A common frustration among parents, teachers, and those who work with children is when children lie. Often, we focus on the problem behavior. However, it is important to look past the actual lie and try to figure out what is underneath the lying. In other words, the why of the lies.
Imagine an iceberg. The part you see is the lie; however, there is so much more underneath the surface. Could it be fear? Anxiety? Pain? Could the lie provide a sense of safety for the child? Could it be a way to relate to others? Maybe the child gets attention when they lie, so they continue that lie. Or maybe they lied to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or to avoid getting into trouble.
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When Children Lie: 3 Stages & 3 Levels
Victoria Talwar and Kang Lee studied the social and cognitive correlations of children’s lying behavior and they describe three stages of children’s lying.
Stage 1: Children begin to lie around age two or three when they deliberately make false statements This is often linked to situations of violating rules and avoiding incrimination.
Stage 2: Around age four, children will readily tell lies to conceal their misbehavior.
Stage 3: Around age seven or eight, children are capable of telling a deliberate lie to make sure their later stories do not contradict their initial lie. Read more here!
When it comes to deciding on the repercussions of lying, it is important to take these stages (above) into consideration, along with the severity of the lie.
Matthew Rouse, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, describes three different levels of lying:
Level 1 lie: These lies are often attention-seeking and they are okay to ignore. Rather than harshly confronting the lie, there does not necessarily have to be a consequence or even a reaction. If the lying is coming from a place of low self-esteem, i.e. “I made 10 new friends today at recess,” and you do not think it is true, it is okay to ignore the lie and redirect to a topic you know is more factual.
Level 2 lie: Parents can offer a mild reprimand if ignoring and redirecting do not work. “If the child is telling one of these stories, a parent will gently say, ‘Hey, this sounds like a tall tale, why don’t you try again and tell me what really happened?’ ” It’s about pointing out the behavior and encouraging kids to try again” (Rouse).
Level 3 lie: For more serious lies (i.e. teens lying about their whereabouts or kids lying about doing their homework), natural consequences may be used. These consequences should be clearly established before the behavior occurs so the child or adolescent knows what to expect.
Here are a few resources and articles
for parents when children lie:
1-2-3 Magic by Dr. Thomas Phelan is a must-have for understanding and implementing child discipline at home. It lays out a simple plan to help manage behavior:
- Help your children learn how to control their emotions
- Encourage good behavior and provide positive feedback
- Strengthen your relationships with your children to reinforce the parent-child bond
Lying up a Storm is another great book from one of my favorite authors, Julia Cook! Levi’s mom explains what happens when he lies: “Whenever you tell a lie, your inside sun goes away. Then a lying cloud forms, and glooms up your day. Each time you tell a lie, another cloud starts to form, and before you can stop it from happening, your insides start to storm.” This book helps children understand the consequences of lying and how one lie often leads to telling more. It also helps parents and teachers understand that lying can be a normal and healthy response for a child and provides tools for guiding children towards honesty.
Pig the Fibberis a children’s book about Pig the Pug who tells lies to get what he wants until it leads him to some consequences that naturally teach him a lesson.
Fibber is a fun game for the whole family! Players wear a silly nose and glasses, and their nose keeps growing as players keep fibbing.
Beth Arky wrote an article called Why Kids Lie and What Parents Can Do About It which can be a helpful hand-out to have in your office to share with parents as well as Marie Hartwell-Walker’s article titled When a Child Lies
NPR has a wonderful podcast recording parents can listen to called Parenting Tips: Praise Can Be Bad; Lying Is Normal
Need consultation or coaching on how to work with a child who has chronic lying behavior? Lynn Louise Wonders, LPC, RPT-S, CPCS offers training and coaching for therapists and parents. Contact Lynn here to schedule a consultation.
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