How to Address Chronic Lying in Children
The first time my first child lied to me (that I can remember) was when she was two years old. Up until that point, she’d been painfully honest with me, whether I wanted it or not.
“Did you dump this out?”
“Did you clean up your toys?”
“Is that candy in your mouth?”
“What are you doing?”
I loved it! I never had to worry about digging for the truth. But when she was pushing close to three, it finally happened.
I asked her about a poor choice she’d made … and then she lied to me. I remember feeling so sad, like the world (and selfish desires) had finally overtaken my sweet baby.
But that’s a normal part of development.
Children are supposed to test out the boundaries of truth and lies. They’re supposed to learn that there are consequences, both disciplinary and natural, that they have to live with when they lie. They can’t learn those lessons if they never try lying.
Lying also means that your child is learning autonomy outside of you [or your partner]. They’re learning to think for themselves and that mom (or whoever else) isn’t a concrete piece of them.
However, when lying turns into a chronic issue for your child, it can be overwhelming and frustrating. As parents, it makes us scared that they’ll never learn to be honest. That they’ll lose friends, damage relationships, or ruin their own conscience.
One thing that you, as their caregiver, can do to prevent further lying is to stop teaching them how to get better at it.
If your teenager is sneaking out at night, putting an alarm on their window will only teach them how to work around the physical obstacle in order to reach the same goal. They’ll find another way out, or they’ll learn how to trick the alarm.
You’ve taught them how to lie more covertly.
If your middle schooler is stealing from you, asking them, “Why did you do this?” or “Did you take that money from me?” will only give them an opportunity to think of an answer that isn’t true. You’ve provided them with an escape route. An excuse. And you can’t even get too upset about them making an excuse because you gave them the opportunity to use one.
You’ve taught them how to think on their feet and lie more quickly.
If you play twenty-one questions with your third grader, trying to get them to incriminate themselves because you know they lied but you can’t prove it… you’ve only reinforced the idea that lying is okay, as long as no one catches you.
You’ve taught them that only disciplinary consequences matter, and that natural or relational consequences of lying aren’t important.
You’re not a police officer (at least not on-duty when parenting, haha) so you don’t need to investigate their situations. It’s not your job to catch them. It’s your job to teach them that actions have consequences, both positively and negatively.
Can’t figure out how to hold up your end of the argument when you have no proof of their lying?
Consequence them as if you know they’ve been lying, and then teach your child about keeping their head above suspicion.
If you don’t want me to think you’re smoking with your friends, find more positive friends. If you don’t want me to think you’re goofing around in your bedroom at night, then make better choices throughout the day so that I can trust you after hours. If you don’t want me to think you’re stealing, then don’t go into my room alone.
It’s not your job to catch them.
It’s also not your job to prevent them from lying. (I know, this is a hard one for a lot of people.) You can’t take away all of their temptations.
You can (and definitely should) help remove stumbling blocks for them that you know will trip them up, but you can’t lock them in a room with no temptations whatsoever. You’ve got to find a way to allow them to make age-appropriate choices that might be difficult for them, but that they could succeed at.
Teach them beforehand–in neutral moments–about what will happen if they’re honest in life and what will happen when they’re dishonest, or people think they’re being dishonest.
Then follow through with those consequences, both positively and negatively, even if you just suspect it. If your child is presented with an opportunity to lie, but doesn’t, reward them. If they do lie, remind them of how that can affect them and the people around them, and then provide them with an effective negative consequence.
And remember that consequences are not the same as punishments.
A consequence is meant to teach a child, and it can be either positive or negative. A punishment, however, is an emotional reaction that is meant to make a child feel ashamed, guilty, or undervalued.
Be careful how you word things. If you aren’t sure of what to say… speak slowly! Or don’t speak at all.
My favorite parenting advice is something I heard my husband say once.
“If you’re afraid you’re going to sound like an idiot because you really don’t know what you think or how you feel about your kid’s actions, then don’t say anything at all. Just stare at your kid until they start to feel uncomfortable. They’ll eventually feel like you know their secret and they’ll out themselves. Sometimes, they even offer up their own consequence.”
Hahaha! That’s my favorite.
It’s hilarious to watch a sixteen-year-old boy squirm under a father’s gaze until he finally says, “I’m being stupid, aren’t I? I know. It’s dumb. I’m being dumb. Okay, I’ll go to my room.”
Parenting is not easy, but you can do it. Even when your child’s conscience is in question.
If you’re experiencing chronic lying with your child, try following these tips and let me know how things go. If you find anything that doesn’t make sense, or you have a particular situation you need help with, please reach out to me.
I love to help.
Good luck, guys.
See you next week on Childhood Behavioral Concerns.
Cummings, W. (2017). How to Address Chronic Lying in Children. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 13, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/childhood-behavioral/2017/12/how-to-address-chronic-lying-in-children/