Children may lie for many reasons. Our response may help shape future interactions to become more truthful.
Lying can occur at just about any age. While “tall tales” may be a form of creative expression in young children, kids can cross a line when they come up with an elaborate story like why they hit their sibling or chopped off their own hair.
As they age, the lies can become more sophisticated. Maybe they lie to avoid things. Perhaps your oldest child just told you they completed their homework when they hadn’t. Or maybe they pretended to be ill to avoid a test at school.
No matter the age, lying can be frustrating, hurtful, irritating, and worrisome. But there are steps you can take as a parent or caregiver to help encourage honesty.
It’s helpful to first understand why kids may lie.
You may be familiar with common causes, including:
- to get what they want
- to avoid a consequence or taking an action they don’t like
In some cases, a child may have deeper reasons they prefer to tell a lie instead of admitting the truth. Some potential underlying causes include:
- Enhancing self-esteem: Children with lower self-esteem may tell grandiose lies to make themselves seem more impressive to their parents, caregivers, teachers, or peers. These lies are driven by a need to help themselves feel better.
- Testing the behavior: Lying may be novel to children as they first experience or learn of it, and they may be trying it out to see how it works and test reactions.
- Shifting focus: Children dealing with mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, may lie about their symptoms to get the focus off them.
- Believing “white lies” are OK: Many people believe white lies are harmless. Your child may utter a white lie when they
feel the truth might hurtsomeone’s feelings or get another into trouble.
- Speaking before thinking about something: In some cases, a child may get ahead of themselves. They may answer a yes or no query too quickly and then realize their misstep afterward. Kids with ADHD or easily distracted children may often do this.
Other potential reasons a child may lie can include:
- to avoid confrontation
- for fear of embarrassment
- to cover up a mistake
- to protect their privacy (often in teens)
- to project something they wish was true (like telling folks they’re going to Disney World)
- in response to stress or parental pressure
- self-control issues
It may be tempting to punish your child for lying, particularly if this is not the first time they did it. Though this may be your initial response, you may want to stop — before you react — to consider what your goal is for your child.
Your goal likely revolves around getting your child to stop lying and the importance of honesty.
Have an honest conversation
You may find it helpful to have an honest conversation with your child about the importance of telling the truth. Some talking points can include:
Talking points with your kid to encourage honesty
- “Honey, honesty helps you build strong relationships.”
- “When you tell the truth, it shows you respect yourself and others.”
- “You’re my kid, and I want you to feel your best. Being truthful is freeing! No lies mean no secrets to hide.”
Assess the lies
When your child lies, you may find it worth taking a few minutes, or as much time as you need, to determine the function of the lie. You can ask yourself:
- why they lied
- the function of the lie(s)
- the kind of lie(s) they told
Once you determine what you think are the causes and reasoning behind the lie, you can start to “grade” the lie to determine your response. Though there is no formal guide on this, you may find grading their severity between 1 and 3 may help you tailor your response.
This could look like:
- Grade 1 lie: Attention-seeking lies.
- Response: Often requires no consequences but may respond well with limited attention paid to the lie.
- Grade 2 lie: Inadvertent, denial, or experimental lies. These may also be attention-seeking. Researchers say toddlers who lie don’t anticipate consequences and aren’t trying to deceive so much as trying to restore your mood (if you sound serious or look angry).
- Response: You can respond by pointing out the behavior and asking them to reply again with candor.
- Grade 3 lie: Deception or omission. Often done by older children and teens. These can be lies meant to avoid the consequence of an action or inaction.
- Response: You may find that responding with a clear consequence for the lie may help
Help them avoid lying before it happens
Children sometimes need help understanding what honesty looks like. In addition to role-modeling truthfulness to them, you can take steps to help them avoid lying in the first place.
Tips to course-correct lies in real-time
- Giving children “truth checks.” This method involves asking them a question and then telling them you will come back in a set amount of time to check again. At the second check, they can correct their answer without consequences.
- Reminding kids of the consequences. You may find that it helps to remind them the consequences are worse when they lie and try to stick with it.
- Reminding them you don’t expect perfection. Part of this is letting them know you realize they may make mistakes and not branding them as a liar if they don’t tell the truth at all times.
Should you punish your child for lying?
You can put consequences in place for lying, particularly with older children. You might remember to keep the discipline within reason and make sure they realize there are natural consequences for lying.
It’s best to avoid labeling your child as a liar. It also might not help like as much as it would seem to try and corner your kid in the lie. Instead try to open up a conversation and use active listening to unearth the truth, together.
When a child lies, you can take positive steps to help them avoid future deceit. This can include giving them the chance to correct themselves and reasonable consequences for telling a lie.
You may find it helpful to figure out the reasoning behind the lie. If you can determine the behavior, it may help shape your response and help to encourage the truth in the future.