To some extent, it's normal for children to lie. Young children lie to push the boundaries of reality, avoid consequences, out of wishful thinking, or to better understand how others think.
Little white lies are one thing, but what if your child lies frequently? Parents who want to know how to handle pathological lying in kids aren't alone.
In this article, we'll go over why your child might engage in compulsive lying, such as impulsivity and trouble with self-esteem, and what to do when your child lies. Then, we'll discuss seeking help for compulsive lying in kids.
Reasons For Compulsive Lying In Kids
Parents of kids who engage in lying more than what seems typical for kids often worry about their child's well-being. It is crucial to acknowledge that kids very rarely lie without a purpose. Most of the time, there's a marked reason why children lie, and understanding why your child's lying is deeply important in figuring out what to do about the problem.
Again, to some extent, lying is developmentally normal for kids. Silly, typical lies in a child may be a positive sign. Most parents can most often scope out lies that are developmentally normal for a child based on their age vs. lies that are problematic in nature.
If your child tells tall tales and you're not sure what is or is not typical, consult with a medical or mental health provider such as your child's pediatrician to ask.
Many kids and teens lie to avoid consequences. If kids and teens experience fear about consequences of not doing their homework, not going to school, or staying out too late (common for teens), they might lie to avoid those consequences.
Impulsivity is a possible reason why a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) might lie. Children with ADHD sometimes talk before they think or blurt things out. Give them the opportunity to tell the truth later, and be assured that they very likely aren't pathological liars.
Kids who expect perfection from themselves, or who face low self-esteem, may lie out of shame. Children may lie because they feel inferior or don't want to admit what they worry is a shortcoming (e.g., struggling with homework might lead a child to lie about having done their homework when they haven't, having gotten a better grade than they really did, and so on).
Similarly, kids with low-self esteem might tell grandiose lies to peers at school to impress them. Unfortunately, a child may face issues with other kids as a result.
Another mental health issue
Other mental health issues might lead a child to lie more often. For example, trauma can play a role in lying for some children. Mental health concerns such as anxiety can go alongside issues like difficulty with self-esteem or disproportionate fear. If mental health plays a role in lying, your child may benefit from working with a mental health professional.
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What To Do When Your Child Lies
What should you do when you can tell your child's lying? It's easy for parents to get frustrated or upset when a child lies, especially when it's beyond the average white lie. However, there are better ways to address the problem and help a child who lies frequently. Here are some tips for parents who are concerned about their child's lying.
Don't react with anger. Instead, call a child out or invite them to tell the truth gently. Use truth checks. For example, if you can tell that your child's telling a lie, you might say, "Hey, that seems like it might not be the real story. Can you tell me what really happened?" If applicable, parents can continue with, "You won't get in trouble. I know it can be hard, and I appreciate the honesty."
It is vital to mention that kids who fear punishment as a result of lying are more likely to refrain from telling the truth. For example, one study found that kids who feared punishment as a result of telling the truth were more apt to lie.
Allow for mistakes
Rather than use punishment every time a child lies, allow for mistakes. Especially if they're willing to open up, let your kid share what really happened. Talk about the impact and consequences of lying. Let them know that you don't think they're a dishonest person and that you understand that breaking patterns of lying can be tough.
Tell your child that you're there to support them as they work through this. Show them that you're safe to come to after a lie, that you want to hear the truth, and that better outcomes come alongside the truth. It's about progress - not perfection or blame.
Encourage children to tell the truth, and reward them for that behavior. Again, it's crucial to let your child know that they can come to you and tell you if they've lied. They don't need to hide. When you get the true story, it can be advantageous to thank your child for telling the truth.
Explain why it's better to tell the truth
Lies come with consequences. For kids who lie partially to avoid consequences - whether the consequence is direct punishment or feelings of shame and judgment - it can be helpful to calmly explain why it's actually better to tell the truth. For teens, this conversation can include possible legal, education, or work-related consequences.
Again, for most kids and teens, it can be beneficial to let them know that you aren't mad. Rather, you want to help your kid address the problem and reduce shame.
Find the underlying problem
When you know why kids lie in the first place, you can address it more effectively. Work to find out why your child's telling lies so that you can act accordingly.
A parent may find that their child's telling stories to please other people, to impress peers, because they fear or anticipate consequences, out of shame and low confidence, or for another reason.
At that point, you can communicate with kids and teens about what's going on underneath and seek help if you need to.
If your child's frequently lying, it can be highly beneficial to have a continuous open line of communication about lying behavior.
Seeking Help When Kids Lie
If your child's lying is serious or continues despite your efforts, mental health support in the form of therapy can help. A therapist can help a child with underlying concerns that prompt them to lie and help kids get to a place where they're able to be honest, open up when they do slip up and lie, and correct the problem.
If your child experiences other mental health concerns that affect their behavior, their treatment plan will likely address it. For example, if stories your child tells are linked to symptoms of anxiety, low self-esteem, or something else, the therapist, counselor, social worker, or psychologist, may assist your child with these matters as well.
It is possible for kids to overcome issues with lying. Ask your child's pediatrician for a referral to a therapist, contact your insurance cover to see who they cover, or search the web to find a professional near you.
Fantasy-based, innocent lies are typical in young kids. However, white lies and developmentally typical lies differ from compulsive lying. There are numerous reasons why children lie. Understanding why kids lie, encouraging honesty, and addressing the issue directly can help parents work through the problem. If a child's lying is out of hand, parents can seek the help of a mental health professional such as a therapist. It is possible for children to overcome issues with lying.