There are many reasons why children 5 years and older may lie. However, there is no need to be alarmed. In most cases, as the child grows up, this tendency to lie will diminish. For the parent, it is necessary to understand the reason for the lies in order to choose the best way to react.
Why do children lie?
Children almost always have a reason for lying. Finding out why a child is lying is more important than punishing the child for lying.
Here are the most common reasons why a child 5 years old or older lies:
To get what they want (e.g., to tell their grandmother that at home they can have unlimited candy).
To avoid unpleasant consequences (e.g., getting punished for hurting his sister)
To “embellish” the truth (to make a story more exciting than it really is) or to make themselves more interesting. Up to about age 6, this can be associated with confusion between reality and fantasy. Even when children are able to make the distinction, some continue to tell this type of lie, as do some adults, because it is a way to make themselves look good to others. For example, they may exaggerate their academic achievements, athletic accomplishments or other “feats” and adventures.
To avoid hurting people’s feelings (e.g., saying they didn’t see a certain person or do a certain activity when they were at Dad’s so as not to hurt Mom’s feelings)
Because of low self-esteem. Some children have a real fear that if their parents or other relatives know the truth, they will stop loving them.
To test boundaries: the child wants to establish what is “true” and what is not, or to practice this new learned “skill” of lying, for example.
To get attention, even if the attention is negative.
Impulsivity. This trait is sometimes present in children with ADD/ADHD, as they may have a tendency to “speak without thinking.
Imitation. Children adopt the behaviors of the adults around them because they pay close attention to what those adults say and do. Thus, even when adults’ lies are subtle, the child can perceive them and repeat the behavior.
How to respond to a child’s lying?
Your child’s reasons for lying should dictate your response.
If your child is lying to avoid being picked on
Remind your child of the importance of telling the truth, even when it is difficult. They need to understand that being honest is much more important than why they lied, so lying is worse than breaking something or doing something they had no right to do. Explain that telling the truth allows adults to trust him. You can also encourage him to tell the truth by mitigating a consequence, for example, “Since you just told me the truth, I won’t take your screen away.”
If your child is lying because of low self-esteem
He or she will not be likely to correct himself or herself if he or she is picked on or punished for lying. On the contrary, it will support his low self-esteem. Instead, use positive reinforcement and adjust your expectations of your child, as he needs to build his confidence. For example, you can explain that you don’t expect perfection and that you understand that mistakes can be made. Reassure them that despite the mistakes they may make, you will always love them. For more information, see our sheet Self-Esteem in Children 5 Years and Older.
If your child lies on impulse
Give your child more time to think about and review what he or she has just told you. You can try to get his attention and ask questions, such as, “Are you sure you put all your toys in your room? Take some time to think about it and you can give me your answer in a few minutes.” Your child needs to learn to take his time and think more carefully about his answers.
If your child is lying to “embellish the truth
Help your child reframe what he or she is saying. For example, you might say, “Wow, that’s a great story…maybe we could draw it, write it down, or record it?” He needs to understand that he can – and even should – continue to exercise his imagination, but without having to lie to do so. So emphasize the true part of his story (“I find it interesting when you tell me this part…without the rest”) and value the moments when the child tells the truth without embellishing it (“It’s interesting what you tell me”).
If your child lies for attention or to feel valued
Your child may need you to take more interest in him or her. If, for example, your child claims to have been to a place to get attention when it is not true, correct him or her in a neutral way: “No, you have never been there,” but don’t make a big deal of it. Spending quality time with you and doing meaningful activities as a family will help your child feel valued and fulfill his need for attention. Your child may feel less interesting than his sibling, for example. If this is the case, try to name what he or she is feeling and make a place for him or her.
How do you determine a reasonable consequence for a child who has lied?
Not all lies require a consequence. In many cases, you don’t need to give one. Reminding your child of the truth or calmly correcting your child is enough, without overemphasizing the fact that he or she lied.
Remember, the more attention a behavior is given, the more likely it is to recur. Also, the child is learning, and getting it right or “fixing” the lie may be enough. As the saying goes, “A fault confessed is half forgiven.” However, it is important to get the child to think about the impact of his or her lie, such as making him or her aware of how others felt (e.g., anger, betrayal, fear, loss of confidence for a future time, etc.).
If you decide to give a consequence, it should be in line with the severity of the lie: not too punitive, not too mild. A very punitive consequence (that takes place over several weeks, for example) could have the effect of completely discouraging the child. If your child comes around and tells the truth, you may decide to reduce or eliminate the consequence, making it clear that it is because he or she told the truth.
Behaviors to avoid if a child lies.
It is important not to label your child as a “liar. The psychological consequences and shame that may result are worse than the actual lying. It may even cause the child to lie more in order to unknowingly resemble the image that others have of him or her. Don’t give your child the impression that the adults around him or her will never believe him or her again or that he or she is no longer worth believing.
Also, don’t try to “corner” your child, which may cause him or her to panic and lie even more. If you know he or she has lied, there is no need to ask, “Did you really do X?” and then punish him or her further for lying in the face of this stressful situation. It is better to simply say, “I know you lied about this…here is why it’s not a good idea.”
Also, don’t blame your child in front of others (e.g., family, friends) if he or she has lied, as this would be humiliating to your child and could damage the bond of trust between you and your child. Wait until you are alone to discuss it.
How to encourage your child to tell the truth
Talk to your child often about the importance of honesty. You can use scenarios such as “How do you think your teacher would feel if she knew you lied to her?” or “Here’s what you could have done in that situation instead. You can also talk about honesty after reading a book or watching a movie together about lying. For example, you can ask them how the characters who heard the lie felt, how they would feel if they were in the shoes of the character who lied and how they would react, etc.
Establish honesty and truth-telling as an important value in your family. For example, honesty could be written into a family “code of conduct” that your child knows and understands.
Stay calm when your child is telling the truth and you are angry or upset about what he or she is saying. If you react strongly, your child may avoid telling the truth later simply because he or she fears your reaction.
Explain to your child the consequences of lying, such as the disappointment of those around him or the loss of trust that may result.
Use lots of positive reinforcement, praising your child every time he or she tells the truth.
Always give your child a chance to come clean and tell the truth, while recognizing that it may be humiliating for them. For example, you can say, “I’m giving you another chance to tell me what it’s really like. I know it’s not easy for you to admit this, that it’s embarrassing to say, but you will feel better afterwards.” This encourages him to tell the truth.
Set up a reward system at home (e.g., motivational chart) to encourage your child to tell the truth and ultimately get what they want without lying.
Be a role model for your child by telling the truth yourself. Your child watches and imitates you, even when you are talking to others. So it’s important that you set an example by not lying. If you don’t always tell the truth, your child may think that in certain circumstances (for example, to protect himself or herself or to avoid trouble), lying is an appropriate solution. If your child asks you a question, it is always a good idea to tell the truth.
When to be concerned
Very frequent lying can become a problem. For example, if a child’s lying causes repeated conflicts with friends or many warnings at school, it is important to talk to the child about it.
Lying along with other problem behaviors can mean that something is wrong. For example, lying can sometimes be linked to conduct disorders or oppositional disorder. Some behaviours to watch out for when they occur with lying are anger, disregard for others, or a tendency to manipulate and control others, for example.
In addition, some children who are anxious or shy, or who have phobias, for example, may have a tendency to lie to avoid situations that seem undesirable.
In these particular situations, it may be worthwhile to consult a professional (e.g. psychologist, counsellor, special educator) who can help the child and his parents. Do not hesitate to talk to the child’s doctor for resources.
In general, lying is not a problem, unless the child lies very often or also exhibits certain other behaviours.
The most important thing is to understand the real reasons why children lie and to address the causes rather than punishing the lie.
Parents should see lying primarily as an opportunity to teach children life lessons and more acceptable ways of behaving in society.