First of all, it’s important to understand that lying is actually a normal part of a child’s development. Children lie for a lot of reasons. Some of them are even acceptable, or at the very least, understandable. Take for example the two-year-old who dropped the remote control down the toilet and claims she didn’t do it. It’s very likely that she might not even remember doing it – especially if it wasn’t discovered for hours after she did it.
Or how about the three-year-old that tells a story about a giant truck that came into his room and ate his shoes. This isn’t really an intent to deceive you; it’s more likely the fantastic imagination of a little boy that still isn’t quite able to tell the difference between what he has imagined and what really happened.
It’s a normal part of every person emotional and social development. What to do when children lie is to understand what’s underneath the lie. As parents, if we take time to discover this, don’t overreact, and be the best role models we can be, we should be able to help teach our children how to solve their problems instead of resorting to lying about them.
Do you have problems with your kids lying? Is it usually to avoid punishment? Or your disapproval? What consequences do you give?
Last week I talked about how problems that aren’t dealt with usually grow and get much worse. The example that I gave was a client whose son was lying. She didn’t know how to deal with her lying in children, nor where that problem would lead. Unfortunately, he is now in serious trouble with the law. Clearly, if she knew then where the problem would lead, she would have tried harder to get help. It is heartbreaking that he is now in so much trouble because of issues that would have been so much easier to deal with a few years ago.
So this week’s tips on parenting focus on how to handle your child lying. Most parents have to deal with children lying at some point. Many times toddlers will start to lie when they realize that they can. With some gentle coaching, they will usually admit that they were making the story up, and the problem will disappear. However lying can become a big problem, and be a sign that your child is headed for trouble.
Lying is a skill we all learn. In very, very young children – 5 and under – it’s usually innocent, understandable and nothing to be overly concerned about.
Around the age of 5 or 6, most children can clearly distinguish between fantasy and reality and are beginning to understand that there are consequences to their behavior. The most common reason for lying at this age is a fear of punishment. This is especially true when the punishment is severe, or the parents have unrealistic expectations for their children. Children have an innate need to ‘please’ us. Just like us, they need to feel accepted. If they feel that something they’ve done or haven’t done, will disappoint us, they may try to gain our approval by lying. Along these same lines, some children will lie to help boost a low self-image, making up stories or events to make them feel better about themselves.
Children at this age may also tell lies or exaggerate the truth to get their parents’ attention.
By about the age of 7 or 8, most children can usually be counted on, to tell the truth. But keep in mind – they’re learning – they’ll be testing the waters to see what works and what doesn’t work. The most common reasons for children to lie at this age are to avoid being punished or to avoid doing something that they really don’t want to do, like cleaning their room.
Also at this age, kids begin to understand the whole idea of ‘social lying’ – you know, the polite lies we all tell not to hurt someone’s feelings.
These types of lies, the lies in the early years, are all normal stages of development emotionally and socially. And although they need to be addressed, shouldn’t necessarily cause a parent much concern.
Children that lie repeatedly and especially after the age of 8 or 9 may be crying out for help. Children who are chronic liars often don’t feel good about themselves. They may be fearful of disappointing their parents and might be feeling overwhelmed by school or some other area of their lives. Lying might be an attempt to deal with this pressure.
Chronic lying at any age might also indicate some serious problems within the family. This is especially true if the child is acting out in other ways, such as stealing or committing vandalism. These are situations that require a much different response from parents. If your child is a chronic liar, you should seek professional help as soon as possible.
An excellent way to talk to your kids is to ask ‘What’ questions instead of ‘Why’ questions. ‘Why did you do that?’ Sets them up for an excuse response and a possible lie. Instead ask, ‘What were you thinking?’ or ‘What’s going on with you?’ This opens the lines of communication in an unthreatening, and non-judgmental way so you can help your child learn better ways to solve their problems.
Keep in mind when providing consequences, it’s often more effective to tell a child how you really feel about their lie than to punish them for it. An honest statement like “I’m really hurt that you lied to me” is likely to have more impact on future lying than a week without television. Emphasizing the effect the lie had on others will also help your child develop a deep sense of morality.
Most parents, when faced with kids lying, look for some sort of consequence or punishment to get their child to stop. However, before you can solve the problem, you need to first understand why your child is lying. Unless your child is deeply troubled, your child is not likely lying because he or she is bad. Your child usually is lying either because:
You may not realize it, but if you tend to react harshly to mistakes, or if you ridicule or otherwise make your child feel bad for making mistakes, you may create an environment where your child does not feel safe, to tell the truth. If you are a perfectionist who gets upset over every little mistake, your child won’t want to tell you when he or she makes a mistake, even big serious ones where your child needs your help.
As to the attachment, you may have reacted as many great parents do and think that this point doesn’t apply to you. Did you say to yourself something like, “That’s ridiculous! I’m home with my child all the time, or I put so much time in, how could my child have any attachment issues?” The fact is that many of us, including myself, have had to work on our attachment with our children because of the times we are in, not because we aren’t great parents who are very dedicated to our children. (Next week I’ll talk about how to build the attachment.)
No matter what the problem is, the solution is essentially the same. You need to address the underlying problem in order to deal with the issue of your child lying. In both cases, your child needs to have the bond between you strengthened.
As one of my powerful parenting mentors, Dr. Gordon Neufeld says, if you want to solve a problem with your child, often you need to change how you see the problem. If you see and understand that your child’s lying is a sign that he is scared of your reaction, or isn’t feeling close enough to share with you, that can cause a powerful shift in you that will lead to the solution. As long as you stay stuck in seeing your child as bad and needing punishing, you will make the problem worse.
Of course, it is essential that you don’t blame yourself either. Neither you nor your child wanted to be in this situation. You certainly didn’t set out to create an environment that would encourage your child lying. Your child feels bad that he or she is lying and would prefer to be in a situation where lying wasn’t so tempting.
Children lying is not a sign that your child is bad, it is a call for help. If you understand this and work on strengthening your relationship and monitor your reaction to mistakes so that you aren’t being too harsh or ridiculing your child for mistakes, your child will quit lying in time. In the meantime, try to shift the focus off of the offending behavior, lying, and on to all that you see your child doing right. That shift of focus will help change the environment so that your child is encouraged to trust you and become more honest.
Next week, in my tips on parenting series, I’ll go into more detail on how to build the relationship. In the meantime, think of what things you and your child love to do together and do more of those things. You’ll be on the right track.
Share your experiences with kids lying, and share this post with your family and friends. Lying in children is a common problem that is an opportunity to head off much worse problems down the road.