Family, Kids & Relationships

What to do if your child is lying

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When kids lie, it can be upsetting and confusing to parents. But before you jump to conclusions about your child being malicious or manipulative, consider some of the (very natural!) reasons your child might not be telling the truth.

Honesty is a skill that can take a lot of practice, so we’re sharing ways that you can support your child in finding alternatives to lying. You’re in this together! 

Of course if you’ve tried all of these approaches and you’re still concerned about the frequency and severity of your child’s lies, don’t hesitate to talk to a pediatrician about whether your child/family could benefit from professional support.

First, determine what kind of lies they’re telling and why

Attention-seeking lies — Possible reasons:

  • Low self-esteem
  • To test out a new behavior
  • Active imagination

Careless lies — Possible reasons:

  • Forgetfulness
  • Not thinking before they speak
  • To get the attention off of themselves
  • Feeling overwhelmed

Serious lies — Possible reasons:

  • Fear of consequences
  • Fear of criticism
  • Embarrassment

Attention-seeking lies

When kids are inflating what actually happened or saying things that are obviously untrue just to get a reaction, the best thing to do is to gently remind them how much you value honesty. Rather than teaching them a lesson about telling the truth, punishing young kids for lying is shown to just encourage them to become better at lying so they can avoid being disciplined.

If they seem to need a self-esteem boost or are crying out for attention, think of other ways to build them up, like offering specific praise and encouragement at other times, giving them an important role in family activities, and scheduling more one-on-one time.

Young kids with active imaginations naturally blur the lines between reality and fantasy, so you’ll want to encourage their creativity as well as teach them how to be honest. You can say:

  • “Is that pretend or for real?”
  • “Sounds like a wild story. Do you want to draw a picture of it?”
  • “Here’s what I saw happen. Do you wish it happened a different way?”

Careless lies

When kids frequently say untrue things but aren’t necessarily doing it with intention, that’s a sign that they may need to work on being more thoughtful before speaking. This type of impulsivity can be common among kids with ADHD who simply forget to check the truth before quickly answering, or kids who don’t like being under pressure and want to get you off their back by giving the easiest answer.

Kids need to practice the skill of answering more thoughtfully and honestly, so you can say:

  • “Hmm, that sounds like a tall tale. Should we try that again?”
  • “Do you want to check whether that’s right, and then answer again?”
  • “How about if I come back in 5 minutes so you can think about your answer?”

Serious lies

First, if you suspect your child might be about to lie, try to interject with a reminder about the value of honesty. “I won’t be upset if you [fill in the blank], as long as you’re honest. It makes me so happy to hear you tell the truth.”

If a child does knowingly lie to avoid taking responsibility for their actions, it’s important that they understand the merit of repairing any harm that might have occurred because of the lie. Review the elements of a sincere apology if their actions affected others, to help them learn that an apology is much more than simply saying “I’m sorry.”

But don’t make them feel like a bad person for telling the lie. Never refer to them as “liars” or generalize that they “always lie,” which can stick in their minds and become part of the way they define themselves. That’s NOT what we want! And avoid harsh punishments, as they’ll simply teach kids to be sneakier or become better liars. Instead, find ways to encourage honesty and connection:

  • “No one is perfect! I find it’s always better to admit mistakes right away so that someone can support you in finding a solution and you don’t have to feel so alone.”
  • “I used to hide things from my parents because I didn’t want them judging me. That’s why I try to be less judgmental with you. How do you think I’m doing with that?”

Other ways to help kids avoid lying

  • Focus on solutions instead of playing the blame game: “I see this got broken—let’s figure out how to fix it!”
  • Don’t try to trap them in a lie if you already know the truth. Lay out the facts, then give them time to tell you their perspective.
  • Make sure kids know the practical reasons behind rules: You have to know where your teen is because if something happens you need to be able to get in touch—not because you want to judge their choices.
  • Thank kids for their honesty whenever they admit to mistakes or share something with you that may have been hard for them.
  • Never call your child a “liar”—this label makes them believe it’s who they are, instead of a behavior that they can improve.
  • Avoid lying in your everyday life—and if you have to tell a small white lie, make sure you explain why you decided to do that, and ask them what they think.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.