When Your Child Lies
A: When a child lies to a parent for the first time, it can be upsetting. When it happens more frequently, parents question whether their child is heading down a troubled path or whether he or she will outgrow it. All children lie at times, most without long-term problems, but it is important to keep in mind that adults are also tempted to bend the truth and that your child learns by the example you set.
Children between the ages of 3 and 6 often mix fantasy and reality as a normal part of their development. Tales of their wild adventures are just part of their creative imagination and should not generally be discouraged. Lies can be told for many reasons. Young children like to exaggerate to impress others or to gain attention. They may lie to avoid punishment or to appear obedient to a parent or other adult whom they admire. It is especially difficult for children who are extremely high achievers to admit to wrongdoing. Sometimes lies are told in laziness to simply avoid having to clean up a mess that was made. Children learn to be untruthful by mimicking the adults around them. Parents may unknowingly reinforce lying by laughing at their child's stories or telling them they are being cute.
While some lying or stretching of the truth is expected in young children, it is best to encourage honesty as a child moves through the elementary school years. By 7 or 8, children are capable of understanding ways to acknowledge people's kindness (such as in receiving unwanted gifts) in order to avoid hurting someone's feelings, but are also mature enough to begin understanding the concept of personal responsibility.
One thing a parent can do to minimize lying when a child is clearly at fault is to simply acknowledge what the child has done wrong rather than give them an opportunity to lie about it. For example if an object has been broken, show them you value their safety above all else, i.e. "I'm really glad you're OK," and work with your child to correct the situation. Give them the tools to clean up the mess and, if they are very young, help them see it through. This establishes that mistakes are part of life, everyone makes them, but they also have a responsibility to help correct them. It is best to avoid exaggerated emotional responses to small mistakes, as children are vulnerable to parents' reactions and can take on a burden of guilt that may be unhealthy.
Another way to discourage lying is to communicate love and acceptance of your child and focus on the reason behind the lying instead of the lie. If a parent responds to a child's lie with harsh criticism, it may only serve to reinforce the same behavior, as the child may become afraid to tell the truth in the future. If your son or daughter receives a bad grade on a test, let him or her know that the grade itself can be dealt with but that they will only lose time in correcting the situation if they lie about it. Come alongside your children and help them develop ways to improve their study habits, which may include limiting phone and social media use. This is not punishment, but rather limits set out of love and care for your child.
Above all else, make sure your child understands the need for honesty when it comes to safety. Lying to protect abusiveness or self-harm only compounds the problem. Educate your child about the potential dangers of lying and offer them frequent opportunities to share what is happening in their lives so that as issues arise they will feel more comfortable being honest about them.
Susan Michels works with children and adolescents at Cone Health Behavioral Health Hospital. Please submit your questions to "Is My Kid OK?" by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.