— Skylight Trust

Learning to lie is part of a child's cognitive and social development. However, some children lie more than others, and it can be a problem.

When do we start lying?

Until the age of about 5 years old, lying is part of their fantasy world. Lies are usually a way of expressing a creative imagination and they may not be cause for serious concern. Children this young often cannot differentiate between what is the truth, and what is not.

At this age the only reason for concern would be if a child is lying to get someone else into trouble, or somebody else is making them lie, as may happen if they are being bullied or abused.

Why do they lie?

You need to know why your child is lying, to be able to understand it and know how to act. Talk to your child in a calm and supportive way, to find out the reason behind the lie.

These are the most common reasons children may lie:

  • Fear: Some children may be afraid of the consequences of their actions. This usually happens when the family has very strict and rigid rules, or they don’t feel like they can talk to their caregivers. They may also be afraid of the consequences of someone else’s actions and they may lie to protect them – their little brother that broke a glass, the friend that stole something from a shop.
  • Avoidance: sometimes children may lie to escape from something they don’t wish to do. For example, saying they have already brushed their teeth, but they haven’t, or saying they have a stomach ache to avoid doing the dishes.
  • Imitation: If children see that their parents or caregivers are lying, they may feel it is ok to do it too. If they see lies as an easy way to escape situations or fix something, they will lie too. Depending on their age, children cannot differentiate between a “white” lie (such as when mum says, “tell Nanna I’m sleeping”, to avoid picking up the phone) and a more serious lie.
  • Insecurity: When a child feels like they may not be included in a group, or they feel different from their friends, they may want to feel better about themselves by saying things that are not true. This will require effort, as they will need to continually build on the first lie with more lies. If this becomes a habit, it may lead to more serious issues, because they may do whatever it takes to preserve what they have told others.

How to react?

Fear is the main reason that a child will lie. Lying, in most cases is their way of escaping a consequence for something that has happened. You need to be clear with your child about what part of the behaviour was the problem. Was it wrong to lie, or to break the glass? If the child thinks he is being punished for breaking the glass, next time they may try to find a more sophisticated way of hiding the broken glass.

Some guidelines for dealing with a lie may be:
  • are you sure your child is lying? It would be worse to accuse them of lying if they were telling the truth. Once you are sure, talk to them to find out why they lied
  • lead by example: don’t lie and teach honesty by showing that you are honest too. In age appropriate ways you can try to teach them about how to be honest without hurting someone else’s feelings and why it is better to tell the truth
  • praise them for telling the truth: If they did something wrong, explain why it was not right, and negotiate with them on what the consequences will be
  • home environment: Encourage an environment in which the child can feel free to share their mistakes and actions, without feeling that every time they say something, they will be punished and told off.

If, after talking to them and applying all the tips, you find that your child is still lying, it would be advisable to seek support as there might be something else going on.

When to worry?

  • when a child lies without reason
  • when a child lies frequently
  • when others are harmed because of the child’s lying
  • when it becomes a repetitive action, done without thinking and when the child doesn’t seem to have control over it (they can't stop it).

If after talking to them and applying all the tips, you find that your child is still lying, it would be advisable to seek support, as there might be something else going on for them.

Resources Available at Skylight

Skylight is here to help you through difficult times. We can assist you in a variety of ways with information appropriate for your situation. You are welcome to visit us and receive free information and a support pack from our resource centre and borrow books from the specialist library. We also facilitate Professional Development training and offer Counselling support services for children, young people, family/whānau and individuals who are experiencing tough times.

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