Why Children Lie: Insights from an Expert and How to Help Your Child

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To help you understand why kids lie and how to respond so that you don’t encourage that behavior, we talked to Ann Lagges, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. Here, her helpful tips.

Know that some lies are fairly harmless

“There are different kinds of untruths,” says Lagges and your response will depend on which type your child tells. “There are the tall tales that start with a bit of truth and end with a bit of fiction. And the purpose of those is to entertain, impress, and make the story more exciting,” she says. For instance, your child might tell you he had a tornado warning at school—which may be true—but he may then go on to exaggerate and tell you that the tornado flew right overhead and broke the classroom windows. “Don’t treat those instances like a major violation of trust,” says Lagges. “With a smile on your face, you might make clear that you’re not buying it, and that if he exaggerates in that way all the time, it will make it hard to believe him in the future. So you’re trying to shift that behavior a little bit, but it doesn’t warrant major consequences.”

Resist the urge to entrap your child in a lie

Another classic type of lie that kids tell is the sort that may get them something they want or that may get them out of trouble. For instance, your child might lie about finishing her homework in order to have time to play a video game. “What parents need to know is that all kids will do this and it doesn’t mean the child is a psychopath,” says Lagges. But how you respond in these situations can influence how honest your child will be with you the next time. So Lagges suggests that you don’t entrap your child when you figure out she’s lying. For example, don’t ask your child who tracked mud on the carpet when she’s sitting there with muddy shoes on her feet. “You don’t want to provide her with added opportunities to practice lying, which she might do if she thinks she’s about to be caught,” says Lagges. “Instead, you could say, ‘you know you need to take your shoes off before you come in, so let’s clean this up.’” That way, your child isn’t getting away with the behavior and will learn that lying doesn’t pay off.

Use lies as an opportunity to talk about honesty

“Some of what is motivating for kids, and for teenagers in particular, is that they usually don’t like their parents checking on them constantly,” says Lagges. So when you find out that your child hasn’t done his homework or brushed his teeth even though he claimed he did, let him know that because he lied, you’re going to have to check on him. And when he demonstrates that he can be trusted, you’ll step back and let him take more responsibility. “That will start to motivate a little more honesty,” she adds. The ultimate goal is that your child will do the right thing and be honest even when nobody is watching.

Make clear that safety always trumps a lie

Some of the most concerning lies are those that jeopardize your child’s safety. For instance, many teenagers have told their parents that they were going to a friend’s house to study when instead they were actually going to a party where alcohol was being served. You want your child to know that in that type of situation, he can always call a parent to get a safe ride home, even if he lied to get there. “Absolutely, you go and pick your child up, and you save the serious conversation for the next day,” says Lagges. “You say you’re really glad your child called and that he made a good decision at that point. But you can’t ignore what happened before then.” That’s when you talk with your child about the fact that everybody makes mistakes or bad decisions sometimes, but if your child owns it, as he did when he called for help, the consequences are going to be a lot less severe.

“Explain to your child, “I’m not looking for reasons to punish you; I’m looking to keep you safe and help you recover from your mistakes, and the earlier you ask for help, the better off you’ll be,” says Lagges. Then, it’s reasonable to address the consequences, which may involve putting additional monitoring on your child, or enforcing more restrictions on the car for a while. Remind your child that you’re on the same side and when safety is jeopardized, the outcome could be a lot worse than a punishment from mom.

Watch out for hurtful lies

“Another category of lies are those that kids do specifically to hurt others or get others in trouble, as in when they start rumors about classmates—and that horrifies parents,” says Lagges. Children may do this out of jealousy or social aggression and when this happens, one of the most effective ways to deal with it is to help your child build empathy. “Ask her how she would feel if somebody did that to her, and emphasize that you are not raising her to treat people that way,” says Lagges.

Impress upon your child that lies that damage someone else’s character are serious and can impact people well beyond your own family. They are unacceptable.

And if those lies become a pattern, then you may need to seek some counseling help.

-- By Rachel Rabkin Peachman

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