Q & A

Q. My 7 year old daughter has started lying. We have tried making light of it, hoping it is a phase. We have tried having her sit until she is ready to tell the truth. We have tried taking things away. We have tried taking to her about why the truth is so important. Nothing seems to work.

A. Lying is among the most difficult of behaviors to stop. Sometimes there is an obvious reason for the lying, like an overly harsh or critical parent or parent who doesn’t seem happy much of the time. The child simply doesn’t want to get in trouble or doesn’t want to upset that parent. Sometimes it’s a new baby or desire for more attention. Sometimes it’s the influence of another child who has a real or imagined fanciful life, gets a lot of attention, and your child wants what they have. Lying in young children is rarely a sign of a deep psychological or family problem, as most children will try it out at one point or another. Most often, habitual lying is a behavior that was tried and then tried again and then begins to become a habit or style of getting good things or avoiding bad things. Lying is not usually the original problem, but a symptom of the problem.

Sometimes children outgrow immature lying, but lying that begins to take on a life of its own is a very serious problem with a very poor prognosis. The more a child lies, the less the child learns coping skills to effectively manage their emotions or the issue at hand and the more the parents become frustrated and the easier it is for an unhealthy parent-child dynamic to become established.

The strategies that have been most successful in my practice are the following;

1. After you have described the moral and social problems with lying, don’t keep going back to it. The problem isn’t lack of understanding, knowledge or insight, it is a faulty pattern of problem solving.

2. If you suspect lying or lying is obvious, don’t beckon the child to come clean by asking questions again and again when you already know the answer. For example, you told your child they could not have a cookie as it was too close to dinner. You know they snuck a cookie. When you ask them if they ate the cookie, which you know they did, don’t keep asking them or giving them more chances to answer truthfully. After they have lied once, tell them, in a matter-of-fact manner, (poker face – not mad or disappointed) “I know that you ate the cookie after I told you not to.” The more questions or chances the parent gives the child, the more crazy lying the parent will get. They may simply deny it over and over again or they may come up with other explanations about what could have happened to the cookie. The adult rarely wins this cat and mouse game. The parent becomes frustrated and the child maintains control. Take control with the facts you know to be true. Do not try to take control with your emotions or by trying to make your child have emotions like shame, sorrow. Let the emotions emerge from the natural process.

3. Reiterate what you probably say all the time (or maybe not enough) how much you love them and want them to be happy and successful, etc….) and that you are going to help them break this habit of lying. Our children are going to get themselves into tough spots and need to know we will not abandon them there in the tough spot.

4. If your child seems remorseful and can admit that they are having a hard time with lying, ask them to identify something that they like very much. It could be an electronic device, toy, desserts or something else. If it is an object that can be brought to you, have them bring it. If it is something like desserts, write it down on a note card. This object of affection is put on “layaway.” In order to earn it back, they will need to go 7 days, completely free of lying. If the child is not owning the problem, you, the parent, will choose the item or activity. Remember, it must be something important to the child, and it must be something that you know you can stick to. For example, if it is going to crush you (the parent), to not serve dessert to one child, while the rest of the family partakes, do not use this. IF, everyone agrees, or even one person agrees, “I want to help my sister solve this problem, so I will give up my dessert while they are working on it,” that’s great, but they can’t change their mind after just a couple of days! Put a chart up on the fridge with 7 squares. For every day that the child does not lie, put a check mark, nothing special here, we are not rewarding expected behavior. The reward is the good feelings they get from the corrected behavior. During these days there are no reminders or warnings, or comments like “are you sure you want to say that????” If the child lies, the chart comes down and a new 7 square chart goes up.

5. In the meanwhile, mom and dad be very good observers of family life and make tiny changes whenever you notice you could have handled something better or given more attention where it was needed. If there is marital tension, acknowledge it with your husband/wife and work to correct it. Behavior like lying may indicate something is not right in the family. Even if it is not rooted in a family issue, this type of behavior can create a division between parents. Work together on how your are going to address it.

6. Be careful about your own habits and pulling your child into white/innocent lie situations, especially keeping something from the other parent, or a grandparent-grandchild situation, for example, “don’t tell Mommy I gave you candy,” or, “this is special just between us.” It is not wise to teach children to have to think through when they should tell the truth and when they should not. They should always tell the truth.

7. Keep in mind, lying and secrets are cousins. We put our children in serious risk of inappropriate relationships with people who may not have their best interest at heart when we allow lying and secrets. Again, it is not fair to ask a child to sort out whether they should tell the truth, a white lie, or a lie of omission. They should know that the truth is always best.

A child feeling awful about lying is appropriate. Let them feel awful. Comments from a child like, “You hate me.” or “I’m terrible.” “No one likes me” do not stem from feeling awful. They stem from wanting to get out of trouble and not wanting to take responsibility. Sadness, tears, not wanting to talk…these are more like signs of feeling awful. Give them a hug, validate that of course it feels awful, and let them know you love them and are here to help them do the right thing, all the time, even when no one is looking.

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