When your child (or anyone else) admits to doing something wrong, it is very tempting to be angry and say, “What did I tell you!” It is particularly hard to resist gloating when you’re dealing with a know-it-all teenager.
Yet being smug, furious, or self-righteous will not improve your relationship or help your child become honest and accountable. The reason children lie or hide things from their parents is because they want to avoid their parents’ anger, lectures, and reactivity. No one, not even an adult, can stand predictable lectures and sanctimonious criticism.
Moreover, children do not gain accountability and personal power in an atmosphere where the parties are fused, that is, where over-reaction and attempts to control are abundant, but real consequences rare.
If you want your children to be open and honest with you and to become self-empowered and accountable, then the first thing you should say when they confess to wrongdoing is “I’m glad you told me. What do you think you should do?/ How can I help?” Then it’s important to pause, giving them plenty of time to think and respond.
It may take a great deal of practice visualizing having enough patience to be able to say, “I’m glad you came to me/told me/have been honest with me,” and then to pause when your child admits to lying, drinking, or wrecking your car. But if you do so, they will often figure out what they must do to make things right and be accountable themselves.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t have boundaries, rules and consequences. But the most effective way to enforce boundaries is by being reasonable, calm, and steadfast without exhibiting hysteria or rage. The more you lecture in an angry or pleading manner, or worse, for a lengthy period of time, the clearer it is that you are not in control. Your children will sense that, and they will not hear a word you say. Moreover, they won’t have a chance to develop their own reasonable sense of accountability. They are too busy shutting down or defending themselves against the barrage of attacks.
On the other hand, you encourage your child to be open and honest with you when you do not overreact. You encourage accountability and self-empowerment by imposing reasonable, “real world” consequences, and abiding by them. For instance, if they damage the car they should pay the insurance deductible and increased insurance costs. If they have no money, they should do more chores. Their use of the car should probably also be restricted for a period of time (until they can buy their own car?)
When the parent remains reasonable and understanding, while also imposing consequences, the child is more likely to develop his or her own moral compass, and not simply react to his or her annoying, tiresome, or hysterical parents.
There is no person so severely punished, as those who subject themselves to the whip of their own remorse.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD