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Children and Lying: Crucial Tips for Parents

Honesty – and dishonesty – are learned in the home. Moms and dads are often concerned when their child or teenager lies.

Lying that is probably not a serious problem—

Young kids (ages 4-5) often make up stories and tell tall tales. This is normal activity because they enjoy hearing stories and making up stories for fun. These young kids may blur the distinction between reality and fantasy.

An older child or teenager may tell a lie to be self-serving (e.g. avoid doing something or deny responsibility for their actions). Moms and dads should respond to isolated instances of lying by talking with the youngster about the importance of truthfulness, honesty and trust.

Some adolescents discover that lying may be considered acceptable in certain situations such as not telling a boyfriend or girlfriend the real reasons for breaking up because they don't want to hurt their feelings. Other adolescents may lie to protect their privacy or to help them feel psychologically separate and independent from their parents (e.g. denying they sneaked out late at night with friends).

Lying that may indicate emotional problems—

Some kids, who know the difference between truthfulness and lying, tell elaborate stories which appear believable. Kids or adolescents usually relate these stories with enthusiasm because they receive a lot of attention as they tell the lie.

Other kids or adolescents, who otherwise seem responsible, fall into a pattern of repetitive lying. They often feel that lying is the easiest way to deal with the demands of parents, educators and friends. These kids are usually not trying to be bad or malicious but the repetitive pattern of lying becomes a bad habit.

There are also some kids and adolescents who are not bothered by lying or taking advantage of others. Other adolescents may frequently use lying to cover up another serious problem. For example, an adolescent with a serious drug or alcohol problem will lie repeatedly to hide the truth about where they have been, who they were with, what they were doing, and where the money went.

What to do if your child or teenager lies—

Moms and dads are the most important role models for their kids. When a child or teenager lies, parents should take some time to have a serious talk and discuss:
  • alternatives to lying
  • the difference between make believe and reality, lying and telling the truth
  • the importance of honesty at home and in the community

If a child or teenager develops a pattern of lying which is serious and repetitive, then professional help may be indicated. Evaluation by a child and adolescent psychiatrist would help the child and parents understand the lying behavior and would also provide recommendations for the future.

Lies come out of kid's mouths for a variety of reasons:
  • Because she is imaginative and the truth is boring.
  • By mistake. Sometimes lies seem almost involuntary, and a lie just slips out, especially if your child gets caught in a misdeed. (“Who broke the antique chair? “I didn't!”) Then, soon enough, it's Sir Walter Scott: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive!”
  • Fear. When kids are scared of the consequences of their actions, they often lie to cover up. (Are the rules too strict? Are the limits too tight? Does your child feel free to talk with you?)
  • For love, for approval, and because kids like to impress people quickly and effectively.
  • To avoid an unpleasant task. (“Did you brush your teeth?” “Yes, Dad!”)
  • To protect somebody else.

Lie Prevention Techniques—

No, you can't keep your kids from lying, but you can make lying a less rewarding activity. Many lies come from self-protection, and you can help by not creating a situation where your kid feels pressured to lie or suffer the consequences. Here are a few suggestions:
  • Before you talk with your kid about a lie he's told, make sure that he did lie. A false accusation, or not believing a child when he is telling the truth, can devastate.
  • Don't cross-examine (“After you left school, which route did you take home? And this was at precisely 3:10 p.m.?”), forget the fierce white lights and the sleep deprivation techniques. Remember that the object of talking with your child is to communicate. Grilling will make him close down, not open up, to you.
  • Don't reprimand your child for telling the truth.
  • Keep the conversation focused on what happened or what the problem is, rather than casting blame.
  • Lies are easy to slip into, and even easier to compound themselves, lie upon lie. Many kids slip into lying as painlessly as sliding into warm, tropical ocean water. It's more painful getting out (shiver, shiver).
  • Looking for the positive intent? Lies are a misguided survival technique.
  • The truth is hard to tell. It's risky to confess (and risk is always hard). If your child confesses a misdeed to you, you need to 1) thank him for the truth, and give him positive reinforcement for his bravery and his sense of ethics, and then 2) deal with the misdeed by applying appropriate consequences. Doing step 2 but not step 1 is as bad a mistake as doing step 1 without step 2. He needs to have positive feedback for telling the truth and he needs consistent consequences. The positive feedback will make the consequence easier to take, and help build his ethical sense.
  • When your kid has misbehaved, don't trap him into a lie, or set him up in a no-win situation. Confronting him with leading questions is more likely to elicit a lie than talking calmly with him about what happened. If Tony comes home with a black eye and you scream at him, “I swear I will kill you if you got into a fight! Did you fight today?” you are putting Tony into a situation where he's either got to lie (“Oh no, I walked into a wall.” “Oh honey, get an ice pack for that”) or face your wrath. A better approach would be, “Oh my! What happened? Let's sit down.”

Seven Quick Steps to Dealing with a Lie—

Discovering your youngster has lied can be quite distressing. Lies are often an additional layer of misbehavior (the child misbehaves, and then lies about it) and it's this layer that often makes moms and dads go ballistic. (“I'm furious that you stole my silver coin collection and bought candy with it, but the fact that you lied to me about it, too, well, I can't stand it!”) If you've discovered a lie (“layered” or simple), try this:
  1. Breathe, run around the block, take 10, calm down. Take as long as you need to take in order to deal with the situation, not the lie, or the fact that your youngster wasn't honest with you.
  2. Focus on the misbehavior, not the lie your youngster used to cover it up.
  3. Give her the benefit of the doubt (she may be caught in a compound lie).
  4. If you don't want a youngster who lies, don't label her a liar. Kids tend to internalize the labels we give them.
  5. Once the situation she lied about is resolved, talk with her about the problems lying can cause. Knowledge (and your obvious disapproval) will help her avoid lying in the future.
  6. Talk about values, and let her know that you don't value lying.
  7. Talk with your youngster. Let her know that you aware of the truth. (Be as calm and level-voiced as possible.)

My Out-of-Control Child: Parenting Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder

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