Growing Healthy Families: When Children Lie

When children lie, what is it really about?

Lying in children is common, particularly in school-aged children. While chronic forms of lying may indicate a more serious psychological problem, most of the time lying is simply a common behavior that will eventually be outgrown. Parents, before you get upset about your children telling lies, recognize that a lie can actually be an act of problem-solving, a lack of skills or avoidance of a consequence.

A lie usually stems from one of these things:

  • An attempt to either connect or differentiate from peers
  • An effort to keep parts of one’s life separate from parents
  • A way to attract positive or negative attention
  • A strategy to minimize or avoid hurting someone’s feelings
  • A way to avoid or stay out of trouble
  • An attempt to feel adequate or compete with others
  • A way to avoid being seen as a failure
  • A desire for approval or a way to meet unrealistic expectations

Lying by age group

Toddlers: Very young children do not lie on purpose and don’t understand yet that lying is wrong. They will tell self-serving fibs. Avoid reacting by accusing or punishing the child.

Preschoolers: Children at this age have difficulty separating reality from fantasy. Preschoolers will tell tall tales that are for fantasy play or wishful thinking.

School kids: Children at this age understand the negative nature of lying. However, they may tell white lies to benefit someone else or minimize hurt which shows social sensitivity and awareness.

Tweens: Adolescents may lie to test limits. Tween behavior can increase in secretiveness. Often lies are about chores, homework, etc. Show your displeasure and continue to be a good role model for more appropriate behavior.

How you can help

While it is essential that parents teach their children right from wrong, it is important to pick your battles – which will depend on the developmental age of the child. Make sure the lie isn’t connected to unsafe, risky or illegal behavior. Don’t take the lie personally. Think about and focus on the big picture. Address the underlying reason behind the lie and don’t let your anger and frustration derail the real issue. You can use the lie as a way to help your children learn to problem solve. Excessive lying should be dealt with by addressing the actual behavior of lying, not the specific lie itself. Demonstrate the types of behaviors you want to see in your child by setting a good example with your own truth telling.

Most children are not going to lie forever. Only a very small percentage of kids are chronic liars. With your help, children will typically outgrow this negative behavior. Most lies revolve around a child wanting to feel loved and receive positive attention, so make sure you are interacting with your son or daughter in this way every day.

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