How Do I Get My Child to Stop Lying?
Because of the social stigma attached to lying behaviors, it can be upsetting to parents when they find their child has lied. Even more so when lying behaviors appear repetitive and pervasive. Trust is a common value in many cultures, so lying is often met with anger and resentment. However, when you address lying behaviors in children, it is important to consider their age and the function of the lying behavior.
Prior to the age of 8 years old, children do not have the cognitive development to intentionally deceive others through lying; therefore, most lying behaviors are done with the intent to gain approval and please others (mainly adults). It is important to keep this in mind when responding to lying behaviors. An example may be a child who states they washed their hands when they did not. A helpful response would be, "I see your hands are not wet and do not smell like soap. Let's go back in and wash them again to make sure they are clean." This observation and redirection communicates the expectation that they will need to complete the task requested without making them feel cornered or shamed.
Common Functions of lying behaviors in children over 8 years old include:
Avoiding Consequences/Testing Limits
Children with ADHD and other characteristics that include impulsivity may appear to lie frequently; however, it is important to understand that this behavior is not intentional and the best way to address this behavior is to allow the child time to think about their response and to coach them on taking a pause and thinking before responding. If they do impulsively respond, you can ask them to take a pause to consider their answer and ask if they would like to change their answer to a different response before moving on. This typically improves lying behaviors immensely in this population of children as they may need more time to process their choices/answer before responding.
Address lying behaviors in children as soon as possible, as dishonesty can lead to more serious issues if it is not dealt with, such as disrupted social relationships and tense relationships with adults. When addressing lying behaviors in children, it is important to educate on why it is wrong and to talk openly and honestly about consequences of lying. Explain to them that honesty is the best policy and that it is important to be truthful. Allow children to experience natural consequences for their behaviors with support. It is also important to provide positive reinforcement for honest behavior, such as praise, hugs, and rewards.
When a child has demonstrated a tendency of lying to avoid consequences, and you are positive they have engaged in a behavior deserving of a consequence, it is best not to place them in a position to lie. For instance, if you see your child hit their sibling and you believe, if asked, they will lie and say they did not hit their sibling, do not ask them. Just simply state, "I saw you hit your brother. In this house, we do not use our hands for hitting. You can (state consequence here)." Furthermore, avoid shaming children with labels, such as calling them a "liar" as this reinforces their behaviors and can lead to more negative and harmful reactions.
When a child appears to lie in order to gain attention or seek approval, it is important to gauge the intensity of the lie. If it is a minor embellishment, the parents may acknowledge the child, but may not give significant attention to the embellished details. Significant lies may be called out as such, for example, "I believe you are telling us a tall tale." The parents should also provide the child a chance to retell their experience truthfully. If a child continues to use lying to gain attention/approval from peers and adults, parents may want to seek professional assistance to address self-confidence and self-worth in order to increase the child's ability to recognize and rely on their own personal strengths.
It is also important to model truthful behavior for children and to set a good example. Parents should be honest and truthful in their interactions with their children and should not encourage or participate in lies. Children learn most from the actions of adults around them.
Finally, it is important to provide consequences for lying behaviors. Punishments should be appropriate to the severity of the lie. For instance, a minor lie might be met with a warning or time-out, while more serious lies might result in a loss of privileges.
If lying continues to be a pervasive problem in your household, it may be time to obtain professional assistance through counseling. Therapy professionals can assist with developing an appropriate response structure to address and reduce lying behaviors and promote healthy communication skills.
Stephanie Whiteside, LCSW
Serenity Counseling, Coaching, & Consulting