Why do kids lie and what can parents do about it

Is your child a worse liar than Pinocchio? Here’s how to assist children in identifying truthful alternatives to bending the truth.

Why your child lies - and how to put a stop to it
 Is your child constantly lying?

Remember the story of Pinocchio – the animated puppet whose nose grew longer and longer every time he lied? With the help of a cricket as his conscience, Pinocchio finally proved himself worthy of becoming a real boy and stopped lying. As parents, you’ll agree that all children fabricate information to obtain what they want or to get themselves out of sticky situations.

While the odd white lie is often harmless, it can become a serious problem if your child lies constantly. Regardless of your child’s age, it’s critical to teach them the difference between telling the truth and telling a lie. Bear in mind, however, that most children will not fully understand the difference between lies and truth until about the age of four.

Why do children lie?

According to clinical psychologist Matthew Rouse, one reason children lie is to boost their self-esteem and gain the approval of their friends, teachers, peers, parents, caregivers, or other family members.

“Children who lack confidence may invent grandiose lies to appear more impressive, exceptional, or brilliant to boost their self-esteem and appear attractive to others,” says Dr Rouse. “Children who suffer from anxiety or depression may also fabricate stories to divert attention away from them. Alternatively, they may downplay their concerns, stating something along the lines of, ‘No, no, I slept well last night’, to avoid people becoming concerned about them.”

Carol Brady, a clinical psychologist who deals with many children diagnosed with ADHD, believes that many children lie out of impulsivity. “One of the characteristics of children with ADHD is that they speak before they think,” she explains. “Sometimes children truly believe they have done something and tell what appears to be a lie.” For example, a child may think they’ve completed their homework – and say they have – only for parents to find out that the homework hasn’t been done. There are also white lies. To complicate matters further, parents may actually urge children to tell a white lie to save someone’s feelings in some circumstances.

Different degrees of lying

Both Dr Rouse and Dr Brady assert that it is critical to consider the function of the lie your child is telling. For example, what types of lies are being spoken, and under what circumstances are the lies being told? Different levels of lies imply varying punishments/consequences.

Level 1: Attention-seeking lying: Dr Rouse advises that it is best to ignore it when it comes to attention-seeking lying. Rather than bluntly stating, “That is a lie, I’m sure it didn’t happen to you,” use a milder approach. For these kinds of low-level lies that do little harm but are not acceptable conduct, ignoring and redirecting to something you know is more factual is the best course of action. If your child exaggerates the truth, Dr Rouse suggests parents say something along the lines of, “this seems like a tall tale; why don’t you try again and tell me what actually happened?”

Levels 2: Deceptive lying: If the situation is more serious, such as older children lying about their whereabouts, parents may consider imposing a consequence. Children should understand that there will be consequences for this type of deception, so it does not come as a surprise. Discussing consequences for dishonesty before it happens can act as a deterrent and help you both know exactly what to do if/when lying occurs. Children and teens should not believe that consequences are negotiable. Above all, remember to focus on teaching your child responsibility and honesty rather than blaming or shaming your child.

What parents may do to stop their children from lying

  • Create a specific home rule that emphasises the necessity of honesty and truthful communication as part of your family’s rules and values. This demonstrates to your children that you respect the truth, even when it is difficult to tell.
  • Discuss the various types of lies people tell and the harm that every kind of lie can inflict. Give age-appropriate examples. Justify your expectation of honesty by outlining the numerous reasons people lie.
  • Be a good role model. Often children will watch how you respond to things, and if you’re lying, they will think they can too.
  • If other troubling behaviours accompany your child’s lying, they may be experiencing psychological distress. A  child who lies and lacks friends can also be cause for concern. They may experience isolation and loneliness. If your child lies and displays no regret or shame, they may also be dealing with underlying issues. Speak to your health care provider, who may recommend a child counsellor to assist your child.