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Ask Tina: My Child is Lying to Me. How Worried Should I Be?

Q:  My almost-five-year-old son is starting to lie.  I’m worried that this is starting a terrible pattern, and I don’t know how to handle the situation.  I’m just really upset because I’ve always stressed how important it is to tell the truth.

A:  First, take a deep breath.  This is typical behavior for a child.  Most kids tell fibs at this age.  In fact, lying is developmentally normal, and if he’s doing it to avoid getting in trouble or disappointing you, it is actually evidence of a developing conscience and moral code.  He knows what he’s done is wrong, so he lies to avoid being bad or to avoid getting in trouble or losing your approval.   If he’s doing it to be silly and trying “story-telling” out, it’s evidence of creativity and imagination.

So now, let’s talk about how to respond when kids are lying to deny that they did something wrong.  When I know my son is lying, I try not to say, “I don’t believe you,” or, "You're lying."  Instead, I say, “Why don’t you take a minute and think about what really happened and then start over.”  Sometimes I also say, “It’s really important that you tell me the truth and tell me what really happened so I can believe you when you tell me things.”  For smaller children, it's even OK to sometimes simply say something like, "Hmmm, I'm not sure about that.  That doesn't sound to me like how that would have happened," and then pause and let them respond.

Once my kids got to be about 6 years old, I was able to use an analogy—something about a glass full of how much I trust their words, and when they lie, it's like I pour out some of the trust and the glass gets emptier and then it’s harder to trust.  But when they tell me the truth, even when it’s hard, the glass fills up and I can trust them more.

Another time with my son,  I think he was about 4 or 5 at the time, I knew he was trying to lie, but when I asked him to go back and think about it and tell it again, he said, “I don’t want to tell you.” I told him that was honest and I appreciated it, and then I gave him assurance that he was free to tell the truth:  “If you tell me the truth, I won’t be mad.  We’ll just talk about it.” He told me the truth, and then I gushed about how great it was that he told the truth, even though it was hard, and he felt proud (thus reinforcing honesty).

So usually when my kids lie, I don't focus so much on the actual behavior they’re trying to cover up, and emphasize trust and truth.  (This has changed some, by the way, as my oldest has grown into adolescence; for him I typically address both issues fairly equally.)  I usually talk about how I want them to tell me anything and that lying isn’t OK, and then sometimes just talking about that is enough of a .  Since the point of discipline is to teach, I often find that the conversation itself teaches the lesson in the most effective way.  

The last suggestion is to make the truth-telling just an expected part of the family code that you reinforce frequently:  “We tell the truth in our family.”

If your child is telling tall tales about sort of random things, you can join in by amplifying the stories and making them sillier and sillier.  Lean into the imagination!

And if your child is lying to impress and feel better about herself, she’s showing you that she might need some strokes or to feel better about herself.  Find some ways to do that authentically in an area she does well in or catch her being good and amplify some things about her in proactive and positive ways.