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.

The Shaping Game

Source: Strayhorn, Joseph (1988). The Competent Child. New York, The Guilford Press.

The Shaping Game is a cooperative game that teaches children how to listen for positives and follow directions, models positive talk which the child can use to guide their internal dialogue, and teaches parents the concept of “catching their child being good.”

In the shaping game there are two players, a Shaper and a Shapee. The Shaper (the therapist is the first Shaper) writes a target behavior on a piece of paper and shows it to the parent, or anyone else in the room. The Shapee (client) doesn’t get to see what is written on the paper. The object of the game is for the Shapee to guess what is on the paper.

The Shapee is guided by feedback they receive from the Shaper. Success is dependent on the Shaper giving good clues and the Shapee doing a good job of listening and trying out lots of different movements and behaviors in the room. Therefore, this is a partnership, both win or both lose. It is important when starting this game to start with a really simple behavior that will ensure success. When outlining the rules and the object of the game, it is important to stress that the Shapee has to keep moving. The therapist should get up and model moving around the room, touching things, picking things up, opening and closing the door, and flicking the light switch off and on.

The Shaper is limited to positive comments, and can’t use words like “hot”, “cold”, or “you’re close”. Positive comments include: “I like the way you’re ______,” “Thank you for _____,” “I really like the way you’re getting close to _____,” “You’re doing a good job of _____,” “I appreciate you touching _____,” and so on. The Shaper can be very specific about the behavior that they like.

The Shapee must keep moving and trying different things. If the Shappee doesn’t do anything the Shaper won’t be able to provide any positive feedback. The Shaper may only comment on a behavior that has actually been carried out. For example, the Shaper can’t say, “It would be really nice if you’d touch that box.” No corrective or negative comments are allowed.

This is a fun game to play with parents. However, it is important for the therapist and client to have had clear success with the game before parents become the Shaper. Many parents, even after viewing the game several times, have difficulty resisting the urge to give corrective responses or make negative comments. Others have difficulty generating positive statements. The Shapee is allowed to be a Shaper when they have demonstrated success at being a Shapee. For example, performing a very complex activity, or performing the target behavior 6 or 7 times. Make sure the child understands they need to choose a behavior that is both doable and simple the first time they are the Shaper.

The therapist writes “pick up the tissues” on a piece of paper and hands the paper to the parent. The tissues are located on an end table about six feet from the child.

Therapist: Are you ready.
Client: Yes.
Therapist: OK, so you’re going to keep moving around and trying different things, and listen carefully to my clues.
Client: Yes
Therapist: OK, let’s begin (T. looks expectantly at the child and waits, child stands up). Thanks for standing up. I’m really pleased you did that (child looks around the room and hesitantly begins to walk). You’re doing a good job of walking. I really like it when you walk around (child walks away from the end table where the tissues are located. The therapist is silent until the child turns around). I’m very pleased you turned around (child walks in the direction of the end table). Thank you so much for walking toward the table. You’re doing a nice job of getting close to the table (child arrives at the table, and looks at it). You’re the best. I am happy you’re next to the table, and you’re doing a good job of looking at things on the table (child touches clock, and then the tissues. Therapist and parent begin cheering and clapping their hands). What do you think was written on the paper?
Client: Pick up the Kleenex?
Therapist: Check it out. Look and see what it says.
Client: “Pick up the tissues.”
Therapist: Great job. That was really easy for you. Do you want to do it again?
Client: Give me a hard one!
Therapist: Ok, I’ll give you one that’s harder (The next item should be only marginally more difficult, as the therapist still needs to ensure the child is successful. Ideally, the level of difficulty will keep pace with the child’s growing skill at the game, and they will always be able to perform the behavior requested.)