Lying – how to deal with it and when to be concerned

The seriousness and implications of lying changes with a child’s stage of development. Children under 7 often enjoy telling tall tales and sometimes have difficulty separating the real world from fantasy.

Need to know 

The seriousness and implications of lying changes with a child’s stage of development. Children under 7 often enjoy telling tall tales and sometimes have difficulty separating the real world from fantasy. However, by the age of 6 or 7, children start understand the concept of lying, but might still lie to avoid getting into trouble. Children from the ages of 7 to 12 have a better developed moral code and a greater understanding of lying and its impact.   

Children lie for several reasons. Here are the most common: 

  • Low self esteem. A child could lie to make themselves look better than their siblings or peers  
  • Concern about meeting expectations. Children might lie if they feel like they can’t meet their parent’s expectations, especially in regard to school grades. 
  • To avoid being a burden. Kids who are dealing with anxiety or depression might try to cover up how they feel so that parents or friends don’t worry about them. 
  • Lack of communication skills. A child might lie because they don’t have the vocabulary or language to successfully explain their feelings and actions. 
  • Inconsistent discipline. Children who believe they can sometimes get away with certain actions might lie to avoid consequences. 
  • To seek attention. Children who don’t receive enough praise or reward sometimes manipulate the truth to get this attention. 
  • To assert independence. Adolescents sometimes lie to protect their privacy or assert independence from their parents.  

Autistic and ADHD kids however, have the additional challenge of an impaired executive system. They may struggle with:

  • Lack of inhibition – Oops! Your child may do and say things before thinking of the consequences 
  • Poor emotional regulation – Fear and stress can be magnified causing your child to make choices that are based on simple survival instinct; saving themselves from shame and embarrassment, protecting themselves from consequences, deflecting anger or buying themselves time 
  • Weak working memory – Your child may actually not remember all the details and in the moment will blurt out a lie  

Why it’s important 

When confronted with a child who is lying, it is important to first remember the child’s age and developmental stage. However some situations are cause for greater concern, and in these cases it’s best to talk to a mental health professional: 

  • Lying accompanied by behavioural problems, such as cruelty to people or animals, sleep issues, increased hyperactivity or lighting fires 
  • A child who lies and has difficulties making and keeping friends or interacting in social situations could have poor self-esteem and might be depressed 
  • A child who lies habitually and does not show any signs of regret 
  • An adolescent who is lying and behaving unusually could be trying to hide a serious drug or alcohol problem.  

Your child might lie by omission to keep secrets or cover up events out of fear and shame, especially if it involves abuse by an adult or being bullied by another child. If you suspect your child is lying to protect someone else, it’s important to: 

  • Reassure your child that you will keep them safe  
  • Tell your child that you’ll believe what they’re saying and that it’s not their fault 
  • Let your child know you’ll do everything you can to make things better 
  • Report incidents of abuse or bullying to the school or the relevant authorities   

Tips and strategies: 

Discuss the impact of lies. It’s important to have conversations about lying and telling the truth in a way that kids can relate: “How would you feel if your friend lied to you?” or “What happens when you lie to a teacher?” or “How do you think your friends will respond if they feel they can’t trust you?” 

Avoid immediate accusations and blame. Give your child the opportunity to tell the truth even if they have tried to cover something up with a lie. Accusing or blaming your child without having first spoken to them about exactly what happened, will only make them fear telling the truth.  

Use praise and positive reinforcements. Notice and praise your child for being honest with you when they own up to doing something wrong. This is an opportunity to teach your child how to solve problems as they arise instead of lying to avoid them: “Thank you for trusting and telling me what happened. How can we sort it out?”  

Model honesty. When you make mistakes, be open and talk out loud with your child about how you will fix them. Modelling honesty and problem solving is a great way to show your child that there are better ways than lying to deal with difficult issues.  

Use humour. Sometimes using a joke can take the pressure off your child for being caught lying and encourage them to tell the truth: “I’ve never noticed mugs had feet and could walk themselves to your bedroom.” You can keep the joke going until your child owns up.   

Make rules and consequences explicit. Enlist your child to help create family rules and to choose the appropriate consequences for lying. Ensure you follow through with consequences when the rules are broken.  

Separate lying from the leading actions – and make it a more serious offence. There are certain behaviours that can be driven by impulsivity or by your child not having the maturity to consider the impact of their actions. Lying, however, when used deliberately to cover up the result of behaviour, removes the opportunity for parents to teach their child how to own their mistakes and resolve issues honestly. You can’t stop children from making mistakes or doing the wrong thing, but you can create a relationship where they feel safe in telling you about it. 

Trust your child. Regularly questioning your child’s honesty or calling them a “liar” can lead to more lying. If your child feels like you will always distrust them regardless of what they say, they’ll feel as if they might as well keep lying: “I put my trust in you because even if you make mistakes, I know we can always work things out together.”  


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