Why Do Kids Lie?

An issue that a lot of parents bring up, either in the initial intake or at some point in their child’s treatment, is lying. “Why is my child lying to me?” “They know I will catch them in the lie!” “I’ve told them it’s important to tell the truth!”

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In my book, I talk about how kids want to make good choices but sometimes have trouble with this. Often times, a child who makes untrue statements is not trying to lie.

What? How does that make sense?

Children’s brains are still growing, and the area that is slowest to form is the frontal lobe, which is the part in charge of impulse control. Basically, young kids are still learning how to stop and think before they act. When an adult asks a child a question, the child’s response can be based on a number of impulses: Are they afraid they will be punished? Do they have a history of trauma and feel like they need to protect themselves? Do they want to please the person asking the question?

Let’s look at each of these scenarios. For the purpose of this exercise, let’s pretend you found candy wrappers in your child’s bedroom, and they know they are not allowed supposed to have food in their room. You ask your child, “Did you have candy in your room?” knowing the answer, and the child says, “No!”

The first reaction, fear of punishment, is pretty simple. The child knows they will have a consequence for the behavior. They are not necessarily thinking, “I want to deceive my parent,” but they are thinking, “What answer means I will not get into trouble?” Because this response is on impulse, they are not considering how realistic the lie is. It is entirely possible that the child has gotten away with dishonesty in the past and learned that saying the “right thing” will avoid punishment. In this situation, you can reward your child for telling the truth even when it is difficult (while still having consequences for the behavior they were lying about) to show them that there are benefits to telling the truth.

Children who have histories of trauma and neglect often hide food, which is a topic for another post. Kids who have survived abuse often had to lie to keep themselves safe (a more extreme version of what I described in the last paragraph). In this case, it could be beneficial not to present the question in the first place. Instead, you can tell the child that you know they broke the rule, using a calm voice and reminding them that they are safe. Use this as a teaching opportunity to show that it is okay to make mistakes and to address their trauma. This way, they can learn that the lying behavior is no longer needed to stay safe.

In the third scenario, I would argue that the child is not lying (at least not deliberately). They are giving the response that they think will make you happiest rather than the response that is most true. In this case, it can help to tell the child that the answer you want is the true answer, regardless of what the truth is. Then ask them to take a moment and think about if they want to change their answer. This teaches the child how to stop and think before giving an answer and helps them build their impulse control skills.

Rarely do children misbehave just for the sake of it. It is true that children will seek negative attention sometimes, but if you can get to the reason behind a behavior, you can address it productively.

Published by Amy Marschall, Psy.D.

Dr. Amy Marschall received her Psy.D. from the University of Hartford in September 2015. Her clinical interests are varied and include child and adolescent therapy, TF-CBT, rural psychology, telemental health, sexual and domestic violence, psychological assessment, and mental illness prevention. Dr. Marschall presently works in the Child and Adolescent Therapy Clinic at Sioux Falls Psychological Services in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where she provides individual and family therapy and psychological assessment to children, adolescents, and college students. She also facilitates an art therapy group for adolescents and college students with anxiety and depression. Dr. Amy Marschall is certified in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Telemental Health.

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