My kid tells lies – Why kids do it, and what can you do to help them learn to tell the truth?

Liar Liar pants on fire – My kids tells lies! I think at some point every person lies – whether it be a little white lie (the tooth fairy) or a great big whopper (I did not eat your chocolate bar).

And lies come in varying degrees of complexity, and the resulting damage varies too.

Before we start looking at why lies happen, and how you can parent a child who is lying, we need to actually figure out how high up they fit into our own values system. This factor will give you some indication of how much a lie will trigger your emotions.

At this point a vast amount of people will be immediately stating – honesty is absolutely one of my highest values!!

If you’re one of them, great! You value honesty! But, just check in with that idea and compare it against these questions:

  • Have you ever stolen a pen or other office stationary?
  • Have you not been honest with someone to prevent hurting their feelings?
  • Have you lied to your own parents as a child?

Woah – so you’ve just realised that actually ‘honesty’ as a value on its own, isn’t usually the driving force for our good behaviour when it comes to lies.

You have almost certainly been dishonest at some point in time!

In fact, the chances are – your parents didn’t know half of what you got up to, because you hid it, or – shock horror – lied about it.

Yet we parents can sometimes be hugely triggered by our children telling us lies. For some, it’s an intense feeling of panic. But if we have ourselves lied, why does this particular behaviour trigger us so intensely? but why?

There are some key reasons we parents expect the truth, and get so deeply triggered by lies:

  • Fear – we have for many years controlled our child’s environment, to ensure safety. A lie puts part of the control out of our reach, causing us to wonder what nasties could be lurking in our child’s world that we might not know about. This isn’t always the case, and it isn’t always conscious, but for the main part fear and control are pretty linked.
  • Loss of control – when our child first begins to tell lies we are confronted with the notion that we are actually not in control of our child’s choices anymore. This can feel like a challenge of our authority, leaving us feeling powerless. For some, that feeling is so uncomfortable it causes our triggers to light up and take over our behaviour, making some pretty poor choices on our behalf.
  • Respect- this is a tricky one. For many many people respect is an expected thing, brought down from our own experience of being raised. If we feel disrespected we can often become very triggered – but forget to look more deeply for evidence that the child actually disrespects us as a person. After all – we have been telling them that a red man comes down the chimney and leaves presents under the tree – yet we respect our child. A child’s capacity to understand respect may not align with your expectations of it.
  • Expectation – at some point most of us have built a pre-conceived idea about what we want from our children. These expectations are what cause the feelings of disappointment many people feel  when their child does something outside of these expectations. Expectations are great, we should maintain high expectations of our children, however, they will not always fit into the box neatly and you can bet it’s unlikely to have been a deciding factor in their decision to lie.

So why does my kid tell lies?

Interestingly, the ability to lie is actually formed fairly early in a child’s development. You can do a really simple test to see if your child has the cognitive function to lie.

1) Using a coin, treat or any other item – hold it in your hands behind your back and get your child to guess which one it is in.

2) Then – get your child to play the game back. A child who has not yet developed the ability to lie will always present you with the hand containing the item. Regardless of which you picked.

Often young children say things which are not true – but there is no intent to lie, they are just using words which don’t fit the situation. We place these words against our own knowledge of truth and lie, and come to a conclusion that it is ‘behaviour’ based on our beliefs.

For children (and adults) who do have the capacity to lie:

There are many surface reasons why we make choices, both good and bad, but essentially we do everything for one of 4 reasons.

  • To gain an emotion.
  • To avoid an emotion
  • Because we have not learned a more positive example (yet)
  • Because we have a physical need (food, sleep, safety)

Lying is not really any different. A child, consciously or subconsciously may:

  • Want to experience exhilaration
  • Want to loved
  • Want to feel independent
  • Want to feel included or accepted
  • Want to feel special
  • Want to feel more capable
  • Want to feel ‘grown up’
  • Want to feel powerful
  • Avoid feeling responsible
  • Avoid feeling embarrassed
  • Avoid feeling shame
  • Avoid feeling fear
  • Avoid anxiety about the unknown
  • Avoid feeling isolated
  • Avoid feeling singled out

Or:

  • Have seen others telling lies and copy it
  • Have no other coping strategy for a stressful situation

When kids tell liked, they can be small and hardly worth the resulting issues – or compulsive and a major problem in the family.

I myself was a prolific liar – which was deeply connected to the early years trauma I had suffered. As a result, I would tell absolute whoppers, with extreme determination in sticking to my story!

And – the more a child lies, the deeper the web, the more fear they develop of being found out. It can be a high intensity, high pressure destructive cycle.

Lies can, sometimes, also show a deeper issue with self-worth. In that the child doesn’t feel that they feel their own story need ‘juicing up’ to be worthy.

So what can you actually do when faced with your kid telling lies?

If your child lies, the best possible approach is to try and figure what they were emotionally doing/feeling at the time. Because of you can figure this out – you can have a discussion which gets right to the problem.

You can start by asking some simple questions:

“What were you feeling when you told that lie?”

“What were you trying to achieve by telling me that?”

However, it’s not always easy, or even possible to establish the answers to these questions. Often children won’t know how to, or understand this level of self-questioning.

It’s still good to ask, so we teach our child ‘how’ to problem solve emotions, but you may not always get a clear answer.

Consequences for telling lies:

In order to put an effective consequence in place – you need to ask yourself.

What do you want to consequence to do?

For example:

If you want to consequence to get your child to be more honest with you – going nuclear and yelling at them probably isn’t going to get the result you want.

But –

If you want your child to understand that their lie put them in danger – then you may find a stricter tone and ‘serious’ consequence support this.

For the most part – we want to be able to trust our children. Because, trusting them means we can give them freedoms, and that feels like success for everyone!

It is therefore often appropriate for your consequences to be based around this idea.

Here are some age appropriate ideas:

Young – under 4

If your child is able to tell lies at this stage (children generally develop the ability to lie around 3-4 years old) then you can offer a comparison.

“You said “Jack did it” – but what I saw was that you did it”

Children 5 – 8

At this age, if your kid tells lies, we want them to start thinking about consequences.

“What could have happened”

“How did you make xxx feel?”

“What if I had believed you?”

You can set very clear expectations to make sure the child knows the difference between right and wrong, and understand clearly what we want them to do.

“I expect you to tell me words which are true, even if it feels hard”

“ I expect you to own up to your mistakes, so we can work together to fix them”

You can support these conversations with consequences which give them time to think – but make sure you direct that time.

“I’d like you to spend X minutes now thinking about how you could have managed that better”

Older children:

Once a child is old enough to fully understand consequences, freedoms and trust – you can move onto much more trust and safety based behaviour management.

Here’s how we can address an older kid telling lies.

“To allow you to go out alone, I need to be able to trust you to do XYZ, so you are safe. When you lie you cause me to be unsure if you are able to do this”

“You are trusted your internet access/phone/social media because I believe you can keep yourself safe.”

Flexing freedoms in line with your child’s capacity to be honest and trustworthy is a good way to make being honest a good choice!

Lastly – if you’ve realised your kid tells lies:

If your kid is telling lies – it is really important to make sure they understand that whilst this is a mistake, they are still just as loved.

Often children, once caught out, will self-berate. Let them know that we all make mistakes, but the important thing is to fix it, and learn from it!

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