My 10-year-old is stealing treats and lying about it

QUESTION:
I have a 10-year-old girl who has been stealing treats from the treat box and then lying about it when the wrappers are found under her pillow. This is not the first time it has happened and we have discussed how important honesty is for us to trust each other.

I think we have two problems here – firstly, she cannot help herself just taking stuff when we are not around to see, and secondly, the lying.

We had a chat yesterday and told her that this behaviour is unacceptable, that we love her no matter what, but this behaviour must stop or else we would have to get troubled youth treatments. She usually gets pocket money on a Friday to buy something in the shops with her friend if coming over for a play, but we said to her yesterday she won’t get that today and that we would have to hide the treat box now so the temptation is not there.

She asked me this morning if she could have the money to go to the shop. I asked her did I have to remind her of our conversation yesterday, but she said “oh no, I remember now”. I was so shocked. She was acting like it had never happened. I am worried we are not handling this the right way and don’t want to it to develop into something more serious. I would really appreciate your advice on this.

ANSWER:
When your children directly lie to you, it can feel like a shock. You can imagine it is a big betrayal of trust, especially if it happens more than once, and you can worry that it might lead to serious problems in the future. However, children occasionally telling lies is relatively common so it is important to put this behaviour in context. A child sneaking treats without permission and then lying to cover their tracks is a common childhood misbehaviour. Of course, it needs to be addressed by parents so they can be held to account but it does not mean they are on course to be pathological liars in the future. A calm, measured approach is important.

Responding to misbehaviour
When dealing with a behaviour problem such as lying, it is helpful to think through not only how you will respond when it happens for the first time but also how you will respond if it happens a second or even a third or fourth time. Having a clear plan for how you will respond, even as problems escalate, keeps you one step ahead of your child and makes your response more calm, disciplined and effective.

It is also important not to ‘over-punish’ the first instance of a misbehaviour as this means you quickly run out of options should it happen again. For this reason, it might be better to remove only some of your daughter’s pocket money rather than all of it, as this gives you the option of a further penalty should the problem escalate.

Small, repeatable consequences work best. If it is the lack of honesty that bothers you most, then make sure this is target of the sanction – “what bothers me most is that you did not tell the truth when I asked and this is why you are losing pocket money”. Or “we will have to take away the treat box until you show that you can be trusted to tell us the truth”.

The trick with consequences is to never run out and to frame them as a positive choice about responsibility to the child – “if you show you can be trusted you will keep the rest of your pocket money” or “if you turn things around and behave better you will get your treat the day after tomorrow” and so on.

Expect challenges
Rather than being surprised, expect challenges to your discipline and simply think how you will calmly respond. For example, I would not worry that she said she “forgot the rule” the next morning, but simply see this as her testing whether you will stand firm. Then you can simply say “no, of course you can’t have a treat today, like we agreed”.

Patiently and calmly following through on consequences is usually the best to help children learn to be responsible. If she continually “forgets” rules, you can consider adding additional consequences – “if you keep forgetting you might have to lose more pocket money, so you make sure to remember”.

Prevent problems
Lots of children find it hard to resist taking treats when they are available. Sugary snacks and cakes are addictive and children, just like adults, find it hard to resist eating them when they are in the house. Studies show it is environment that is a bigger determinant of unhealthy habits rather than personal choice or a lack of will power.

As a result, there is merit in considering removing the treat box altogether from the home for most of the week. If you do need to keep cakes and treats for visitors, then perhaps these can be stored unopened away from the kitchen. In promoting healthy habits to families, we suggest having a treats night, when these are bought on a once-off basis but are not available in the home apart from this.

Prof. John Sharry, Irish Times Health+
This article was originally published in The Irish Times in November 2018. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every second Tuesday. For information on John’s books and courses for parents see www.solutiontalk.ie