All children lie: Children as young as age two can lie. In fact, researchers have found that the ability to tell a lie at this age may suggest advanced thinking, and may be predictive of greater success on cognitive tasks in the future. In one study, 20 percent of two year old children were reported to have lied. This number increases to virtually 100% by age 12, and then begins to drop off throughout adolescence. During adolescence teens begin to tell “white lies” that are designed to avoid offending or hurting someone’s feelings. Despite what many parents think, most young liars are expert at not giving away the lie with a non-verbal signal.
No reason for alarm: While many parents become alarmed when their young children begin to lie, there is no reason for immediate alarm. Lying is a normal part of development. Successful lying involves integrating many sources of information and manipulating that information to one’s advantage. “Better” lying suggests more advanced cognitive development. When a child is caught in a lie the parents have an opportunity to teach important life lessons.
What to do when a child lies: The first step is to determine the purpose of the lie. A child may be fearful and lying to avoid a negative consequence. Children may lie to protect a peer or a sibling. Some children are bored and have a good imagination. This may lead to creative lying or “storytelling.” Children will lie to avoid an unpleasant task, such as cleaning their room or brushing their teeth. Children can be an impulsive. A lie may slip out because they haven’t paused to reflect on an appropriate response. Children who want more attention and approval may try to achieve this by lying to peers and family members. Adolescents may lie to generate more distance between themselves and their parents.
The best way to deal with lying is to foster truthfulness. Parents need to demonstrate the value of being truthful, by being truthful. Young children will need to be taught the difference between lying and telling the truth, both through role modeling and having conversations about lying and truthfulness, and fantasy and reality. When a young child lies they may benefit from a simple explanation or statement such as: “That was a lie. Now let’s talk about taking things without asking.” Move on quickly to dealing with the actual misbehavior. When the opportunity arises children need to be reinforced for being “honest even when it is hard.” Responses to misbehavior need to be carefully calibrated so the child understands that a negative consequence is solely for the behavior and they are not being consequenced for having admitted a wrong doing.
When a child does something wrong it is important to focus on the behavior and not the child’s character. Children that are shamed or humiliated will be motivated to lie in the future in an effort to avoid these difficult emotions. Parents should avoid playing “20 questions” or acting like the Grand Inquisitor. Parents should act on what they know, that is, observable behavior and deal directly with the behavior.
When lying becomes a problem: Of course lying may reflect a more serious emotional or behavioral problem. Chronic lying, or lying that appears to be habitual, is maladaptive and will cause the child or adolescent to have relationship issues with peers, family and teachers. Children and adolescents who clearly know the difference, but still tell elaborate stories that appear to be truthful, likely have some underlying emotional problem. These children and adolescents often tell their “stories” with a great deal of enthusiasm and appear to be quite believable. Some children and adolescents may lie to take advantage of others, or lie to cover up their own maladaptive behavior, such as drinking, taking drugs, or engaging in other delinquent behavior.
Seeking help: If a child or adolescent develops a pattern of lying which is serious and repetitive, then professional help is indicated. The child and parents should consult with a child therapist and determine if there are more serious underlying emotional issues or if the lying is primarily related to behavioral issues.