How do you know when your child or teen is telling you the truth? Being able to decipher truth from fiction is incredibly important for parents.
Parents don’t really want to believe their child doesn’t tell them the truth, but it can and does happen. The key is knowing when your child or teenager is telling the truth, and how to decipher truth from fiction.
In this interview with US youth and parenting expert, Vanessa Van Petten, she gives some pointers for adults, teachers and parents. Vanessa has twice won the ‘Mom’s Choice Award’ in the US for her books, You’re Grounded and Do I get my allowance before or after I’m grounded?
Q: Can you tell when a child is lying?
A: It’s not always easy. Lie detection and body language is complex, and some children are very good at it – although parents don’t like to hear that. There are some clues that are worth following up, but it’s also important to realise that one clue alone does not mean a child is lying. But if you see one more of the clues, use it as a red flag. Find out more.
How common is it for children and teenagers to lie?
Lying is a natural, yet dangerous occurrence. Unfortunately it is part of growing up, but parents need to be aware of teens lying habits to keep them safe.
So what are the clues?
I believe there are four which give a good guide – verbal nuance, relief, fear versus surprise and verbal clues.
Could you tell us more about them?
With verbal nuance, ifthe timing is off between gestures and words, lying or hidden emotions are most likely lurking.
For example, if your teenager is talking about how angry they are about something, but their facial expression is one of sadness or neutrality, they are most likely forcing the emotion even though they do not feel it.
Verbal nuance can also show up as a delayed reaction to the emotion. They might say, "Yeah, I am angry about it," pause and then display an angry expression. This is not genuine emotion because their words are not matching their expressions.
In terms of relief, aliar almost always shows great relief when the subject is changed. If you are talking to your teen about an issue you are suspicious of and then move on from the topic, notice their reaction. If they show great relief or a total change in behaviour, they were most likely tense or hiding something.
Fear v surprise is the involuntary and immediate facial expression which you might see cross their face before they compose themselves. I often refer to this as ‘micro-expression’. It is a difficult thing to fake and there are seven universal micro-expressions: disgust, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise and contempt.
In terms of lying, I believe that fear and surprise are the most important ones for parents to recognise.
After all, if you ask your child, "Did you know about the cheating incident at school?" A fearful micro-expression will tell you something very different than if they look surprised.
The final one is verbal clues. If you are speaking with your child and they begin responding to an accusation by offering a belief in general instead of the specific instance (i.e. 'Do you smoke pot?' 'I believe pot is dangerous') they are subconsciously avoiding answering the question. They also might add in additional details until you believe them to fill silences. Liars often use phrases like "to tell you the truth," "to be perfectly honest," and "why would I lie to you?"
Another clue to deceit is when teenagers have answers that sound extremely rehearsed, even if it is about a casual event.