Lying is a Symptom of a Bigger Problem
anonymous Asks ...
What do you do when you are 98% sure that your teen daughter did something but you can’t prove it beyond a doubt and so you don’t want to really punish too harshly on the off chance that you are wrong?
I had noticed that my daughter, who is 14, seemed to be buying more stuff than she should have been able to based on the allowance she was earning from me but whenever I questioned her on this she would always say that a friend had given her that shirt or that she had traded her old phone to another friend for this much nicer looking phone that she had now. Stories that were a little hard to believe but since I had no alternate explanation and wanted to believe in her I went with it.
Anyway, a couple of months ago I as good as caught her in the act of stealing from my wallet and when I confronted her on it she admitted that she had. She said that it was the first time she had done so and stuck with that story but I figure she had been doing it for a while. Anyway, we had a long and very serious talk about it and she promised she would not do it again.
Yesterday there was money missing from my wallet again. I won’t get into the details but about 20$ was missing and there is no one else that could have taken it. My daughter swears up and down she didn’t do it but we were the only 2 people at home. I suppose there is an infinitesimal chance that I could have dropped a 20 out of the ATM or something, but it’s pretty unlikely.
So the question now is what do I do about it? I told her after the last time I caught her that I would send her back to live with her mother if this happened again. I do not really want to do this, but now I feel like I am in a tough position. So I have 2 questions:
Do I punish her severely if I am only 99% sure of what she has done. I don’t want to get it wrong, but in a situation like money missing from my wallet, I am not sure I am ever going to 100% sure.
How do I deal with a child who repeatedly steals from me?
Delisted Expert Says ...
First, I would recommend that you be 100% sure your daughter is lying to you before accusing her of lying. Her lying and stealing appear to be a symptom of a bigger problem. Lying and stealing are both considered impulsive and control problems, and in its extreme may be indicative of addiction.
I would encourage you to identify and understand what the purpose of your daughter’s lying and stealing might be. The four things we know about behavior is that;
- behavior has a purpose,
- behavior is measurable,
- behavior is predictable, and
- behavior tends to repeat itself.
As you have already indicated, you understand three aspects of your daughter’s behavior(s) except for its purpose.
The answer to your question #1 is 'no'. You do not punish for her behavior (lying, stealing, or both) unless you know for sure. If you do and are wrong, you could be punishing your daughter indiscriminately which could undermine your competency with her as the parent. Perhaps, it you were to look at her situation from a systemic perspective, you might ask “What could she be unhappy about since she has come to live with me?” Were her expectations different than what she is actually experiencing in your home? Does she secretly wish she had stayed with her mother or her former life? To follow this line of questioning successfully and accurately might require the services of a family therapist. My concern is that you are thinking in terms of extremes, i.e., staying with you or being rejected back home to her mother. It seems like your daughter could be already be experiencing enough (e.g., punishment and blame) as a result of being a victim of divorce (her interpretation). Could your daughter be angry about her disrupted attachment to mother (separation) and/or the difficulty of attachment with her father?
The answer to your question #2 is 'unsure'. Stealing can result from many sources and the source of her stealing behavior would need to be identified before a solution can be determined. Much to consider…
As you know, this is not a simple matter. Rather than send your daughter back to her mother and miss an opportunity to build a loving relationship with her, I would recommend that you become more curious and begin to understand what could be “beneath her behavior” and address it directly with great care and love.
There are several good resources for parenting. One is Parent Magic by Dr. Thomas W. Phelan at www.parentmagic.com and the other one is Love and Logic with Dr. Charles Fay at www.loveandlogic.com. Many parents have found effective answers to the troubling behaviors from these two resources.
Finally, I think it is fantastic that you are asking a professional about what would be best for your daughter and you. If the information I have offered is not complete enough for you, I would recommend that you identify a family therapist who has training and experience working with troubled teens from divorced families.
I wish your daughter and you every success. If I can be of further assistance to you, please contact me as soon as you are able.
John W. O’Neal, Ed.S, MSW, MA, LPC, NCC