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How to Handle Lying in Children

Teaching kids to tell the truth takes understanding and reassurance

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Small boy talking to his mother
Thanasis Zovoilis/Moment/Getty Images

As much as we might like to think that our children will always tell the truth, the reality is that lying is something most children experiment with at one point or another. Parents should keep in mind that telling lies is a natural part of child development, and that in most cases, children outgrow this behavior.

Why Kids Lie

When addressing this common problem, parents should consider a child's age, the circumstances and reasons for the lie, and how frequently he engages in this behavior. For example, many younger children -- usually younger than age 6 -- cannot yet make a clear distinction between fantasy and reality, and their "lie" may actually just be an expression of their imagination. That said, a child as young as age 4 is perfectly capable of deliberately telling a lie to, say, avoid getting into trouble or get something he wants.

    Some common causes of lying in school-age children:
  • Wishful imaginative play
  • Fear of punishment
  • A desire to brag to friends/classmates to boost status and impress them
  • To avoid something they don’t want to do (such as clean up toys)
  • A desire to not disappoint parents when expectations are too high
  • Unhappiness with something in their lives
  • An attempt to get attention

Tips for Handling Lying in Children

Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind when dealing with lying:

  • Get to the root cause of the lie. Is your child simply telling a tall tale as part of fantasy play? Is she deliberately trying to mislead you because she doesn’t want to be punished? If your child is simply using her imagination, help her distinguish between fact and fiction without discouraging her creativity (so if she insists that she went to the moon with her imaginary friends, then explain that it sounds like so much fun you would like to join in too).

    On the other hand, if she claims than an imaginary friend broke something she wasn’t supposed to touch, first reassure her that she won’t get in trouble if she tells you what really happened. Then explain that you understand that while it can sometimes be easier to believe that someone else may have done something that she doesn’t want to admit to doing, telling the truth always helps make things better.

  • Do not make kids feel like they cannot come to you. If a child is worried that you will be angry, he may try to avoid telling you the truth at all costs. The important thing is to help your child feel secure, safe, and supported so that he knows he can talk to you without losing your affection and love.

    Explain to your child that if he tells you the truth, you will not become angry, and that the truth is more important to you than anything else. Then listen calmly and address whatever the misbehavior was; focus on that, and on the consequences of his actions, rather than on finding blame. If he attempted a lie, praise him for being honest with you and acknowledge that telling the truth must have been difficult for him.

  • Give your child consequences, rather than punishment. What’s the difference? Punishment comes from a place of anger whereas consequences are focused on correcting the misbehavior. For instance, if your child lies about doing her chores, discuss with her the importance of facing up to her actions; work with her to come up with an appropriate task to make up for her mistake, such as doing extra age-appropriate chores around the house.

  • Do not call your child a liar. Labels can not only be hurtful, they can have a lasting impact on how a child views himself. If he is called a liar, he may believe himself to be one and act accordingly.

  • Be clear about your expectations. Tell your child that lying is something that you do not want in your household. Let her know that telling the truth is just as important as other good behavior that you expect from her such as speaking to you in a respectful manner and not talking back or trying not to fight with her siblings.

  • Assess your own behavior when it comes to telling the truth. Do you often resort to lying when you want to avoid a situation or to get something you want? For instance, if your child hears you telling a neighbor that you cannot feed her cat while she’s on a trip because you have a sick relative when the truth is that you secretly don’t like that particular cat, you child will get the message that adults lie when it’s convenient for them.

  • Talk about the effect lying can have on relationships. Explain that lying can damage the trust that exists between people who love each other. Ask your child to imagine how she might feel if you lied to her about something. Would she doubt you the next time? Would it affect the way she trusted you?

Finally, keep in mind that if a child lies repeatedly and frequently, even after consequences and reassurances from you, it may be time to talk with your pediatrician or other professional child behavioral expert to assess the behavior and get more recommendations.

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