Help! My Child is Lying to Me.

Part of our "I'm Stumped" series - read this post on how to respond when your child tells you a lie.

By Stephanie McGary, M.S., LPC-i Clinician | Feb 03, 2016

This post is part of our “I’m Stumped: Our Answers to Your Common
Parenting Dilemmas” series. For all of the posts in this series, click here.

Parents often come to us and ask about their child’s lying habits. These lies can range from little white lies (a child who says she washed her hands when she didn’t) to bigger, more dangerous lies (a teenager pretending to be at a friend’s house instead of a party).

It’s important to know that most kids lie from time to time. (Most of us adults lie from time to time, too.) So if you’re hearing the occasional little white lie creep up, no need to rush to panic mode. Of course you should still address it and try to get to the root of it, but it isn’t necessarily a sign that your child is going down a dangerous path.

When kids are very young, they’re really not able to think all the way through a lie. So if you ask a child how the vase ended up broken on the floor, she might think of the first thing that pops in her head – my sister did it! – without realizing the implication that has on her sister. In her mind, she’s off the hook. But she hasn’t thought about the fact that now her sister might get in trouble for something she didn’t do. Most lies start as selfish ways to get out of a sticky situation.

So that leads into my advice for handling lies. You need to start by chasing the why. Did your child not tell you about something that happened at school? Did she blame someone else for something that she did? Think about why she might be lying to you. Maybe she’s scared to tell you something. Maybe she thinks she’ll get in trouble. Maybe she’s trying to protect a friend.

Once you’ve identified why she’s lying, you will better be able to understand how to address it. Let’s say it’s a small lie, like a young child lying about washing her hands after leaving the restroom. You know that she’s saying that she did because she wants to get out of there and go back to playing her game. So now you can address that particular concern. You can say, “I know you really want to go back to the game you were playing, but you need to wash your hands first. The game will still be there when you are finished.” Or let’s say your teenage daughter decided not to tell you about a party she went to because some of her friends were drinking. You can say, “I know you were trying to protect your friends from getting in trouble. It is really important that you tell me where you are. It is my job to make sure that you are safe. I know you are a good friend and you wanted to look out for your friends, but you also need to tell the truth so that you and your friends can be safe.”

Sometimes, as my colleague Alma recently pointed out, we set our kids up for lies. What does that mean? Well, sometimes we already know the answer to a question before we ask it. For example, if we see that our child’s backpack is still in the car, we already know that he hasn’t started his homework. But sometimes we still say things like, “Did you do your homework already?” All this does is put him in the position of lying. Instead, we could say, “I saw that your backpack is still in the car. What’s your plan for getting your homework done on time tonight?” It can be tempting to try to “catch” a kid in a lie, but that’s not the important part. The important thing is to help them tell the truth, not get them in trouble for lying.

When talking to kids about lies, it is really important that you let them know that you’re upset with their decision to tell a lie, but not upset with them. You don’t want their self-worth to be connected to their choice. You can say, “I know that you didn’t tell the truth. You were trying to avoid getting in trouble and you didn’t want to tell me about what happened. You didn’t make the best choice when you decided to lie, and it is important to always try to make the best choices. I want you to know that I still love you even when you make the wrong choice.”

When a child tells a lie, it’s a great opportunity to teach her about empathy. You can talk about how it felt when you didn’t know the truth. Or how another person felt who got blamed for something she didn’t do.

The thing is, kids are going to lie. That’s an inevitable circumstance of parenting. But if you can get to the root of it, it can be a powerful lesson in honesty and empathy. And a child who feels understood, and not blamed, for her choices is more likely to tell the truth the next time she lands herself in a sticky situation.