Experts suggest minimizing details while staying true to the facts for younger children, but older kids and teens can often handle more information.
For some parents, being honest with your child may seem too difficult or inappropriate at times. This can be especially true when dealing with difficult situations, like divorce, grief, or tough current events.
You might think your child is too young, or not mature enough, to handle the information. But at the same time, lying can burden yourself doubly.
According to experts, honesty is generally the best policy when it comes to your kids. However, there’s some nuance to how you deliver that information based on your child’s age and sensitivity level.
You might wonder if it’s ever beneficial to lie to your child or tell half-truths based on their age or level of maturity. Or, should you never be anything but totally honest as a parent?
“In general, it is not advisable to lie,” said Dr. Anita Gadhia-Smith, a Washington, D.C.-based psychotherapist who counsels individuals, couples, and families.
But telling all might not be appropriate either, she adds. Because some kids are more mature than others, Gadhia-Smith advises parents to trust their own inner guidance about what feels right to them.
Still, she continues, parents may want to watch out for “parentify-ing” their children with too much information and inadvertently using them as a “support system.”
Having difficult conversations with your children may contribute to stronger family bonds and can provide opportunities for parents to model coping skills.
According to a
- community engagement
- quality relationships
- overall life satisfaction
However, the same study’s findings suggested that parents who don’t practice 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.
Children often learn from what parents and caregivers do, rather than what they’re told to do, says Gadhia-Smith.
Modeling truth-telling can help kids develop skills in:
- honest communication
- confronting difficult life situations
- setting appropriate values and boundaries
With young children, Gadhia-Smith recommends being honest while minimizing details and keeping messages simple and direct.
Adolescents and teens may be able to understand details and nuance better, and can benefit from your honesty as they shape their own values.
“The older the child, the greater the need for fully honest disclosure and guidance that will help them integrate and set their own value system,” she explains.
However, age is only one consideration. Children can vary in maturity levels, even at the same age.
“In general, children do have very different levels of comprehension, depending on individual personality development and age,” said Dr. Gadhia-Smith.
You know your kids better than anyone. As a parent, it’s your job to gauge how much of the truth your child can handle and how best to clearly communicate that information.
Dishonesty, according to the findings of a 2021 study, could have its roots in the parts of the brain driven by rewards. When a person is driven to lie, they may be more motivated by self-gain and less able to control impulses.
Researchers also found that honesty may be more prevalent in people who are self-aware. Those who have more self-awareness could have a stronger connection in their brain between the parts that control impulse and measure emotions. Self-aware people may also be more likely to understand the consequences of dishonesty.
Here are some strategies to consider when navigating honesty with your kids.
When your child lies
Gadhia-Smith explains that children sometimes lie because they’re uncomfortable with an aspect of their reality.
Examining what could be driving dishonest behavior can be helpful. Confronting the truth with love and modeling truth-telling while talking about reality can be just as important for parents, she adds.
Try to remain honest and straightforward
Parents often want to ease reality for children as much as possible with tough topics, like:
- divorce and separation
- illness and mental health
- grief and loss
Sometimes, this causes parents to mask the reality of the situation and the stress it may be causing them. “That is not healthy for anyone,” says Gadhia-Smith.
She advises remaining straightforward and honest with kids about difficult topics and transitions.
With something like stressful news or current events, try to be honest with your children about how you feel. This can model emotional intelligence and empathy as well as coping skills.
Lying about tragic events like war doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t notice or will forget about it.
Keep conversations age-appropriate
Children process information differently at different ages. Young children often do not understand what tough life transitions mean or the impacts of troubling news. They might believe it is their fault or that their parents and family are leaving them.
With younger kids, you can choose to minimize details while remaining straightforward.
“For example, it is important to take the time necessary to help your child understand what divorce means, and that there will still be a family,” she says. “The sooner your child learns the reality, the better.”
Gadhia-Smith says that honesty is crucial with older kids and teens. Consider asking for their perspective and discussing the issue head-on.
Try to be mindful of whether you’re sharing too much information with your children.
Gadhia-Smith explains that using your kids as a best friend or therapist to talk could have a detrimental impact on them into adulthood.
Leaning on your support system or an adult confidante is often a better choice than venting or divulging difficult information to your child, no matter their age or maturity level.
When parents are faced with tough conversations and situations, enlisting the help of a therapist or family counselor can be crucial.
Individual therapy for both parents and kids can be helpful for processing difficult situations and information, as well. Family therapy can also be helpful for receiving professional support in talking with your child about difficult topics or stressful events.
Being honest and straightforward with your kids is usually the best best.
When parents are dishonest or lie to kids, this can:
- erode your relationship
- cause your child to distrust you
- impact their resilience and coping skills
“Life is difficult, confusing, and contains many contradictions. And life is not always fair,” Gadhia-Smith says.
It can be helpful for children to learn about reality from their parents, without demonizing or idealizing information. However, it’s important to keep conversations balanced and appropriate for your child’s age, maturity, and sensitivity level.
For example, you can simplify details for younger kids without minimizing honesty. With older children, honesty might come with more information and a discussion on their perspective.
Therapy can help both kids and parents navigate difficult realities. If you’re ready to get help but don’t know where to begin, check out Psych Central’s guide to finding a therapist.