Everyone lies from time to time, notes clinical psychologist Lisa Firestone in Psychology Today’s “Why We Lie and How to Stop.” Lies generally serve a purpose to the liar, such as manipulating someone’s emotional reactions to a story or getting out of trouble. Sometimes an adult child lies due to old patterns in the family dynamics, or because he wants to avoid adult responsibilities. Regardless, frequent lying is damaging to both the liar and the person being lied to, and it is important not to accept the behavior.
In some cases, lying becomes ingrained and apparently pathological, causing the person to lie even when the lie serves no real purpose. Pathological lying is a complex issue that mental health professionals do not fully understand, suggests Dr. Charles Dike in the Psychiatric Times article “Pathological Lying: Symptom or Disease?” He believes that pathological lying has internal benefits, while ordinary lies provide a concrete external benefit. Depending on the nature of your relationship and the severity of the lying, you can take steps to protect your own well-being while encouraging your adult child to take responsibility for her words.
Draw up a concrete agreement with your adult child, and have both parties sign it. In Empowering Parents’ “Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part III,” social worker James Lehman says that it is never too late to make rules about the behaviors you will tolerate. If the child lives with you, include rules about paying rent, doing chores and respecting the other people in the house. If he is on his own, specify the behaviors that make you feel uncomfortable or unappreciated. Write down specific consequences for violating the agreement, such as losing access to your financial support or babysitting services.
Speak openly with your child about her successes, failures, hopes and dreams. Make it clear that you are always available for counsel, advice or simply as a sounding board, but that you cannot and will not take responsibility for her problems. Help her figure out solutions and ways to implement them. However, it is important to limit each session, suggests psychologist Jeffrey Bernstein in Psychology Today’s “Creating Boundaries With Dependent Adult Children.” Avoid the tendency to jump in and fix her issues.
Take a break from each other. Try to avoid cutting your child off in a rush of anger, but distance often brings a healthy new perspective. Keep the lines of communication open by calling or visiting occasionally, but remove yourself from the immediacy of your child’s drama. Let him reap the natural consequences of lying to others, such as an employer or relationship partner.
Seek help from a mental health professional or peer support group, especially if you suspect that your child has emotional problems or substance abuse issues. Constant lying and disrespect can wear down your psyche, making you feel isolated or even slightly crazy. Meeting with others who understand your position helps you feel validated and can provide new coping techniques.
Encourage your child to seek professional help. Even if she seems to be doing well in keeping up with her responsibilities, constant lying is not a normal or healthy expression of her feelings. Although you cannot force an adult to seek help, you can set up conditions that encourage this choice. For example, Dr. Bernstein suggests that you give money only if your child is actively seeking treatment.