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What to do When Your Child Lies

Introduction


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Children lie. This is part of their normal development. Throughout childhood, children clarify boundaries by testing limits. Lying is one of the things that they test. Therefore, when your child lies you should not take it personally.

Although some children are capable of deceiving by age four, five years of age is when children commonly experiment with lying. However, lying usually does not signal a serious problem. Unless lying becomes habitual or compulsive, your child will grow out of it.

Problem of Lying

Some children have a greater tendency to lie than others. This is particularly true if the child sees others lie, or where he views lying as a way to protect himself from harm. Certain personality types also have a inclination to lie. Lying hurts the liar. Chronic or habitual liars rarely feel good about themselves. Lying may cause difficulties for the child at school and with their friends. It isolates him from those he loves and may disrupt family life.

Reasons Children Lie

Very young children are not yet able to distinguish fantasy from reality. Children this age have a very active imagination and cannot always differentiate between their imagination and what really happened. Also, children this age often appear to be lying when in actuality they have honestly forgotten what happened.

Around the age of 5 or 6 children develop a better understanding of the difference between fantasy and reality. At this age, children develop a conscience and understand that certain behaviors disappoint their parents. Children also begin to experience feelings of guilt when they do wrong. At this age a child may construct a lie to avoid punishment or disapproval.


Defiant Child
Disrepectful Child

By the age of 7 or 8, children can differentiate between fantasy and reality and usually tell the truth. At this age, children lie to avoid punishment or to avoid doing something unpleasant. They also begin to understand the concept of polite social lying. They may lie to spare someone's feelings. Lies at this age may also be a cry for help. A child who is very fearful or feels overwhelmed by school or some other area of his life, may lie in an attempt to deal with this pressure.

In adolescence, lying begins to take on a new significance. However, when an adolescent lies it is not always a sign of trouble. Teens may lie simply to protect their privacy or to establish their independence. They may also lie in "acceptable situations" such as not to hurt a friend's feelings or to avoid embarrassment. Of course, a teen may lie to avoid punishment or doing chores, or in order to get something that he can't get by telling the truth.

How to Prevent Lying

Be a Good Role Model

  • You are the most important role models for your child. Tell the truth. Avoid little white lies.
  • Don't lie to your child to get him to listen to you.
  • Keep your word. Always explain and apologize if you must break a promise.

Encourage Truthfulness

  • Stress the importance of honesty at home.
  • Let your child know that you value truth.
  • Teach your child alternatives to lying.
  • Praise your child for telling the truth, particularly in situations where it is difficult for your child.
  • Create a safe family environment so that your child can express his feelings.
  • Don't accept excuses for lying.
  • Assume your child is telling the truth.

What to Do When Your Child Lies

  • Do not ignore lying.
  • Give your child a chance to confess.
  • Give appropriate consequences for lying.
  • Don't act spontaneously. Think out consequences for lying beforehand.

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  • Separate the punishment for lying from the punishment for whatever the lie was designed to conceal.
  • Have your child apologize.
  • Show your child how to repair the lie.
  • Don't lecture.

When Lying is a Problem

The following types of lying may indicate a more serious problem.

An older child or teen that lies:

  • To get attention.
  • Habitually as a way to deal with the demands of parents, teachers, and friends.
  • In order to take advantage of others.
  • To hide a more serious problem, such as a drug or alcohol problem.

What to Do About Problem Lying

If a child or adolescent develops a serious and repetitive pattern of lying, then you may need professional help. Have a child or adolescent psychiatrist evaluate your child. Based upon what you find you have several treatment options:

Individual counseling – This is particularly helpful if the lying is a cry for attention.

Family counseling – This is useful for families who feel that trust has been seriously damaged, or in cases where lying is something learned from other family members. Family therapy may be vital when the child lies in order to protect himself from harm.

Group therapy – This form of therapy helps where the child lies as a way of getting attention.

Assessment for a learning disability – Some children lie in order to cover up school difficulties. Lying may be an indication of a learning disability.

Conclusion

Lying is a normal part of childhood and rarely indicates a problem. Addressing lying early and appropriately will help prevent it from becoming a more serious concern. If your child has a difficulty with lying you need to be patient. Your child needs to know you care about him. Your child may have spent years to become a master of distorting the truth, exaggerating, and lying. It will take time for him to change his behavior.

Anthony Kane, MD
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