How to Deal with a Lying Child

Cathi Cohen, LCSW

All children lie. They may lie in different ways and for different reasons, but they all lie. Some twist the truth; others hide the facts, and still others tell tall tales. Lying concerns all parents. But not all lying is fundamentally problematic.

For instance, it is perfectly normal for a four or five year old child to make up stories and exaggerate. Young children love to hear and make up stories just for fun. Sometimes it’s hard for them to distinguish reality from fantasy. It is always important for parents to reinforce the difference between fantasy and reality, even while they are enjoying the imagination of their entertaining child.

Adolescents play around with “acceptable” versions of the truth. If a girl is asked out on a date by a boy, she may want to say, “No. I have no interest in you. You are a total loser.” Instead, she says, “No. I can’t. My parents say that I can’t go out on any dates.” Is this lying? Open communication with a teenager about the ethics of honesty is recommended as a constant.

Lying becomes destructive when it becomes compulsive. Parents subjected to compulsive lying don’t know whether to trust their child. The cycle of mistrust can become entrenched and it is difficult for a parent to know how to stop it.

I find it helpful to understand the underlying reason behind the lying. What is your child trying to achieve through lying? A common motivator for lying is fear. Whether or not the fear is warranted is another story. Frequently a child is afraid of his parents’ reaction. “Mom is going to kill me.” “Dad is going to ground me for a year.” It is helpful to try as a parent to speak calmly to your child, avoid accusations, and listen for explanations prior to reacting.

Another cause for lying is just plain habit. Lying becomes an automatic reflex. An effective way of coping with this kind of lying is to offer the child an opportunity to take back the lie without fear of repercussions.

A child may lie out of a desire to avoid an unpleasant activity. This is commonly the reason for the I-already-finished-my-homework lie. I recommend to parents that in this circumstance they double up on the consequences. If there is one consequence for the transgression (incomplete homework), offer an additional consequence for the lie. The child quickly learns that he can save himself additional punishment by admitting to the original transgression.

Above all, remember that it is more essential to encourage honesty than it is to punish dishonesty.