Lying is a common behavior among children. It can develop in very early childhood and persist into the teenage years. However, the reasons for lying change with age.
Lying is one of the earliest antisocial behaviors that children develop. When dealing with your child’s lying, it’s important to consider your child’s age and developmental stage, the type of lies being used, and possible reasons behind the behavior.
Lying can sometimes occur with cheating and/or stealing. When this behavior occurs frequently and over an extended period of time, it may indicate a more serious problem.
Until your child understands the difference between truth and fiction, lying may not be intentional. Your child also must mature to the point where he or she has a conscience in order to understand that lying is wrong.
Researchers at the University of Arizona categorized lying into the following categories:
- Pro-social lying occurs when a child lies to protect someone else or to help others.
- Self-enhancement lying is intended to avoid consequences such as shame, disapproval, or reprimand.
- Selfish lying is used for self-protection, often at the expense of someone else, and/or to hide misconduct.
- Antisocial lying is lying with the intention of purposefully hurting another person.
Lying occurs for different reasons as children grow.
Children younger than three years old typically do not lie on purpose. They don’t always know that they are telling untruths. At this age, they are too young to have a moral code against which their lies can be judged. Their lies may be testing ways to use language and communicate.
Children between the ages of three and seven years old may not be able to differentiate between reality and fantasy. Their daily activities often emphasize imaginary playmates and pretend play. They may not realize that they are being untruthful, so lies may be unintentional.
By the time most children are seven years old, they typically understand the definition of lying. They can be taught that it is morally wrong to lie. They may be confused by a double standard that allows parents to lie. Older children may be testing adult rules and limits by lying.
When they lie intentionally, children may be trying to:
- conceal the fact that they didn’t meet their parents' expectations
- pretend they are succeeding at school or another activity if they feel that parents won’t accept their failure
- explain why they did a certain action if they are unable to give another explanation for it
- get attention in relationships where praise is not offered
- avoid doing something
- deny responsibility for their actions
- protect their privacy
- feel independent from their parents
Occasional lying is considered common among school-age children. It is more common in boys than girls.
Children may be morelikely to lie when they are under significant stress to meet unattainable goals. If a parent is likely to overreact and be extremely negative, he or she may push a child into lying to avoid consequences.
If your child has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), he or she may not be able to fully control lying. A child who is involved in drug or alcohol abuse also may lie to hide these activities.
There are no definite signs that your child is lying. However, if your child is lying, some common clues are:
- unbelievable content in a story
- inconsistency when the story is retold
- a look of fear or guilt
- too much enthusiasm in the storytelling
- too much calmness in describing an emotional story
You may need to consult your child’s physician if lying becomes problematic. Lying that remains constant may be a sign of a conduct disorder, a learning disability, or an antisocial personality disorder.
Evaluation from a mental health professional may be necessary if:
- lying occurs with such frequency that it is habitual or compulsive
- lying is used to deal with difficult situations on a regular basis
- your child does not exhibit remorse about lying when caught
- lying is accompanied by other antisocial behaviors such as fighting, stealing, cheating, or cruelty
- lying is accompanied by hyperactivity or problems sleeping
- your child lies and doesn’t have many friends, indicating possible low self-esteem or depression
- lying is used to cover up harmful behaviors such as substance abuse
If you realize that your child is lying, it’s important to let him or her know right away that you know about the deception attempt. When you discuss the topic with your child, it’s important to emphasize:
- the difference between fantasy and reality
- the fact that lying is wrong
- alternatives to lying
- the importance of honesty
- your expectation that you will be told the truth
Excessive lying may require treatment from a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist who can help your child identify underlying causes for lying and work toward ending the behavior.
Isolated lying typically doesn’t indicate a lifetime problem. All children lie at some time. In most cases, discussing and modeling honest behavior can help your child act honestly.
When lying is repetitive, accompanied by other antisocial behaviors, or used to conceal dangerous activities, professional intervention is needed. Chronic lying may be a sign that your child isn’t able to tell the difference between right and wrong. It also may be an indication of problems affecting the child within the family or outside the home.
You can discourage lying in these ways:
- Teach honesty in your home.
- Model honest behavior in your home.
- Establish a home environment where it is easy for children to tell the truth.
- Avoid dishonest actions, such as lying about your age, which could confuse your child about the importance of telling the truth.
- Don’t lie to children to get them to cooperate.
- Praise your children when you catch them being truthful, especially if lying could have been easier.
- Don’t overload your children with too many rules or expectations. They likely will fail and be tempted to lie to avoid punishment.
- Avoid punishment for lying since fear of punishment may be a cause of lying.
- Provide appropriate privacy for adolescents so they will not lie to protect privacy.