Did you ever tell your teacher “the dog ate my homework,” or blame a sibling for something that you did? Lying is something that most (if not all) of us have done at one point in our lives. It is typically nothing to be overly concerned about. However, when children lie excessively, it may need to be addressed.
Children and youth lie for many different reasons. They may want to please an adult by telling them what they think they want to hear. For example, a child may tell his parent that he received an A on a test when, in reality, he did not pass. Other times, lies are told in an attempt to avoid punishment, gain attention, or avoid something that a person doesn’t want to do. Children who have spent time in out-of-home care often have a history that includes abuse, neglect, and/or trauma. If a child was not well cared for as an infant, it can hinder his ability to care about others and develop empathy, thus making it more likely for him to lie, cheat, and/or steal. In addition, some children with a trauma history have learned that lying can make things better; for others, it was the only way to survive. Lies can start small and be innocent; but, over time, youth who lie frequently learn how to do it even better. Once it becomes an adaptive “skill,” it can be difficult to change.
If your child lies frequently, the first step is to try to determine the purpose of the lie. Sometimes, for the child, it’s conscious; whereas other times, he might not understand or be aware of the underlying reason for his behavior. Ask yourself if he could be afraid of how you will react to the truth, or if he is lying because he thinks it is the only way to get his needs met. Next, it is important to address the lie without overreacting. If a child says something that you don’t believe or know to be a lie, try asking, “Is that story real or pretend?” or “That isn’t what I thought happened. Would you like to take some time to think about what happened and tell me again?”. Establish and implement consequences for lying; but keep in mind that frequent and severe punishment can encourage the child to continue to lie in order to protect himself from further retribution.
Your goal should be to teach the child important life skills – such as honesty and trust – while recognizing that this may take time. Do your best to model these skills in order to be a good example for your child. It is difficult to expect your child to tell the truth if you don’t hold yourself accountable to the same standards. Even white lies, such as avoiding a phone conversation by asking someone to relay that you are not available when you are, can teach your child to mimic such behavior.