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Lying is a common symptom in children and can be a source of unending frustration for parents. The purpose of this blog is to gain insight into why children lie and what parents can do to help reduce this troubling behavior. But first, take a minute to think…on average, how often do you tell a lie? As a society, we tend to tell “white” lies frequently, without consequence. In fact, I would go so far as to say that parents model lying to children, both big lies and little lies.

Why do children lie?

To some degree, lying is a normal part of development. Sometimes children lie to avoid punishments, out of fear of hurting someone else, because they are embarrassed or ashamed, to test limits, or even just to be creative. Children perceive the world very differently than adults, and what we interpret as lying may not match our children’s subjective truth.

Lying needs to be seen through a developmental lens in order to determine whether the behavior is problematic or not. Lying in very young children begins as self-serving innocent fibs (“my brother ate the cookie, not me”). The next phase transforms lying as a form of play or creativity. Around elementary school, children catch on to the social norm of telling white lies to be sensitive to others. Beginning in the teen years is when lying can become more purposeful and deceitful.

What can be done about this undesirable behavior? In general, it is imperative that parents and caregivers assess what emotion is driving the behavior. Consider the following:

  • Is your child fearful of consequences?
  • Is your child curious about how you might react?
  • Is your child being silly?
  • Is your child lying with the intent of being harmful?
  • What purpose is their lie serving?

If you can come to some kind of understanding of where the behavior stems from, you are more likely to develop a properly targeted approach to resolving the issue. Next, stay calm. The more attention you put towards the lie, the more rewarding they are to tell. Perhaps offer a warning at the first one and make the rules clear. After that, simply implement the consequence without argument or blame. It’s important to separate the behavior from the child in your language. Just because your child lies, does not make them a “liar.” Be cautious of labeling your child negatively, or they may just live up to your expectations. If all else fails, take comfort in the science. Correlational data has demonstrated that young children with lying behaviors often have higher IQs and better social skills in adolescence (as studied by a leader in this research, Dr. Angela Crossman).

One preventative approach is to work on the parent-child relationship. This relationship can be at the root of many of your child’s behaviors. Make this a priority! Always. Spend time with your child. Make them feel appreciated, valued, and loved as a person. Show them respect and they will return the favor. Be a safe place for them to express themselves. This way, they feel comfortable telling you the truth.

Blair Hamel is a licensed psychologist with Thriveworks Counseling and Coaching in Charlotte who specializes in treating children, adolescents, individuals and couples dealing with depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, behavioral disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, parent-child relationship issues, and relationship struggles.

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