What to do when your child lies

Call them fibs, whoppers or straight-up untruths: However you label them, kids are likely to lie somewhere along the course of growing up.  This, of course, is concerning to parents. But if caregivers can understand why kids lie and be prepared to deal with the issue, the truth can come out.

It’s common for kids (and adults) to lie sometimes and occasional dishonesty usually shouldn’t be cause for alarm. However, when lying becomes a regular occurrence, it can turn into a significant problem.

By age three, your child may already understand what lying is. Children often start lying to cover up actions they know are wrong.

Most parents think children lie to get something they want, avoid a consequence or get out of something they don’t want to do. While these are common motivations, there are also some less obvious reasons why kids might not tell the truth — or at least the whole truth.

If your child is known to lie, then you may not believe them when they are telling the truth. Teaching your child the value of telling the truth establishes the importance of personal responsibility, trust, and caring.

It’s important to explain the difference between telling the truth versus telling a lie. Be aware, however, that up until around the age of four, little children won’t fully understand the difference between lies and truth.

Balancing honesty with compassion is a sophisticated social skill that you should aim to start teaching early. If a child thinks a friend’s shirt is ugly, they don’t need to tell them the truth.

Additionally, talk to your child about what will happen if they are caught lying. Discussing consequences for dishonesty before it happens can act as a deterrent and will also help you both know exactly what to do if/when lying occurs.

Also, discuss natural consequences. Explain that dishonesty will make it hard for you to believe them next time, even when they’re telling the truth. And other people don’t tend to like or trust people who are known to tell lies.

Why Children Lie

  1. Testing Boundaries
    One reason children lie is because they’ve discovered this novel idea and are trying it out, just as they do with most kinds of behaviors, to see what happens. 
  2. Attention
    Children who lack confidence may tell grandiose lies to make themselves seem more impressive, special or talented to inflate their self-esteem and make themselves look good in the eyes of others.
  3. Too Much Attention
    Children with anxiety or depression might lie about their symptoms to get the spotlight off them, or they might minimize their issues.
  4. Impulsivity
    Some kids with ADHD lie without thinking, it’s just become an impulse. Or they really believe they are telling the truth. For example, a child who thought they did all their homework and in reality, forgot an assignment.
  5. White Lies
    In certain situations, parents might encourage children to tell a white lie in order to spare someone’s feelings. In this case, the white lie, and when to use it, fall under the umbrella of social skills.

What to do Next

  1. It’s first important to think about the function of the lie.
    When it comes to attention-seeking lying it’s best to ignore it. For these kinds of low-level lies that aren’t really hurting anyone but aren’t good behavior, ignoring and redirecting to something that you know is more factual is the way to go.

    If it becomes a pattern of behavior, address it in a straightforward manner and discourage it from happening again. “Hey, this sounds like a story try again and tell me what really happened.”

    It’s about pointing out the behavior and encouraging kids to try again.

    Another component of using lies to avoid responsibility is that kids may use lying to work around expectations or to get to do what they want.

    Examples include lies of omission, ignoring, or partial truths, such as a child who may claim to need to use the bathroom to get out of unloading the dishwasher—they may use the toilet but then never return to the kitchen.
  2. Use truth checks.
    I’m going to walk away and give you 10 minutes and then I’m going to come back and ask you again. If you change your mind and want to give me a different answer, it’s just a truth check, and you won’t get in trouble.

    This way, if a child gives an off-the-cuff answer because she’s scared of consequences or she doesn’t want to disappoint a parent, she has the chance to really think about whether she wants to lie or fess up without the consequences.
  3. Give a warning.
    Give kids one warning when you are confident you caught them in a lie. It’s also helpful to reiterate what the consequence will be for dishonesty. But focus on teaching responsibility and honesty, rather than on blaming or shaming your child. Keeping your tone calm and compassionate also helps. If you are angry, yelling, or threatening, your child will feel less comfortable coming clean
  4. If something is more serious, parents can think about a consequence.
    Give your child an extra consequence when you catch them lying. 

    For example, for the child who lies about hitting their sibling, instead of just taking away their electronics for the day, give them extra chores to do as well. Distinguish the consequences between the two unwanted behaviors.

    Also, make sure the consequences are appropriate and fair. Avoid the temptation to go overboard on punishments. It should be something short-lived, not overblown, which gives the child a chance to get back to practicing better behaviors.

Help your kids avoid lying in the first place

You’ll want to keep communication honest and comfortable between you and your child. The following steps will help you handle your child’s lies:

  1. View lies as skill-building. As your child gets older, they’ll test what they can get away with. This is how they learn consequences. 
  2. Respond to lies with facts. Especially when dealing with children under the age of three, let them know that there are facts. Lay out evidence that contradicts their lies. 
  3. Help them find a way to deal with certain behaviors. If you catch your child in a lie, let them know that they can tell you the truth.
  4. If they see you lie, they’ll lie. Your child will watch how you respond to things, and if you’re lying, they will think they can too.
  5. Let older children know there are times when small lies can be okay. Then teach them the moral consequences of bigger lies. Let them see how you’ve been caught in lies and let it be a learning experience for them. 
  6. Let them know the truth reduces consequences. You might also reduce the consequence for telling the truth. The teen who calls their parents for a ride after drinking at a party may be grounded for 3 days instead of a week. 
  7. Parents can also set up kids to tell the truth by reminding them that they don’t expect perfection. I’m going to ask you a question and maybe you’re going to tell me something I don’t really want to hear. But remember, your behavior is not who you are. I love you no matter what, and sometimes people make mistakes. So, I want you to think about giving me an honest answer.
  8. Give kids with ADHD more time to think.
  9. Making telling the truth a household rule stresses the importance of honesty and truthful communication. This will ensure that your children understand that you value the truth, even when it’s hard to tell.
  10. Role model honesty. That means telling the truth all the time.
  11. Reinforce honesty. Catch your child telling the truth and provide positive reinforcement.

What parents shouldn’t do

Don’t ever corner your child.

Putting a child on the spot can set him up to lie. Remain calm and explain to them why lying is wrong. You can also provide them with facts. Then encourage them to tell you the story again but truthfully. 

Don’t label your child a liar.

It makes him feel bad about himself and may set up a pattern of lying.

Help Your Child Re-Establish Trust

If your child has a bad habit of lying, develop a plan to help them re-establish trust. For example, create a behavior contract that links more privileges to honesty. When they tell the truth, they’ll be one step closer to earning back more privileges.

Seek Professional Help

There are times when lying can become a serious problem for children. If your child’s lying seems to be pathological, or causes problems at school or with peers, seek professional help to address their lying. A child that lies and doesn’t have friends can also be a concern. They may feel isolated and lonely. If your child lies and shows no signs of remorse or guilt, they might have underlying issues as well.

Contact us to discuss ways we can help.

All kids will lie occasionally but it’s vital to nip dishonesty in the bud so that it doesn’t become habitual. Kids have a variety of reasons for lying but the most common, and worrisome, one is keeping out of trouble. Once your child knows you expect the truth (and you consistently back up this expectation with consequences), you’ll likely see much more honesty in your home.

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