Whether it’s lying to conceal a problem, to get something they want, or for several other reasons, kids lie. Since it’s a part of human nature (adults do it, too), the balance between when to worry and when not to is important to discover. And thankfully, this article sheds light on everything you need to know about kids who lie to address the situation and cope with it in a manner that creates growth, boosts their self-esteem, and strengthens your relationships.
Kids & Lying 101
Interestingly, kids can start lying around three years old, but their lies may increase around ages 4 and 6. As such, there are several motivations why kids lie.
- Exaggeration. Usually, before five years old, children can’t perceive the differences between their reality and their growing imagination. They will therefore tell “tall tales” or exaggerate to attract attention.
- Need-based. Children may lie to achieve a coveted desire, like saying, “I have a stomach ache”, to skip school when their health is fine.
- Stretch boundaries. They become curious to test out a new behavior and resulting reactions to see what will happen if they lie.
- White lies. Often we’re told white lies are harmless to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. Children may also adopt this behavior.
- Self-esteem. Children battling low self-esteem may exaggerate their life, skills, and experiences to receive acceptance and a higher social status amongst their peers.
- To shift focus. Children experiencing mental health difficulties or chronic conditions may lie to shift the focus from their symptoms.
- Self-protection. Unfortunately, growing up in abusive or unhealthy environments, children may lie if they’ve made a mistake for fear of their caretaker’s reaction.
- Speaking too quickly. Sometimes children may respond too quickly or forget they’ve done something and lie without intention. This behavior is common in children with ADHD.
Kids & Lying: What’s Normal?
There’s an inescapable truth; children lie, and subsequently, it’s a normal part of human nature. As children develop and their cognitive processes grow, they learn to test boundaries, use lying to elevate their status and protect themselves and others. Even more, during early adolescence, teenagers may lie as they fight for independence, strive for social acceptance, and battle with impulsivity. However, when does lying become worrisome?
Kids & Lying: When To Worry
There are several warning signs that indicate a more serious problem.
- The frequency of lying. How often do they lie, and in what scenarios? If it becomes continuous, it could become a compulsive behavior.
- Their lies harm themselves or others. If their lies place themselves or others in dangerous situations, it’s a cause for concern.
- When they lie to conceal abuse or bullying. It’s common for children to omit the truth to avoid punishment. However, abused or traumatized children may lie about their abuse and fear telling the truth to their caretakers, teachers, or other adults.
- When the lies damage their relationships. If lying affects the relationship with their friends or caretakers, weakening the communication and subsequent bond.
- Lying as a result of a condition. Observe whether your children lie to enhance their self-esteem or conceal depression, anxiety, or other conditions.
Kids & Lying: How to Cope
1. Ignore attention seeking lies
It may be challenging to practice, but rather than becoming annoyed or upset, try to ignore the attention-seeking lies. Don’t feed the problem but also don’t lay down harsh consequences. For example, if a child is exaggerating about their day at school and the praise they received at gym class to boost their self-esteem, and you think it’s untrue, don’t ask several follow-up questions or label their lie. While this lie doesn’t represent the best behavior, they aren’t hurting anyone. Instead, they’re coming from a place of pain.
2. Calmly discuss the lie
Another approach is to discuss the lie. Refrain from yelling, becoming annoyed, or labeling them a liar (never do this), and, instead, investigate the lie with a gentle approach. For example, you could say, “This story seems fishy, can you tell me what really happened?“. Or if they’re lying about being sick to avoid school, say, “You don’t seem sick. Let’s discuss what’s going on“. Transparently asking compassionate-forward questions will help you understand the root of their lie. Perhaps they’re lying because they’re afraid of your reaction, maybe they’re being bullied at school, or they’re experiencing anxiety. So, point out the behavior calmly and work with them to find a solution.
3. Set clear boundaries and consequences
Even if you begin with a gentle approach, you may feel your blood boiling when your child continues to lie. However, while your natural reflex may be to corner them into admitting the truth, it’s not advisable. These tactics will only create a power struggle. Instead, practice patience, and for older children, be clear about your expectations and the resulting consequences of their dishonesty. Lay down the rules and revisit the issue by saying, “I know you want more freedom, but lying won’t achieve your goal. Let’s find a solution so we can trust each other”.
4. Strengthen your relationship
In the case of older kids who lie to receive more independence and autonomy, conflicts over deception may occur frequently. However, try to repair the relationship through 1:1 quality time. For example, practice mindful parenting techniques to engage with your children with present awareness. Put the phones away, complete their preferred activity, and give your relationship that time to connect. Doing so conveys the importance that you’re genuinely interested in their lives and what matters to them rather than only speaking to them when there’s an issue.
5. Model behaviors
Adults lie too. And if lying exists within the household, children can acquire the same behavior by observing their caretakers. Therefore, set the example you wish to achieve through your behavior. For instance, keep conversations age appropriate but be straightforward about difficult topics and transitions that affect their lives. Additionally, positively reinforce truth-telling behavior with reward systems or providing more freedom and screen time for older children. You can do this by acknowledging when they’ve completed a behavior they tend to lie about, like homework, or when they open up about something troubling them. It’s important to give more attention to the behaviors you want to increase.
6. Reduce perfection
You can also encourage a strong foundation of trust by reducing expectations. For example, remind your children that you don’t expect perfection and that everyone makes mistakes. Say, “I love you, and maybe you don’t want to tell me the truth because you’re afraid of how I will react. But giving me an honest answer will strengthen our relationship, and it won’t lead to punishment”. When you provide the chance to improve their behavior by reducing the stakes, it may reinforce the truth. After they tell you the truth, reward their honesty as mentioned above and explain the importance of taking accountability and responsibility for your actions. It also reinforces the cornerstone of building values.
Lying is a part of children’s development. So, although it may be challenging to deal with kids who lie, remember to lead with empathy, avoid these parenting mistakes, don’t label them a liar, and create a compassionate environment to build a foundation of trust. It takes time.
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