what he or she did, it’s useful to try to find out what the motivation was. Was it to be with a boyfriend or girlfriend? To get high? To have sex? Or just to hang out with a group of kids?

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