Why Children Lie and How Parents Can Best Respond To Them
What is a Lie? Put simply, it is when someone hides the truth and gives a false statement. Children tell lies (or non-truths) for a variety of reasons.
Self-preservation. Human beings are creatures of survival and we are driven to protect ourselves and the people we care about. When your child lies, it could be for these reasons:
to avoid getting in trouble;
to avoid doing something they don't want to do;
to appear more interesting;
to gain positive attention, acceptance, or approval;
to not reveal their faults or limitations when they feel inadequate or insecure;
to not have to talk about something difficult;
to protect the feelings of others, for example if a child doesn't want their parents to worry about them.
Impulsivity. Children do not always think before they speak or act. Some children lie simply out of impulse. It may be that they are in the habit of responding a certain way (e.g., “it wasn’t me”) or genuinely believe in the moment that what they said was true (e.g., “I finished my homework”).
White lies. From a young age, children learn social skills to fit in, promote harmony, and avoid conflict. Some children are even encouraged to tell “white lies” to be polite or tactful.
The lies mentioned above are considered small lies and harmless. These kinds of lies can be seen as developmental milestones. Consider this - when children begin to recognize that their thoughts are different from their parents, they naturally have an urge to experiment with what they can do and what they can get away with as their own person. This differentiation of self is a sign of a child’s emergence from co-dependency toward independence. In some ways, it is worth celebrating.
With all this in mind, here are some ways to not respond to your child when they tell harmless lies:
do not draw too much attention to harmless lies because they are normal and developmentally appropriate and
do not label your child as a liar and generalize one behavior to all of who they are.
Rather, here are some ways you can respond to your child when they tell harmless lies:
ignore and redirect their attention so lying does not become a big issue;
be direct if you know that they lied ("that is not what happened");
be transparent about your feelings and give them a chance to retell their story (“I sense that this is not the full truth and am wondering if you can start over”); and
positively reinforce when the truth is told ("I know it's not easy to say that and I'm proud of you for being honest").
Now, there are intentional and bigger lies that can cause harm - and every parent can determine what these bigger lies are for their household. There are the kinds of lies that betray parents’ trust, undermine the strength of the parent-child relationship, and cause feelings of offence and resentment. In these cases, keep in mind the following:
keep the relationship intact by maintaining calm authority and treating your child with respect and dignity, despite how upset you are;
avoid punishing dishonest behavior that is out to inflict suffering for wrongdoing and fuel more frustration and anger into the relationship;
discipline dishonest behavior using natural and logical consequences;
remember that your child is not their behavior and provide a safe space for them to talk things out with you while, holding them accountable (e.g., "what made you lie, I can understand why you would lie, can you see the position you are in now, lying breaks my trust in you, how can you can gain it back”);
help your child develop skills to not resort to lying next time (e.g., “what was your mistake here, what can you do next time you feel like lying, how can I help you stay honest with me"); and
role model for your child and lead by example (e.g., be honest with them and in front of them).
- Written by Cynthia Yoo, Registered Psychologist -