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Claire N. Barnes, MA Headshot

Should Split Parents Ever Lie to Their Children?

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When I was four years old, our phone rang one evening and a woman on the phone asked for my father. I was a very late-in-life child -- my parents had married after a complicated ten-year courtship. The woman caller identified herself as my father's daughter -- a daughter he walked away from when he divorced her mother several decades before. And although my mother knew about my father's flawed life history, she had no knowledge of the existence of this daughter. When they met, Dad told Mom, "I have no children... that I know of."

Although my mother was very forgiving of my dad's human imperfections, I am aware of the role family secrets and lies can play when parents split. It is very common for lies between adults to be the catalyst for a separation -- how half-truths and untruths can impact the well-being of children is important to consider.

We know parents form the foundation for the first trust relationships children experience. A cornerstone of the trust relationship is truthful communication, so parents bear the burden and responsibility of setting the standard in families on how this plays out. Suzie Hayman, U.K. "Agony Aunt" columnist and author of How to Have a Happy Family Life, puts it this way:

Never, ever lie to children. If you're a good liar and succeed in deceiving them, then you've put deception at the heart of your family relationship and that always sours it. More often, they will find out. Honesty may be hard -- but that's what parenting is about, managing the hard stuff as well as enjoying the good stuff.

Children naturally ask questions when parents decide to break up. The context for their questions is grounded in their world and related to their age and stage of development. Dr. Jesse Boring, author, Children of Divorce Coping with Divorce offers this perspective:

Kids hate to hear one parent talk badly about the other. So the first line of defense I'd recommend is to avoid topics where, if you're being honest, you have to say something negative about the child's other parent. If I had to choose between having a parent lie and having them tell the truth (when telling the truth means trashing the child's other parent) I'd tell them to lie. It's just too hurtful to children to hear one parent talk badly about the other.

Suggestion: Keep answers to delicate questions simple, factual and age appropriate; no need to add a complex narrative about all the problems between the couple.

One of the most risky parental behaviors is for one parent to exaggerate negative information about the other parent. The whole field of parent alienation has developed based on this conduct, and the fact is it can be very tough to control the urges to demonize the other parent. When hurt, anger, or a sense of betrayal fuels the delivery of information so it stretches the truth, everyone suffers.

Suggestion: When tempted to say negative, inflated things about the other parent, remember part of your child's identity lies with the other parent. Hurtful exaggerations can also wound the child.

If you are considering lying to your child about divorce circumstances, consider what you are trying to accomplish and the context of your actions. Do you want to protect your child from feeling hurt or anxious? Is your motive to make yourself look better or superior to the other parent? Do you feel good about your actions? Are you lying to delay pain, harm or suffering?

Suggestion: Confer with someone you trust before deliberately lying to your child. Consider how you would feel if you were on the receiving end of the story, and make sure you can live with the result if the truth comes out.

And finally, the fact parents are demonstrating behavior their child (of any age) will copy or repeat is a compelling reason to consider when and if to lie. By lying to your child, and realizing the child may eventually find out the truth, you demonstrate to your child lying is an okay behavior. Because children don't have adult filters to determine when stretching the truth might be necessary, their impulses around lying may be hard to control.

Suggestion: Frequently remind your youngster -- of any age -- that they will never get in trouble for telling you the truth. Always remember, your behavior (not your worlds) sends the strongest messages to your children.

Fortunately for me, my family situation turned out okay. The sister I learned about when I was four, stayed connected to me and in my life until her death in the 1990s. But the episode offered a lifelong lesson: Lies do not make the truth vanish.

This blog first posted on www.kidsturn.org.