In a society that places a high value on honesty and integrity, it can feel extremely uncomfortable for a parent to realize that their child might be telling lies. When my oldest kid was 6, he began to tell all kinds of tall tales.
Sometimes, it was to get out of trouble, but at other times, it was because he liked to entertain with exaggerated stories that would shock and amaze the listener. I recall feeling deeply worried that my child hadn’t learned the values we’d been trying so hard to teach him. I also felt concerned that others might think of him as untrustworthy because of his tales.
Several children later, I’ve come to understand that telling lies is normal behavior many children will engage in regardless of the parenting they have received. I’m delighted to report that my oldest is now 14 and one of the most honest people I know. In fact, sometimes he is too honest.
So, why do children lie, and what can we do about it? Read on for some helpful information about this common childhood behavior.
When do kids start lying?
Several decades of research have revealed that lie-telling usually begins when children are about 2 years old. At the age of 4, it becomes more common for children to lie in order to hide or conceal a misdeed, and this continues all through childhood. While lying can occur at any age, this research has also shown that telling lies increases throughout childhood, peaks in adolescence, and then decreases (but doesn’t disappear) during adulthood.
Why do kids lie?
According to experts, there are many reasons why a child might tell a lie. Some important ones include:
- To get out of trouble, which is probably among the most common reasons
- When they are feeling stressed
- When they are trying to avoid conflict
- To seek connections with others
- Lying out of embarrassment or shame; in this case, children create a story that makes them feel better about the situation. This is often true of older kids or teens during the years when peer acceptance is of utmost importance and lies can be told to protect their privacy.
- Young kids may lie about things that they wish were true. They might tell their friends they have a swimming pool at home when they don’t or say that they’re really good at something when they’re not. In these cases, the child isn’t trying to be dishonest but to connect socially.
- Parents will often view lying as a strong act of defiance, and while that might the true on occasion, some children can be lying due to a lack of self-control. In fact, some children might not even realize they’re telling untruths because they might have difficulties related to their executive functions which allow them to organize their thoughts and think about consequences.
Regardless of the reason, most kids will feel guilty about lying and have a deep sense of remorse after being found out. No parent wants their child to lie or be dishonest, but it’s important to look past the behavior and determine why the child is lying before responding appropriately.
How to tell if your child is lying
While some parents say they can instinctively tell when their child is not being truthful, there are a few key behavioral traits you can look for if you suspect your child might be lying. Taking a long time to respond to a question might indicate that your kid is busy thinking up a creative response. Also, tactics like trying to change the subject or offering irrelevant information might indicate that your child isn’t being honest.
There are also some physiological indicators that your child is lying to you. Changes in voice pitch, a lack of natural speech pauses, or talking faster than usual are some signs to look out for. Another good indicator can be your child finding it difficult to maintain eye contact and seeming evasive.
How to deal with kids lying
Having the right response in a situation where a child is lying is important for minimizing these instances in the future. Through these responses, we also want to avoid shaming or humiliating the child to prevent any damage to their sense of self and self-esteem. In our responses, we must identify the kind of lie that is occurring before being able to appropriately respond.
1. Responding to tall tales
If your young child is telling elaborate tales, you don’t need to treat this the same as lying. In these circumstances, it’s best to respond by saying something like, “That’s a great story.”
This will encourage their imagination and help them understand the difference between “story” and “truth.”
2. Attention-seeking lies
If your child seems to be telling lies to gain attention from others, sometimes it’s best to ignore these lies. This often occurs among children with low self-esteem; they feel they need to be interesting to be liked by others.
In these circumstances, you should try not to give the lie any attention. If this becomes an ongoing issue, your child might need some gentle guidance and support to learn to connect with people without the need for lies.
3. Deliberate lying
When responding to deliberate lying, it’s important to remain calm and explain to your child how lying makes you feel and how it affects your relationships. For example, “When you lie to me, it makes it hard for me to know when you’re telling the truth.”
In addition to this, you should always let your child know when you are aware that they aren’t being honest, but be careful not to call them a “liar” as this will damage their self-esteem. It’s also here that you should affirm your expectations as well as the future consequences for lying.
4. Ongoing and serious lies
If you’ve noticed that your child’s lying is getting more frequent and they’re lying about more serious issues, it is important to make the consequences very clear.
Conversations about trust and honesty are crucial. If your child is telling lies about where they are going and what they are doing, it might be necessary to limit their freedom so they learn that lying is not the best option.
It’s also important to remember that trust must go both ways, so be a good role model and show your child respect by being truthful with them, even about things you aren’t proud of. This will teach them that it is ok to make mistakes and will help foster open and honest communication.
How to stop kids from lying
As with most things, prevention is better than a cure, so adopting right from the start parenting practices that build connection and communication is hugely beneficial.
1. Set clear expectations
Conversations about lying can begin as soon as the child is old enough to understand the difference between true and untrue.
Emphasizing the importance of honesty within your family will help your child learn what the expectations are as well as the consequences for lying.
2. Focus on relationship building
Building a solid and trusting relationship with your child will help them feel that they can disclose things to you without harsh punishment. Praising your kid when they have admitted to doing something wrong will help them learn that we all make mistakes and this is ok.
Developing a strong and secure relationship with your child will mean that they’ll be more likely to confide in you as they move into those difficult teenage years.
When responding to a teen who is deliberately telling lies, it’s important to recognize that it is not a personal attack on you. Remember to be patient, loving, and kind as you address the issue so that your teen can see you’re coming from a place of support and want to help them.
3. Be proactive wherever possible
You can make it easier for your child to not lie by thinking about situations and circumstances that might result in a lie and then try to set them up for success.
I like to use sentences such as “I’m going to ask you a question, and I would really like you to give me a truthful answer” because this allows my child some thinking time and sets up a clear expectation before I actually ask the question.
4. Make honest conversations safe
One study has found that children are more likely to connect positive emotions to lying and negative emotions to confessing. The belief is that this is really about the adult reactions to these behaviors.
This means that if a child expects a parent to feel happy about them confessing to something, they are more likely to come forward. What this highlights is that as parents, we must provide a place of safety so that our children may feel they can be honest with us.
It certainly doesn’t mean that there are no consequences for lying. However, when the issue is approached in a way that’s about teaching the child why the behavior is wrong rather than punishing, the relationship between parent and child is much stronger.
A final thought
Honestly, all people lie. Whether it’s to hide something embarrassing or avoid hurting someone’s feelings, there are times when untruths kind of slip out. It is important to remember this and recognize that your child is not “bad” or “naughty” for twisting the facts; they are just using this behavior to indicate they’re feeling uncomfortable in some way.
Guiding and supporting your child through it with open communication will help them understand that there are other ways to deal with issues and that honesty is certainly the best policy.