What to Do When Your Child Lies

Around the time children turn 2 or 3, is around the time they may start lying. This is very common behavior as it provides a way for children to discern the difference between fantasy and reality and signifies a time when they begin to understand their power over their thoughts and words. At 2 or 3 years old, kids typically begin by denying misbehavior. Around age 4, they can imagine how someone else might think and their lies become more believable. When they reach age 7, children can maintain a false story and look sincere while doing so. Lying behaviors tend to peak at age 10 or 11. As kids mature, they become increasingly aware of the morality of lying and by the time kids are teenagers, they are willing to be more honest about their transgressions.

So, what’s the best way to navigate your child’s behavior when they’re lying? The 8 suggestions below are a great place to start!

1. Establish a Household Rule

As part of your family rules and values, stress the importance of truthful communication by asking for honesty as a household rule. (If your family doesn’t have clear family values, we strongly recommend taking Families Are Forever’s Family Mission Statement class. Together you’ll identify a purpose each person understands and an overall direction that you can head toward as a family. By the end of the class, you’ll have created your own family mission statement!)

2. Model Honesty

Adults frequently tell “little white lies” but kids can’t distinguish between these and other lies. All they know is you’re lying. If you don’t want your children to lie, you shouldn’t either!

3. Talk About Truths and Lies

Ask young children, “If I said this cat was white, would that be the truth or a lie?” Talk about the potential consequences of lying such as losing people’s trust and being reprimanded. Then discuss the concept of truth vs brutal honesty. Blurting out a mean comment is not okay simply because it’s honest. Honesty must be balanced with compassion and that’s a sophisticated social skill that we should aim to start teaching kids early.

4. Give Positive Reinforcement

If your child has taken your advice to heart, recognize their efforts to tell the truth, especially when it was hard to do. Praise them by saying, “I know it must have been hard to tell me what happened but I’m so glad you chose to be honest about it.”

5. Identify the Reason for the Lie

The way you respond to a lie should vary depending on the reason for the lie. The main reasons children lie include fantasizing, seeking attention, and avoiding responsibility. If your child tells you they can talk to the dog, your objective will be to ensure they understand the difference between make-believe and reality. It can be fun to indulge your child in fantasies if they understand the difference between fiction and fact. If your child is lying by bragging, for example, this is telling of a desire for attention. Your objective will be to ensure they are feeling confident and heard. On the other hand, if your child is trying to avoid responsibility whether by lying by omission or telling partial truths, your objective will be to ensure their lies aren’t successful.

6. Give Warning

If you are confident your child is lying, calmly say, “I’ll come back in 5 minutes and give you one more chance to tell me the truth. If I catch you lying, there will be consequences.”

7. Avoid Labels and Cornering Your Child

When we are confident that we are being lied to, it can be tempting to try to expose the person lying by trapping them in their lie. Instead, experts recommend stating that you’re aware of the lie and asking to talk about it. Labeling children liars is not recommended either because it can wound children and your relationship with them in ways that will be difficult to recover from.

8. Follow Through on Reprimands

If you do catch your child lying, follow through on reprimands. Ideally, you and your child will have discussed these prior to having to implement them so both parties know what to expect. Take away privileges or add extra chores for them to do. Avoid the temptation of going overboard because they may focus on your unfair reaction and that will take away from the lesson you’re trying to teach.

We hope these 8 tips help you understand your child and manage their behavior when they’re lying. For further parenting tips, don’t forget to check out our classes!