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Social Psychology

Being lied to by your parents in childhood predicts social challenges in adulthood

Childhood experiences of being lied to by parents is associated with maladjustments in adulthood, according to new research that was published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

The findings suggest that parents may be unknowingly teaching their children that dishonesty is an acceptable means to an end when they tell lies such as “we do not have enough money to buy that toy.”

“I’m interested in this topic because lying to children is a common parenting practice, yet we do not know if it has good or bad outcomes for children,” explained study author Peipei Setoh, an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University and director of the Early Cognition Lab.

The researchers surveyed 379 Singaporean young adults regarding their childhood exposure to parenting by lying, their current deceptive behaviors toward their parents, and their general social and psychological functioning.

The participants were asked to recall if their parents told them lies that related to eating; leaving and/or staying; children’s misbehaviour; and spending money. Some examples of such lies are “If you don’t come with me now, I will leave you here by yourself” and “I did not bring money with me today, we can come back another day”.

Participants who reported being lied to more as children were more likely to report lying to their parents in adulthood. They also said they faced greater difficulty in meeting psychological and social challenges.

The researchers also found that being lied to by parents was associated with adjustment difficulties such as disruptiveness, conduct problems, experience of guilt and shame, as well as selfishness and manipulative traits.

“Being lied to in childhood predicts lying to parents and social challenges in adulthood. The lies we studied were parental lies told to manipulate children’s emotions or behavior. The implication of the study is that parents should consider lying less to their children,” Setoh told PsyPost.

“Parents can consider alternatives to lying. As parents, we aim to build a trusting and positive relationship with our children. We can do this by acknowledging children’s feelings, and providing them accurate information so that they can problem solve on their own. This aids the development of their reasoning skills and emotion regulation.”

The findings are in line with a previous study, which also found that parenting by lying was associated with negative outcomes later in life.

Some limitations of both studies, however, include the fact that the data are correlational and based on self-reports.

“A major caveat of the study is that it depended on young adults reporting on their childhood memories. The causal pathways are unknown – does lying to parents cause psychosocial problems, or do psychosocial problems cause lying to parents? Another caveat is that we relied on young adults’ reporting,” Setoh explained.

“Future studies can be longitudinal to follow children as they grow so that we can determine causal relationships between the variables of interest over time. Finally, the young adults were the only ones surveyed, and future studies can utilize multiple respondents, such as parents reporting on the lies they tell their children, and parents, teachers, and friends reporting on the children’s psychosocial adjustment.”

The study, “Parenting by lying in childhood is associated with negative developmental outcomes in adulthood“, was authored by Peipei Setoh, Siqi Zhao, Rachel Santos, Gail D. Heyman, and Kang Lee.