A teenager lied about her school marks. Is it a sign of something more serious?

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

Question: My eighth-grader didn't tell us she failed a maths test three weeks ago. We just found out this morning when she asked us to sign her interim report, which revealed that she has a C in math. When I asked her why she didn't tell us, she said she was sad and upset and knew I would be mad.

I said that I was more upset that she didn't tell us than that she failed the test. How can I get her to trust and confide in us? I'm worried about what this means for our relationship.

Answer: Thank you for this note, many parents have been in this very position.

Why did your child lie to you, or withhold this truth? There's some good news in your daughter's decision to not tell you about her failed test: She truly cares about your opinion!

And because your daughter cares so much about your opinion, letting you know about a failed test would, in her mind, have led to a separation from you.

I don't mean a literal separation. I don't believe she thinks you will up and leave her (I hope not). Instead, the separation I am speaking of is more emotional. When we are afraid of disappointing someone we love, we possibly instinctually avoid that feeling; hence her omitting the truth. It is not rational. I imagine your daughter knows that eventually she would be found out, but that knowledge only compounds her worry and shame, furthering the secret.

I don't know what this means for your relationship, which was your main question. One perspective is that she lied about the failure because, even though you welcome failure and work through it in a positive way in your family, she still felt shame.

This happens all the time with children. We can be doing our parenting best and still have children who are terrified of failure and of disappointing us.

If your family message is one of "live and learn," then you simply need to keep reinforcing that message, see this as one grade, one omission, love her through it and move on. This is what the parent-child relationship is all about. And though it can be tricky to raise sensitive and anxiety-prone children, exercising their failure and courage muscles is critically important.

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But if you have either an overt or covert message in the house of "failure is not an option," then it is clear that yes, you have (or will have) a relationship problem with your daughter.

If a child does not have the emotional room to make the mistakes that we all inevitably make in this life, if she doesn't feel safe enough to fall and expect you to help her get up, if she wonders whether your love is tied to her success, you are going to get one of three outcomes. She will lie and hide, she will become an anxious perfectionist, or she will rebel.

In all cases, she doesn't come to you. If the parenting condition is, "We love you when you do well," then the inverse is also true: "We don't love you when you fail."

The answer must be: We love you no matter what.

Do I believe parents intend to create insecure and conditional relationships with their children? No. Many of us are repeating how we were raised, or maybe we felt like failures growing up, so "failure is not an option" becomes the mantra for our children so they won't feel that pain. Maybe you are afraid of your child falling behind or not staying with the pack or squandering her talents.

Whatever the case, I don't think many parents choose to create this separation with their children. So if this is you, know that you can undo this dynamic. It will require a strong habit of the mind (and maybe some therapy), but all is not lost.

If you want a child to confide in you, you must be the parent who is trustworthy. And if your child is doubtful, you must keep showing up in your own life as a person who fails and is unafraid of those failures. Role modelling failure, sadness, forgiveness and learning from mistakes is powerful for tweens and teens. Whether or not they tell you, it matters that they see you be vulnerable and brave.

I would pick up the books "Untangled" by Lisa Damour and "The Gift of Failure" by Jessica Lahey to help you understand your child (and yourself) a bit more deeply.

Good luck.

Meghan is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education, a master's degree in school counselling and is a certified parent coach.

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