Here’s what you should do when your child turns into Pinocchio and starts telling big ol’ fat lies. Understand the Why? Telling lies can be a normal phase for children. Lies help children test boundaries and understand their world better. As children become more independent, they start to realize not everyone thinks the same as them or knows the same information as them. As children grow older, they can lie more successfully without getting caught because they are better at understanding how other people think.
Lies may serve a very important purpose of getting their needs met. However, if your child’s lying is becoming problematic, very frequent and causing difficulty within the home or at school, it may be time to start addressing it in new ways. Many parents remind their children not to lie, talk about how it breaks trust, or scold them for being dishonest. If you’ve tried these strategies and the lying continues or worsens then this article can offer some practical new techniques.
Children might lie to:
- cover up something so they don’t get into trouble
- see how you’ll respond
- make a story more exciting
- experiment – by pretending something that happened in a story was real
- get attention or make themselves sound better
- get something they want
Children often become nervous when we talk about lying because they’re afraid they’ll get in trouble. Try to avoid calling them a liar or making bigger assumptions about their lies causing moral concerns in the future.
Instead, try to identify the underlying cause for each lie in the moment and address the issue. Lying about homework is likely due to avoidance of an undesirable task or avoidance of a lecture from a parent about the importance of completing work. Address the homework completion with little emphasis on the lie. “Let’s sit down and get our work done”. When a parent focuses on the underlying cause they send the message that lies are not effective or helpful in meeting their needs.
Remain calm and ignore the minor lies. The old saying to pick your battles applies here. By ignoring small, frivolous lies we are avoiding giving attention when they don’t matter because sometimes attention is the desired outcome. Real life can be boring and lies may add some excitement. Also, it’s a normal reaction for kids to immediately lie about something in the moment as a reaction. Help your child avoid situations where they feel the need to lie. For example, if you ask your child if they spilled the milk, your child might feel tempted to lie. To avoid this situation you could just say, ‘I see there’s been an accident with the milk. Let’s clean it up’.
Validate.Say you’re kid comes home from school and says “I did so well on my school work today that the teacher said I didn’t have to come to school anymore”. Don’t take the bait! This lie obviously pulls for a parent to respond with “Are you sure?” Did you make that up? These statements may cause children to double down and stick to their lie vs. admit their mistake. Instead validate the underlying need with statements like “School can be hard sometimes”. Or “Sometimes we wish that would happen, tell me more about school today”. Ignore the lie and stick to the underlying feelings or needs that the lie may be protecting.
Avoid lectures or over explaining the importance of telling the truth. Praise for small bits of honesty. Catch your kids owning their choices and demonstrating appropriate behavior and lay on the compliments and praise thickly. Praise your child for owning up to doing something wrong. For example, ‘I’m so glad you told me what happened. Let’s work together to sort things out’. One of my favorite tricks is to utilize the fact that kids love when you brag about them to other family members or friends when you think they aren’t listening. So purposely speak very highly of them to others when they are in earshot.
Find opportunities to praise for doing good enough and focus on effort vs. being the best/fastest/first or right. By focusing on effort vs. outcome, parents can decrease the incentive to lie in order to obtain good attention and praise.
State facts without asking too many questions which gives them opportunity to lie. For Example: “I see that all the candy from Halloween is gone, you were told you could only have 3 pieces so there will be no dessert tonight”. Instead of “did you eat all the Halloween candy?”, then they lie and say “no” and tell an elaborate story. Another example of this is when your older kid cheats while playing a game or during a race. An appropriate response to their cheating would be. “I know you wanted to win really bad, but the coach saw you get close but not quite touch the half way mark of the race so you were told to do it again”. Then if your child disputes the facts with “No I really did touch it or that coach is just mean.” Follow up with something like, “ I know you wanted to win really bad, I’m sorry you’re not touching it made you have to redo the race and now you’re sad/mad about it. Next time let’s focus on touching the item vs. being first so that you don’t have to do it over”.
Discuss consequences for bigger lies in advance and make them known to the whole family. Not all reasons for lying are malicious or bad but some lies may cause physical harm and hurt feelings for others. Family rules about lying regarding safety concerns could be followed up with a consequence for the behavior and a consequence for the lie. Again, as parents the message we want to send it that the unsafe behavior was not acceptable, and the lie was a separate (not effective) poor choice.
Also, check out these articles that do a nice job of increasing understanding and providing responses to lies. https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/how-to-deal-with-lying-in-children-and-teens/