Lying in Children

Getting to the bottom of a bad choice

by jennifer molk

Thou shall not lie – it’s an affirmation that is instilled in us at a very young age, and for most adults, one by which we strive to live our lives. But for children, it can be a hard concept to grasp. And why shouldn’t it be, when some of the first stories we hear from our parents are about giant beanstalks that lead to a magical land in the clouds, or lions and tigers and bears that talk and dance?

But as children grow out of the innocence of imagination, the more serious habit of lying can begin to tempt the soul, and parents must learn to recognize the signs early on.

A lie versus an untrue statement

Dr. Philip House, a psychologist and clinical director of Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch in Billings works with children five years of age and older. He says the first step in dealing with lying in children is by knowing the difference between a lie and a false statement.

“This is important because we must determine the type of falsehood before deciding upon a response strategy,” Dr. House says. “An untruthful statement made with no intention to deceive is not a lie. We should consider a lie as an intentional falsehood that lacks positive social motivation.”

When it is a lie…

Once you know the difference, also know that children can begin to lie simply because they’re learning and developing, interacting with others and weighing the different disciplinary measures being handed down for their actions.

“This is a critical time for parents to pay attention to and work closely with their child around issues of truthfulness, honesty and trust, talking in language that is age-appropriate for the child,” Dr. House urges.

As consequences change and grow with your child, he begins to experiment with boundaries. “For example,” Dr. House explains, “first- and second-grade children may lie to avoid punishment from parents, to avoid doing something, or deny responsibility for their actions, whereas adolescents may lie to protect a friend, to fit in with a peer group, or to be self-serving.”

When it becomes a habit

Because there are certain payoffs for lying, and some of those rewards are powerful, Dr. House says a child may develop a fairly quick history of reinforced lying which can become habit.

“In addition,” Dr. House says, “young children will frequently say or do whatever matches their inclination at the moment. They will report honestly without careful screening of information or concern about the effect of their actions or reports on others. Gradually the differential consequences of such action lead to more functional behavior.”

Is there a serious problem?

Occasionally lying that has formed into a habit can inhibit the overall healthy functioning of the child. Dr. House advises asking these hard questions when trying to determine if your child’s well-being is at stake:

How frequent is the lying and what are the associated preceding events or conditions and the outcomes from the lying?

What is the content and context of the child’s lying?

Is it a recent or long-standing problem?

When looking at the functioning of the child, is the lying the manifestation of a conduct disorder, rejection by peers, or troubled parent-child relationship, or other problem?

Does it reflect the psychological defense of denial?

It should be remembered however, it is often difficult to accurately evaluate lying since it is difficult to objectively observe lying.

Getting to the bottom of it

“Lying in children is a common behavior and usually responds to basic approaches,” Dr. House assures.

While some patterns of lying require more strict attention, there are many gentler ways to coax the truth out of your wayward child:

Take a drive with your child to discuss the incident before you sit across the kitchen table, eye to eye. This method will promise a comfortable atmosphere without the element of direct confrontation.

Offer up prior examples of when you know they’ve lied in the past and the better choices they could have selected at that time.

Share a memory of when you made the bad decision to lie and the consequence you had to face as a result. Often times ‘dethroning’ yourself allows your child to identify more with you and your mistakes, while still modeling the possibility of a healthy outcome.

Finally, a unique way to prompt a child to fess up might be to hand her a set of crayons and encourage her to draw it out for you.

No matter what method you use, many experts agree to dole it out it with love, patience and acceptance because those ingredients combined have a way of repairing most issues of trust that no disciplinary act could ever compete with.

Dr. House reminds parents that the solution to raising a healthy, honest child begins with you. “Children with open and honest relationships with their parents have less of a problem with lying than those who don’t.”

When to seek help...

Dr. Philip House with Yellowstone Boys & Girls Ranch in Billings says lying can be associated with serious childhood problems, and “may require that a child’s overall adjustment and relationship with peers, parents and others be assessed in order to identify the seriousness of the lying.

If a child or teen develops a pattern of lying which is serious, then professional help should be sought. When lying is part of a broader serious childhood problem, effective interventions address the broader problem and don’t just focus on the lying.”

Jennifer Molk is a freelance writer in Billings. She enjoys writing about topics and issues she herself seeks the answers to. She is a mother of two.