Kids Lying infographic

How to Deal with a Child that Lies


What to do when your child lies

What to do when your child lies

What to do when your child lies

What are we to do when we suspect our kids are lying? The most important thing is to try not to respond with anger, the anger born from feeling hurt, betrayed, or challenged. Try to understand why the lie is occurring, or the motive for lying. Very often that understanding will allow you to talk to your child in a way that will allow the child to be truthful, which will eliminate the child’s motive for lying. It may require no more than acknowledging some misdeed your child has done. Here are some additional tips on how to deal with a child that lies:

  1. Try, as difficult as it may seem, to see the world from your child’s view. Be on your child’s side. 
  2. Show forgiveness. Remember what it was like when you were a child. This doesn’t mean giving up your rules or standards, but does mean understanding rather than always punishing any infraction. And, as your child grows older, this means being willing to discuss or negotiate the rules you live by as a family.
  3. When parents encounter situations in which there is no way to find out the truth, they have a choice about which kind of mistake they want to risk. If they are trusting and accept their child’s word, they risk being exploited and deceived if they were wrong. If they are suspicious and distrusting, they risk disbelieving a truthful child if they were wrong (and that I believe is more damaging). Our child then can no longer count on us, and that loss can be severe. The anger it breeds in the child may motivate the lies the suspicious parent had hoped to avoid.

Showing understanding does not mean you won’t sometimes also be angry about what your child has done. Children sometimes do things that disappoint or anger us, and it is important that they know that. But even when a child has done something inappropriate, such as hurting another child or stealing, the parents’ disapproval can be mixed with compassion. A road back to self-respect must be allowed and humiliation always avoided. An inappropriate act needs to be called out, but it also needs to be forgiven.

Trust is intertwined with lying in many different ways. The lying child betrays the parents’ trust. The parent who has been lied to must struggle to forgive the child and allow for trust to be reestablished. The distrustful parent may destroy the truthful child’s belief in that parent’s fairness and commitment. It may be useful to think that sometimes children lie to us because they don’t trust us, they are not certain that they can be truthful to us without being hassled or punished.

Parents should not give up their beliefs in what is right, but they must also treat their children in a way that lets them know they can be trusted with the truth. Parents start with the child’s trust, but as the child grows older, they must continue to earn it.


What to consider about kids lying

Dealing with challenging feelings

It is hard not to feel betrayed when we discover or suspect that our child lied to us. It seems as if our child has turned against us. It does not seem fair. Our kid’s lie blocks us from doing what we think we should be doing as parents. If we don’t know what is happening, we can’t intervene, protect, caution, advise, or punish (if that is what is called for).

Accepting uncertainty

Our child’s lie asserts a change about who is in charge. Not us any longer, or not so completely anyway. Gone are the days when we could or should know everything. Now we must live with some uncertainty, now we must win our child’s confidence or trust. When our child reaches the age when they can lie without always or usually getting caught, our child for the first time has a choice about what to share with us.

Leading by example

Whether our children will lie to us no longer depends upon how scared they are of being caught. They have learned they can get away with it. Now truthfulness depends, in part at least, upon how we have been and are as parents. How understanding or impatient, how trusting or suspicious, how fair or harsh we have been. Have we been so permissive or so preoccupied with our own lives and careers that we have been inattentive? Do they know we care what they do and how they act? How much has our child learned about why truthfulness is important? How well have we ourselves demonstrated truthfulness? How much effort have we expended to teach our children moral values?

Discovering that our child has lied, and nearly got away with it, confronts us with the loss of our own power. No longer can we be certain of having all the information we want. No adult has that with anyone else, but we do with our children, for a time. We must have that information, we must know how our children are feeling, what they want and need and plan to do when they are very young, for they totally depend upon us for their survival. But as the child grows, we no longer are their center, their only source, their only means for survival.

Children’s rights

The lie asserts the child’s right. The right to challenge us. The right to privacy. The right to decide what will and won’t be revealed.

There’s no question that parents need to know a lot about what their children are doing and planning. And that need does not end when the child becomes able to deceive us, it only becomes more difficult for us to be certain we can fill it.

The problems with lying

Lying about serious matters is not a problem just because it makes it more difficult for parents to do their job. Lying erodes closeness and intimacy. Lying breeds distrust, it betrays trust. Lying implies a disregard for the person deceived. It can become nearly impossible to live with someone who lies often. 

Lying usually accompanies other misdeeds, breaking other rules. When it becomes chronic, lying may be a sign of serious trouble, of disturbance in the child and in the family. If not dealt with, frequent lying may lead to serious problems in adulthood.

Learn More

For more information, you can read what Dr. Ekman has to say about children lying or find his book, Why Kids Lie, in this collection of Paul Ekman books.

Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.

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