Family, Kids & Relationships

When your child tells a lie: Helpful scripts for parents

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When kids lie, it can be upsetting and confusing for parents—but before you jump to conclusions about your child being malicious or manipulative, consider some of the totally natural reasons your child might not be telling the truth.

Honesty is a skill that can take a lot of practice, so learning ways you can support your child in finding alternatives to lying can help them develop that skill over time. Depending on the type of lie your child tells, there are several ways you can respond appropriately and help them understand the importance of honesty.

What types of lies do kids tell?

There are three main types of lies that kids typically tell as they grow and start to test boundaries—

  1. Attention-seeking lies: Kids with active imaginations might naturally blur the line between fantasy and reality, which can lead them to bend the truth or tell falsehoods. It’s also possible for this type of lie to come out because kids are feeling low self-esteem, and are looking for attention from you, or are trying to test the limits.
  1. Careless lies: Careless lies occur when kids say something untrue unintentionally or without thinking. It might be because of forgetfulness, feeling overwhelmed, wanting to get the attention off themselves, or just saying something without really considering it first.
  1. Serious lies: Serious lies can happen when kids are feeling afraid of consequences, criticism, or embarrassment. They may be trying to avoid taking responsibility for their actions when they tell this type of lie.

How should parents respond?

It can be upsetting when your child lies, but it’s important not to call them a liar when it happens. Kids can actually internalize labels like “liar” and start to believe that’s what they are. And if they’re a “liar” rather than simply a person who told a lie, it might make them feel like they’re a bad person, or like they can’t help lying.

Instead of resorting to calling them a liar, you can try to find ways to encourage their honesty. Here are some examples of things you can say when your kid tells a lie. Phrases like these make it clear that you value honesty, without shaming them—

  • “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 to judge me. That’s why I try to be less judgmental of you. How do you think I’m doing with that?”
  • “There are a lot of reasons someone might stretch the truth that are perfectly understandable, like not wanting to get in trouble, or maybe to get out of a responsibility. Could anything like that be happening here?”

There are also some specific ways you can respond to the three types of lies kids typically tell that will help encourage them to be more honest in the future.

Here’s what parents can say when their child tells an attention-seeking lie—

  • “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 can be a sign that your child may need to work on thinking more before they speak. 

Here are three things you can say if your child tells a careless lie—

  • “Hmm. That sounds like a tall tale. Should we try that again?”
  • “Are you sure that’s right? Want to double-check and let me know?”
  • “How about I come back in five minutes, and I’ll ask again? If your answer is different, that’s ok.”

If you suspect your child might tell a serious lie about something, you can try to intervene with a reminder about the importance of honesty. If they still choose to be dishonest, they should then work to repair any harm they may have caused with their lie.

Here are some things you can say if this tricky situation comes up—

  • “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, even when it’s hard.”
  • “I know it can be scary to face the consequences of our actions sometimes. What can we do to fix what happened or make sure it doesn’t happen again?”

Other ways to help kids avoid lying

There are lots of ways that parents can help encourage their kids to be honest every day— 

  • 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.

When your child tells a lie, the most important thing is to approach the situation with empathy and understanding. Making sure your kids know they can talk to you about anything without fear of judgment or punishment will foster an environment of honesty in your household.

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.