05/24/2012 03:34 pm ET Updated May 24, 2012

Parent Coach: Promoting A Culture Of Honesty At Home

Dear Susan,
My 12-year old used to tell me everything, but recently I found out that she lied to my face. She said she was at the home of a friend whose parents I know and like, but she was really at a girl's house, where no adults were home. I confronted her and she apologized, but now I don't feel that I can trust her. What do I do?
Signed, Ex-Trustee

Dear Ex-Trustee,

The tween years are very much about children pushing limits and testing boundaries. As they move toward adolescence and adulthood, kids this age feel pulled between the security of childhood and the need for more independence and autonomy.

Most middle schoolers lack the inner conviction to remain consistently true to their values, making them vulnerable to the influence of their peers, whose acceptance and approval is essential to their social survival. If they suspect that their parents' reactions might limit their ability to go along with the crowd -- or make them feel babied -- unfortunately, they may lie.

If you take your daughter's dishonesty personally, it will only make it harder for you to parent her through the dilemmas she'll face when she's torn between doing what she's tempted to do, and doing the right thing.

I recently dealt with a similar situation. A client called me in a panic. She had just discovered pot in her 14-year-old son's bedroom and was furious. “He assured us over and over that he had no interest in drugs and that only losers smoke weed. I'm so angry I can't think straight. The minute he gets home, he's going to get it. I'm going to ground him for at least a month -- and take away his cell phone and laptop! He's got to learn that he can't get away with this kind of behavior!”

Underneath her outrage, this mother admitted to being hurt by what she referred to as her son's betrayal. “I can't believe he did this to me,” she said. I pointed out that rather than think of the situation as a deliberate effort on her son's part to deceive her, she ought to consider what was behind her discovery of the pot. More importantly, I asked her to look at how her reaction -- taking it personally and coming down hard on him -- would effectively teach him not to tell her the truth at a time in his life when he could only benefit from being able to lean on her for support and advice.

“I'm not suggesting there shouldn't be consequences,” I told her. “But think about the big picture, and the role you want to play in your son's life as he faces difficult choices. Would you rather he know that it's safe to sort things out with his caring parent, or have him turn to his buddies when he's grappling with tempting teenage situations? Your reactions will communicate either that he should tell you the truth, or that he should lie to avoid getting into trouble.”

I'll say the same thing to you. Consider the big picture as you deal with your daughter's deception, so that you can remain the North star she needs in her life. Her friends were probably heading over to the new girl's house, and she knew that you wouldn't give her permission if the parents weren't home. She had to choose between being excluded by her peers -- social suicide in the eyes of many middle schoolers -- or not telling you the truth about where she was going.

Let her know that you want to have an honest conversation about what happened, and show how her that you're willing to listen to what it was like for her in the moment when she wanted to join her friends. The more you listen, the more receptive she'll be to your input. Were you nervous about what to do? Worried that your friends would think you weren't cool if you said you couldn't go with them?

As parents, our goal should be to teach our kids to make good choices. That doesn't mean we won't be disappointed when they don't, or that there won't be consequences when they make bad decisions -- but if we want them to turn to us for guidance, we'd best make sure they know we can handle their truth.

Yours in parenting support,

Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and credentialed teacher. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.