Lying and Children
No. 44; Updated July 2017
Parents are often concerned when their child or adolescent lies. They may wonder if it is cause for concern or expected for the child's stage of development. Parents have an important role to play in helping their children learn about honesty and dishonesty.
Lying that is probably not a serious problem:
Young children (ages 4-5) often make up stories and tell tall tales. This is normal activity because they enjoy hearing stories and making up stories for fun. These young children may blur the distinction between reality and fantasy.
An older child or adolescent may tell a lie to be self-serving (e.g. to avoid doing something or to deny responsibility for their actions). Parents should respond to isolated instances of lying by talking with their child about the importance of truthfulness, honesty, and trust.
Sometimes adolescents do not tell the whole truth in certain situations, such as not telling a boyfriend or girlfriend all the reasons for a breakup because they don't want to hurt their feelings. While honest communication is important, learning to explain how one feels in a way that also shows concern for the other person is also an important skill. Many adolescents may lie to protect their privacy or to help them feel psychologically separate and independent from their parents (e.g. denying they sneaked out late at night with friends).
Lying that may indicate emotional problems:
Some children who can tell the difference between a truth and a lie tell elaborate stories which appear believable. Children or adolescents usually relate these stories with enthusiasm because they receive a lot of attention as they tell the lie.
Other children or adolescents, who otherwise seem responsible, fall into a pattern of repetitive lying. They often feel that lying is the easiest way to deal with the demands of parents, teachers, and friends. These children are usually not trying to be bad or malicious, but the repetitive pattern of lying becomes a bad habit. For example, a child may lie and say they finished their homework because they are having difficulty doing the homework for reasons related to learning, attention, and/or emotional concerns.
Other adolescents may frequently use lying to cover up another serious problem. For example, an adolescent with a serious drug or alcohol problem will lie repeatedly to hide the truth about where they have been, who they were with, what they were doing, and where their money went. They often feel bad about lying but worry about getting in serious trouble if they tell the truth. There are also children and adolescents who are not bothered by lying or taking advantage of others unless they get caught.
What to do if your child or adolescent lies:
Parents are the most important role models for their children. When a child or adolescent lies, parents should take some time to have a serious discussion about:
- the difference between make-believe and reality as well as lying and telling the truth
- the importance of honesty at home and in the community
- alternatives to lying
If a child or adolescent develops a repetitive pattern of serious lying, then professional help may be indicated. Evaluation by a child and adolescent psychiatrist may help the child and parents understand and then replace the lying behavior with more honest communication and trust.