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Parents who lie to their kids raise adult liars

A new study finds that casually fibbing to children results in lifelong issues.

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  • For simplicity and speed, parents may employ untruths as conversation-enders and to coerce desirable behavior using empty threats.
  • Telling kids not to lie while modeling contrary behavior is, not surprisingly, a problem.
  • Lying as an adult is just one of the issues lied-to children exhibit as grownups.

Let's set aside the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny for a few moments. There are countless other — typically well-intentioned — daily lies that a parent may tell a child, including empty threats to get them to behave, over-simplification of tricky questions, and so on. A new psychology study led by Setoh Peipei of Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, however, finds a correlation between being lied to in childhood and lying more as an adult, something that other research has shown becomes easier and easier over time. It's also associated with other problematic behaviors such as rule-breaking, aggression, and intrusiveness.

Why parents lie

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The 24/7 demands of parenting can be relentless, and it's easy to understand why an exhausted Mom or Dad may be attracted to shortcuts that seem to save time and obviate the need for complicated explanations that would require maturity to grasp. There are lots of these:

  • "If you don't come right now, I'm going to leave you in this store."
  • "No TV for the rest of the week if you don't do your homework now."
  • "Mommy/Daddy will always be here."
  • Even the classic, no-one-knows-why-it-works-so-well, "I'm counting: 1…2…" It's inherently a bluff. Most kids never find out what would happen at 3. Few parents know, either.

Nonetheless, trust shifts once a child sees that actually you'll wait for them to come and not abandon them in the store, and the implicit message is ultimately, "I tell you never to lie, but I do it to you all the time."

"Authority assertion over children is a form of psychological intrusiveness," points out Setoh, "which may undermine children's sense of autonomy and convey rejection, ultimately undermining children's emotional well-being. Future research should examine the nature of the lies and goals of the parents so that researchers can suggest what kind of lies to avoid, and what kind of truth-telling parents should engage in."

The study

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The study published in the September issue of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology was a collaboration between Setoh and researchers from University of Toronto in Canada, University of California, San Diego in the U.S., and Zhejiang Normal University in China.

The subjects were 379 young adults from Singapore who responded to questions posed in online surveys:

  • The subjects were asked if their parents ever lied to them about four particular subjects: eating, leaving or staying, misbehavior, or money.
  • They were next queried about how often they lied as adults to their parents about activities, if they exaggerated about events, or if they told lies intended to benefit others.
  • Finally, the subjects filled out two questionnaires self-reporting their own psychosocial maladjustments and tendency to act selfishly or impulsively.

The results may be taken with a few caveats. First, self-reporting can be unreliable. Second, while the subjects' answers show a correlation between parental lying and individuals' behaviors, it's just that, a correlation that may or may not indicate the true cause of their problems. Finally, Setoh suggests a more complete picture of the mechanisms at play could be gained from a study that involves both young adults and their parents.

How to change

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Setoh tells NTU, "Parents should be aware of these potential downstream implications and consider alternatives to lying, such as acknowledging children's feelings, giving information so children know what to expect, offering choices and problem-solving together to elicit good behavior from children."

To respond effectively, honestly, and relatively easily to difficult inquiries, answer the question being asked and stop. A child questioning you about such topics will never ask, "Tell me all about sex," for example, but more likely, "Did I live in your tummy?" or "How did I get in there?" By honestly answering the question being asked, you don't have to lie, and you're unlikely to be met with any difficult follow-up questions since the child needs time to absorb and process the new information. They may get back to you later with a follow-up, of course, at which point you do the same thing. Few people asking what time it is want to know how to build a clock.

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Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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Technology & Innovation
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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

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