How to Deal with Lying in Children and Teens
By Janet Lehman, MSW
When you catch your child in a lie, it’s natural to feel betrayed, hurt, angry and frustrated. But here’s the truth: lying is normal. It’s wrong, but it’s normal. In fact, we all do it to some degree. Consider how adults use lies in their daily lives: When we’re stopped for speeding, we often minimize what we’ve done wrong, if not out–and–out lie about it. Why? We’re hoping to get out of something, even if we know better.
I believe that with kids, lying is a faulty problem–solving skill. It’s our job as parents to teach our children how to solve those problems in more constructive ways. Here are a few of the reasons why kids lie. (Later, I’ll explain how to handle it when they do.)
To establish identity: One of the ways kids use lying is to establish an identity and to connect with peers, even if that identity is false. Lying can also be a response to peer pressure. Your child might be lying to his peers about things he says he’s done that he really hasn’t to make him sound more impressive.
To individuate from parents: Sometimes teens use lying to keep parts of their lives separate from their parents. At times it may even seem that they make up small lies about things that don’t even seem terribly important. Another reason children lie is when they perceive the house rules and restrictions to be too tight. So let’s say you have a 16–year–old who isn’t allowed to wear makeup, but all her friends are wearing it. So she wears it outside the house, then lies to you about it. Lying may become a way for her to have you believe she’s following your rules and still do “normal” teen activities.
To get attention: When your child is little and the lies are inconsequential, this behavior may just be his way of getting a little attention. When a small child says, “Mommy, I just saw Santa fly by the window,” I think it is very different from an older child who says, “I finished my homework,” when he really didn’t. Younger children also make up stories during imaginative play, or playing “make believe.” This is not lying but a way for them to engage their imaginations and start to make sense of the world around them.
To avoid hurting other’s feelings: At some point, most people learn how to minimize things in order not to hurt other people’s feelings. Instead of saying, “I love your new shoes,” we might say, “Those shoes are really trendy right now.” But kids don’t have the same sophistication that adults do, so it’s often easier for them to lie. I think as adults, we learn how to say things more carefully; we all know how to minimize hurt. But kids don’t know how to do that. Lying is a first step toward learning how to say something more carefully. In some ways, we teach them how to lie when we say, “Tell Grandma you like the present even if you don’t, because it will hurt her feelings otherwise.” We have a justifiable reason—we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings who’s gone out of their way for us—but we are still teaching our kids how to bend the truth.
To avoid trouble: Most kids lie at one time or another to get out of trouble. Let’s say they’ve gotten themselves into a jam because they did something they shouldn’t have done. Maybe they broke a rule or they didn’t do something they were supposed to do, like their chores. If they don’t have another way out, rather than suffer the consequences, they lie to avoid getting into trouble.
Again, in my opinion, the overall reason why kids lie is because they don’t have another way of dealing with a problem or conflict. In fact, sometimes it’s the only way they know how to solve a problem; it’s almost like a faulty survival skill for kids.
I believe it’s really the parent’s job to differentiate the type of lie their child has told, and to make sure that it isn’t connected to unsafe, illegal or risky behavior. This gets to the whole point about picking your battles. If you see your child say to another child, “Oh I really like that dress,” and they later tell you in the car, “I really don’t like that dress,” you might say something to them, but you might also let it go, especially if this is unusual for your child. If they’re lying about something that’s risky or illegal or really unsafe, you definitely have to address it. And if it’s to the point of being really significant—like a lie about risky sexual behavior, drugs, or other harmful activities—you may need to seek some help from a professional.
So pick your battles. Decipher what’s really important versus looking at what’s normal. And again, that often depends on the developmental age of your child. A four–year–old is going to make up big whopping stories as a way to be creative and begin to figure out their world. It’s a normal developmental stage. Seven– and eight–year–olds are going to do some of that as well, but they may have more black and white thinking. So they might say, “I hated that lady” when they simply disliked something that person did. I think you can let those kinds of things slide or just gently correct your child. You can say something like, “Do you mean you didn’t like what she did yesterday?” This type of stretching of the truth is really the result of concrete thinking because kids in this age group don’t have good skills to say something else more neutral or tactful.
I don’t believe lying in children is a moral issue. I think it’s imperative not to take it personally if your child lies. Most kids don’t lie to hurt their parents; they lie because there’s something else going on. The important part for you as a parent is to address the behavior behind the lie. If you’re taking it personally, you’re probably angry and upset—and not dealing with the more specific information concerning the behavior.
Here’s an example. Let’s say your child didn’t do his homework but he told you he did. When you find out that he’s lying, he admits he didn’t do it because he was playing sports with friends after school. If you yell at your child about being betrayed and say, “How dare you lie to me,” that’s all you’re going to be able to address. You’re not going to be able to deal with the real issue of your child needing to do his homework before he plays sports. The bottom line is that your anger and frustration about the lie is not going to help your child change his behavior.
So lying is not a moral issue; it’s a problem–solving issue, a lack of skill issue, and an avoiding consequence issue. Often kids know right from wrong—in fact, that’s why they’re lying. They don’t want to get in trouble for what they’ve done and they’re using lying to solve their problems. What that means is that they need better skills, and you can respond as a parent by helping them work on their ability to problem solve.
How to Address Lying: Staging a “Lying Intervention”
While it’s important to address the behavior behind the lying, if your child lies chronically or lies about unsafe, risky or unhealthy behavior, I think it makes sense to address the actual lying by having an intervention. A “lying intervention” is really just a planned and structured conversation about the lying behavior. This lets your child know what you’ve been seeing, and gives you a chance to tell them that you are concerned. Here are some things to keep in mind:
Plan ahead of time: Think about how you’re going to intervene beforehand. Plan it out ahead of time with your spouse; if you’re single, ask another close adult family member to be there with you. When this issue came up with our son, my husband James and I planned out what we were going to say, how we were going to react emotionally, and even where we were going to sit. We decided we were going to be neutral and that we would be as unemotional as possible. We made a decision about what the problem behaviors we wanted to address were. We also decided what the consequences for our son’s behavior would be. We did almost all of this ahead of time.
Don’t lecture: When you catch your child lying, remember that lecturing is not going to be helpful. Kids just tune that out. They’ve heard it over and over—and when you start lecturing, the kids are gone. They’re no longer listening and nothing changes. So what you need to do instead is to identify what it is that you’re seeing and what you’re concerned about.
Be specific and talk about what’s obvious: When you’re talking with your child, be specific about what you saw and what the problems are. You can state calmly and in a matter of fact way, “If the lying about homework continues, this will be the consequence.” Or “It’s obvious you snuck out last night. There will be a consequence for that behavior.” Remember, it has to be a consequence that you can actually deliver on and are willing to follow through with.
Don’t be too complicated in your message: Keep it very focused and simple for your child; concentrate on the behavior. And then tell him that you want to hear what was happening that made him feel he needed to lie. (You are not looking for an excuse for the lie, but rather to identify the problem your child was having that they used lying to solve.) Be direct and specific. The intervention itself would be quick and to–the–point; you don’t want to lecture your child for a long time. This is just ineffective.
Keep the door open: Because the lie is most likely a way your child is trying to problem solve, make sure you indicate that you want to hear what’s going on with him. He may not be ready to talk with you about it the first time you raise the subject—and this is where the neutrality on the parent’s part comes in. You want to be open to hearing what your child or teen’s problem is. You want to create a safe environment for him to tell you during that intervention or that first conversation. But if your child is not ready, it’s important to keep that door open. Create this environment by being neutral and not attacking him.
If You Catch Your Child in a Lie…
If you catch your child in a problematic lie, I recommend that you not react in the moment. Instead, send him to his room so you can calm down. Talk with your spouse or a trusted friend or family member and come up with a game plan. Allow yourself time to think about it. Remember, when you respond without thinking, you’re not going to be effective. So give yourself a little time to plan this out.
When you do talk, don’t argue with your child about the lie. Just state what you saw, and what is obvious. You may not know the reason behind it, but eventually your child might fill you in on it. Again, simply state the behaviors that you saw.
So the conversation would go something like, “I got a call from the neighbor; they saw you sneaking out of your window. You were falling asleep at the kitchen table this morning at breakfast. But you told us that you were home all night.”And you might then say to your teen, “There’s going to be a consequence for that. You’re not going to be able to stay over at your friend’s house next weekend. And we’re concerned about where you went.” Leave the door open for him to tell you what happened.
Remember, state what you believe based on the facts you have. Do it without arguing, just say it matter–of–factly. “We have this information, we believe it to be true and these are the consequences.”Keep it very simple and hear what your child has to say, but be really firm in what you believe.
A Word about “Magical Thinking”
Be aware that kids and adolescents are prone to engage in “magical thinking.” This means that when your child gets away with a few lies, he will start thinking he should be able to get away with them the next time. Often that just feeds on itself, and the lies become more and more abundant—and absurd. Your child might convince himself they’re true in order to get out of the trouble. I also think kids often don’t want to believe they’re lying; no one really wants to be a liar.
So you’ll see kids who’ve gotten caught smoking at school say, “No, I wasn’t smoking”—even though the smoke is still in the air. And when you’re a kid, you think that if you keep repeating the same thing over and over again, it will be true. But it’s your job as a parent to say as matter–of–factly as possible what you feel is the truth. Acknowledge the lie, but give the consequence for the behavior, not for the lie.
Realize that most kids are not going to lie forever and ever. There is a very small percentage of kids who lie chronically. That’s more difficult for parents to deal with, and it requires professional help. In all my years in working with adolescents, there were very, very few kids that I met who lied chronically for no reason. Usually, kids don’t lie arbitrarily; they have a reason for doing so, no matter how faulty that reason might be. Your child really does know right from wrong, but sometimes he overrides the truth.
I’m a parent too, and I understand that it’s hard not to take that personally or be disappointed. But just remember, your child is trying to solve a problem in an ineffective way. Our job is to teach them how to face their problems head on, and to coach them through these confusing years. Over time, I believe they will learn to do that without lying.
"Daddy puts on your bras sometimes," my then 4-year-old said nonchalantly as I tried on lingerie in a department store dressing room.
"Excuse me? When?" I asked, astonished.
"When you're asleep," she replied—and proceeded to describe how, early Saturday mornings, he'd slip a bra over his T-shirt and then jump on our mini-trampoline. She stuck to her tale so adamantly that later that day, I sheepishly asked my schoolteacher husband if he'd ever jokingly held one of my lacy underthings up to his chest (he hadn't).
We laughed, but I felt unsettled. Lying to avoid punishment or to get an extra piece of pie—that I could understand. But Lillian was lying frequently, for kicks, and she'd never admit that a made-up story wasn't true. Should I insist on honesty, I wondered, lest she develop into a pathological liar? Or let it slide, to avoid crushing her creativity?
The latter, apparently: The experts I quizzed about Lillian's tale were unfazed. "There's nothing wrong with her telling it," says Michael Brody, M.D., a child psychiatrist in Potomac, Maryland. "Very young kids don't know the difference between truth and fiction."
In fact, this type of lying can be a sign of good things. "Preschoolers with higher IQ scores are more likely to lie," says Angela Crossman, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who researched the subject. Early lying proficiency may also be linked with good social skills in adolescence.
Of course, not all kids' lies are trivial incidents you can just laugh off—and you do want to raise a child who values honesty. Knowing the types of untruths kids tell at each stage, and why, can help you gently guide your own toward a level of truthfulness that's appropriate for his age.
Toddlers: first fibs
It's usually pretty obvious when one of Eric Lutzker's 2-year-old twin boys, Merce and Jacob, has a dirty diaper. The trick is determining which one. "If you ask them, they'll each simultaneously say the other's name," says the Seattle dad. "They don't want to go through the rigmarole of a diaper change, so they lie about it."
Such self-serving fibs are the first kinds of lies many young toddlers try out. As any mom of a toddler or preschooler can tell you, kids as young as 3—sometimes even 2—will tell very simple lies, denying they've done something or in order to gain something for themselves.
It doesn't make sense to punish toddlers for truth bending, since they don't get that what they're doing is wrong. "If a two-year-old pulls the cat's tail and says that her imaginary friend did it, the best response is to say, 'The cat has feelings, too,' " says Elizabeth Berger, M.D., a child psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids With Character. "Don't get into a wrangle to get the child to admit that she was the one." An even better strategy is to avoid the showdown in the first place. "Rather than asking 'Did you break the vase?' say, 'Look, the vase got broken,' " says Dr. Brody. "If you make an angry accusation, you'll get a lie."
Preschoolers: small people, tall tales
My daughter's story about her dad wearing a bra is typical of 3-to 5-year-olds' freewheeling relationship with reality. This is the age of invisible friends, horned monsters and talking rainbows. Though she recently outgrew them, 4-year-old Lucy Sterba of El Cerrito, California, basked last year in the companionship of not one, but eight imaginary sisters, each with a name, birth date and backstory. "The sisters did things Lucy couldn't do, like wear pink dresses every day," says her dad, Chris.
Preschoolers' tall tales can be pure play, or sometimes wishful thinking (Lucy's pretend sisters never had to eat mushrooms the way Lucy does, her mom notes). And it's not unusual for young kids to insist, as Lucy did, that their fantasy world is real. "It's not really a lie," says Dr. Berger. "What your child indicates when he says 'He's real' is the tremendous colorfulness, prominence, and importance of his imaginary friends."
If a particular tall tale troubles you, it's important to keep things in perspective. "If a child seems happy and has realistic relationships with the important people in his life, I would not be worried about his fantasizing. That's what children did before there was TV," Dr. Berger says. Remember that what seems outlandish to adults may simply be a child's way of processing new ideas. After Lucy learned that her grandfather had died before she was born, several of her "sisters" suddenly died, too. "She would talk about it in a very matter-of-fact way," Sterba says. "Our friends started to joke that there must be an epidemic."
Schoolkids: they've got their reasons
Shea McMahon, 8, and his brother Jack, 6, of Austin, Texas, both denied pilfering their sister's hospital newborn bracelet from a keepsake box. "I yelled and cajoled and said no Sunday breakfast for either one until they confessed," says Shannon McMahon. A few minutes later, Jack owned up. But when his mom asked for details, he panicked. "Finally, he admitted, 'I got nothin'. I just wanted you guys to stop asking,' " she says. Then Shea, the real perp, burst into tears.
Jack's attempt to take the rap for his big brother signals an important developmental step: the ability to tell a white (or "prosocial") lie—one that benefits someone else or is told to avoid hurting someone's feelings. "It actually shows a bit of social awareness and sensitivity," says Crossman.
But as Shea's fib by omission shows, 5-to 8-year-olds also still occasionally resort to the not-so-white lie. Kids this age do so for all sorts of understandable, even forgivable, reasons—for example, they're afraid of how disappointed you'll be or the punishment they'll get, even because they're pressed beyond their capabilities. (If, say, a kid's having trouble with math, he might insist he has no math homework.) Before you send your child to his room or take away his TV privileges for the day, try to find out what drove him to lie, and take his reasons into consideration.
Tweens: growing fast and stretching the truth
When we had a Halloween party for my older daughter, Aurora's, third-grade class, my husband made up a ghost story about "the rundown house up the block." At the end, the girls cried, "Can we go see it?" At 9, they'd developed concrete ideas of truth and falsehood but were still naive about the gray area in between.
And speaking of gray areas, tweens are also apt to gloss over details of their lives they once freely spilled about. Don't be surprised if your child keeps mum about things she would have shared with you a year or two before, like the latest lunch-table gossip. This new secretiveness isn't dishonesty or a sign that your child is up to anything wrong. In fact, it reflects her growing maturity. "Kids who tell everything to their parents at age thirteen or fourteen are not growing up," says Dr. Brody.
Of course, as your child gains more independence, he may take advantage of it by pulling a fast one from time to time. When 9-year-old Joey DeMille of San Diego asked his mother to stop "nagging" him about completing his daily reading log, she agreed to back off and let him take responsibility. "For the entire month of January, I didn't ask him to show me his log," she says, and Joey swore that he was filling it in daily. But when the time came to turn in the log, his mother was shocked to discover that it was nearly blank. "He had been lying to me all month long!" she says.
An occasional lie about homework, chores or toothbrushing, while aggravating, is not unusual at this age. The best response usually is to simply express your displeasure. But if a tween lies chronically, he might need professional assistance to sort things out. "Children who are anxious, who feel that they can't handle some kind of situation, may lie," says Dr. Berger. "It could be a sign of any number of stresses that the child is under." It could also be the sign of a smart kid who finds lying a convenient tactic.
The best way to steer your tween toward greater honesty? Set a good example yourself (no fudging his younger brother's age to get cheaper movie tickets) and talk to him about how lying can damage your credibility and relationships. "It's the kind of lesson that doesn't sink in immediately," says Crossman. What lesson ever does, especially with kids that age? But chances are your child will grow out of his fibbing—and into an honest-to-goodness adult.
Juliette Guilbert, a mother of two, lives near Seattle and is currently working on a book about kids and drug use.