Do you feel like your child has a problem with lying? Are you worried that this may become a habit and there may be long term consequences if the child continues to make a habit of lying? You feel angry and disappointed in your child? What should you do?
Understand first of all that all children experiment with lying at some point. It is a part of normal development to understand fact from fiction and how to develop words and a story to persuade people. Also, in a way, we’ve taught children that is it socially acceptable to lie. Have you ever made your child thank someone or apologize for something, so they go through the motions without the sincerity behind the words? Have you ever demonstrated to your child that it is ok to lie to someone to protect their feelings?
“Oh, your hair looks really nice!”
“That is such a nice drawing, I love it!”
“No, those jeans don’t make you look fat.”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
By telling “nice” lies we teach our children that there may be legitimate reasons to lie- to stay connected to someone. I’m not here to judge you for sparing people’s feelings with socially acceptable lies, but be aware from a young child’s perspective how they may be trying to figure out the rules of when it is ok to lie and when it is not. If you think about it, both adults and children lie because they are afraid that the truth will affect the relationship. Lying is an attempt to stay connected.
Also understand that children with traumatic pasts, who maybe have been adopted or fostered, often had to lie to survive. The lies are motivated by fear and an unsafe environment. They did what they had to do to survive, when they desperately needed to stay connected to someone with power over them, but understandably, these survival skills are not always helpful in a trusting family environment. Children who have come out of an unsafe environment and are moved into a safe and nurturing environment may take a while to feel safe enough to change their survival behaviors. Parents may feel that children lie to protect themselves or they may lie to get attention. Try to reframe your thinking about the lies so the child can be connected to the person they are lying too- although they probably will not be able to voice that or even understand where the lies are coming from. The underlying issues are a need for security and love.
So how should parents handle children who seem to be lying often? Do not threaten punishment for lying. Most likely the child will react by getting better at lying to escape punishment as this keeps their fear on a high level. The child needs to know that they will be safe and loved even when they tell the truth about something that they feel is wrong. Encourage the child to tell the truth by expressing what you would like to hear- the truth, by saying something like, “You make me happy when you tell the truth,” if you suspect a child is about to lie.
Sometimes a child lies, because they think it is what the adult wants to hear, so saying this helps the child understand exactly what you want to hear. Also let the child know that you will love them no matter what they say. You may not have to say this in words, but in building consistency when they see that your love is still there when they trust you with the truth. In creating safety and consistency to reduce fear and mistrust, set rules and be open to negotiation. If a child knows there are rules, but a parent is open to hearing the child’s point of view, it increases communication, builds relationships and reduces fear. After a child tells you the truth maybe about how they broke the rules, keep your own disappointment and frustration from turning into anger and blaming the child. Take a deep breath to calm yourself and try thanking him for telling the truth. You can tell them you are disappointed if you need to give information about how you feel, but clarify that is your emotion and you will handle it, they do not need to regulate your emotions. Try not to tell them that you are disappointed if your goal in telling the child that is to shame him. Remember, you want to foster connection and let them know they can always tell you the truth. Keep to the set consequences of breaking rules and tell them you know he can do better next time to let the child know you are on his side.
If you feel that your child is lying about silly things that don’t seem to matter, try approaching it with playfulness, “did that really happen or is that a silly story? Ah, I thought so, that’s a pretty silly story!” They may just be exploring that normal development discussed earlier, and your playful reaction helps them know you are connected with them and helps establish truth from fiction in an unthreatening way.
Connect, empathize and let them know they can trust you with whatever truth they need to tell you.
Resource: Bronson, P & Merryman, A. (2009). NurtureShock. Twelve, New York, NY.
Ockwell-Smith, S. (2017). Gentle Discipline. Penguin Random House, New York, NY