How to Deal With a Lying Child

Three Methods:Handling Lying in Younger Children (ages 3 to 5)Handling Lying in Older Children (ages 6 to 9)Handling Lying in Adolescents (ages 10 and up)

Noticing a pattern of lying in your child can be a frustrating and frightening experience. You wonder if your parenting has caused your child to develop this unhealthy behavior. You secretly worry if your child will become an adult pathological liar. Rest assured, lying is a common and normal part of childhood development. Still, there are strategies you can apply to keep the lying at bay.

Method 1
Handling Lying in Younger Children (ages 3 to 5)

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    Recognize why younger children lie. In early childhood development, children have not been impacted and guided by the social mores of right and wrong, good and bad. A fibbing child at this age is doing so to either appease an adult, exaggerate a story to impress someone, or because they have forgotten something. The child may not even be aware that he has done anything wrong.[1][2]
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    Accept that lying is a modifiable behavior. Catching your child in a lie does not mean he is bound to be a sociopath. Lying is just one of many ways children explore the world and the reactions/expectations of others. Lying is learned through trial and error.[3]
    • For example, Matty told a lie that kept him from getting into trouble, so he learns that lying could protect him. His not getting into trouble reinforced the likelihood that he will get into trouble. However, anything learned can also be unlearned. Lying is no different.
    • Reinforcement goes both ways. Matty's lying was reinforced because he avoided trouble. On the contrary, a child telling the truth but still getting into trouble can actually be reinforced to lie in the future.
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    Praise truth-telling. How you respond to lying in the moment often determines whether your child will keep up the behavior. While you shouldn't overlook episodes of lying, try to avoid demonstrating anger or frustration with your young child. Doing so may inadvertently cause the behavior to continue. Instead, focus more on situations when you notice your child being truthful. Highlight the positives associated with being honest and congratulate your child on her honesty.[4]
    • Use words like "awesome", "excellent", or "great job" when praising your child for telling the truth. Always be clear about what you are praising your child for so that she knows which behaviors result in positive consequences.
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    Point out the differences between "play-time" and "real life". In some situations, your toddler or younger child may lie as an extension of their make-believe worlds. Children play all sorts of games, read stories, and watch TV shows that portray outstanding and remarkable circumstances. Being immersed in this make-believe world can cause your child to have a blurred understanding of reality.
    • Talk to your child about the differences between made-up stories and the truth. Clearly identify times when it is okay for your child to engage in imaginative storytelling and times when he or she must not. Be careful not to diminish the significance of imaginative play, as it is essential for creative and cognitive development.[5]
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    Teach the importance of honesty through stories. Use stories as a way to reinforce the benefits of being truthful. Most children's stories have a moral that can be discussed. Use your child's reading time to outline the significance of telling the truth by pointing out the consequences in different characters' lives for either lying or being honest and doing the right thing.

Method 2
Handling Lying in Older Children (ages 6 to 9)

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    Examine the rationale behind lying at this age. In the middle years of childhood, kids lie to protect themselves (or a friend or sibling) from getting into trouble or to prevent you from being angry or disappointed. Kids want everyone to be calm and happy (including themselves), and, if lying suits this purpose, then they'll do it.[6][7]
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    Refrain from labeling your child as a "liar". One of the worst things you can do as a parent is label a child by an offensive behavior. It is the behavior (i.e. lying) that you do not like, but labeling can make it seem as if the child is the problem. Even if you have noticed a consistent pattern of lying in your child, avoid saying the "L" word.
    • Instead, exercise the belief that your child can be honest. Kids should know that you have confidence in their truth-telling abilities, and that you see them as brave or courageous when they are honest - even when telling the truth is scary or hard.
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    Don't walk your child into a lie. Sometimes, adults make the error of putting children into tight situations in which they are tempted to lie. For example, you walk into the living room and see a huge mess on the floor. You have three children. Asking "who made this mess?" in an upsetting tone only pushes each of your children to either lie about not having done it or blame it on someone else.[8]
    • Recognize that being honest requires a great deal of courage, especially when the consequence of telling the truth is facing a red-faced, angry adult who is capable of inflicting punishment.
    • Rather than putting your kids in a corner, simply verbalize your expectations. Say, "the living room isn't a storage space for toys, book bags, or clothes. I need it to be tidy in 20 minutes."
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    Model honesty. Acknowledge how your behavior affects your child's lying. This is not to say that if your child lies, it's your fault. However, parents must understand the old saying that what you do in moderation, your child does in excess. If your child has witnessed you telling little "white lies" or lying to get out of something, then they will see this behavior as acceptable - even if you warn them against it. In order to prevent this, portray honesty in your everyday actions as much as possible. [9][10]
    • Of course, there are some circumstances in which lying is done to protect someone else's feelings. Younger children usually cannot discriminate between these situations. So, as a rule of thumb, be truthful in your interactions with your children and others.
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    Set better boundaries. Unlike younger children, kids over 5 typically know when they are lying, which means they know the difference between right and wrong. If they tell a lie to get themselves or someone else out of trouble, then they are already aware of their wrongdoing. Therefore, lecturing to them or going on and on about what they've done is not necessary. What is necessary is helping them to overcome the temptation to be disobedient. Boundary-setting can help alleviate this problem.[11]
    • It is virtually impossible for adults to remove all opportunities for children to misbehave. However, you can minimize these opportunities by setting boundaries in your household and beyond. Look for ways to remove temptations to be disobedient and boost their chances of doing the right thing.
    • For example, getting upset because your 7-year-old ate an entire bag of candy could have been prevented if the candy was not accessible in the first place. It is a fact that most children like candy. Leaving it in plain sight challenges your child's self-control. To overcome this issue, remove the temptation by putting candy away out of your child's reach. Increase the likelihood of your child making good choices by making healthy snacks more accessible.
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    Beware when lying is a sign of a bigger issue. Childhood lying can point to a serious problem in some kids. Mental illnesses like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), conduct disorder, and even personality disorders may manifest through lying. Closely monitor your child's lying. If it seems like your child is lying for no reason, constantly testing adult limits, or lying without remorse, you may need to see a child psychologist.[12]
    • In addition, childhood lying accompanied by bullying, terrorizing or hurting animals, or destroying one's own or another's possessions may signal a more complex issue that requires professional assistance to address.

Method 3
Handling Lying in Adolescents (ages 10 and up)

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    Evaluate your adolescent's goals for lying. By this age, lying is certainly a conscious behavior. Older children and adolescents know the difference between truth and fantasy. They are aware of the consequences of telling lies, and, unfortunately, they have also gotten much more skilled at lying. Adolescents lie to avoid punishment, to get out of doing undesirable activities, to hide unacceptable behaviors, to protect their privacy, and to protect other's feelings.[13]
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    Ask your child why they choose to lie and listen. Lecturing is generally futile with adolescents. For the most part, they understand right and wrong and the potential consequences of their actions. Therefore, you may not need to reiterate why what they did was wrong. However, asking your adolescent son or daughter why they chose to lie might clue you into a deeper rationale, or highlight places where boundaries need to be set.[14]
    • Adolescents are exercising independence and evolving in their identities. They are also fiercely loyal and protective of their friends and peers. If your son lies about a friend who's mom is an alcoholic, he may be doing so to not only maintain confidentiality of his friend's situation, but also making sure you don't try to cut off their seeing one another in a time when his friend really needs support.
    • After you ask their rationale avoid any blaming or finger-pointing. Sit quietly and listen to understand their point-of-view.
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    Evaluate your role in adolescent lying. Are you extremely strict? Are you not allowing your maturing child to have independence appropriate to his or her age? Consider this scenario: your 15-year-old daughter is lying about wearing makeup to school. You find out from a friend who's a teacher and immediately fly off the handle when she comes home one day. Your reaction itself is enough to encourage more lying - your child fears your disapproval, so she hides her behavior from you.[15]
    • This example is not placing fault in your parenting, but rather allowing for the fact that with older children you should open up the door for a dialogue. If your response is to naturally say "no", to stamp out negotiations or to not let your children have any voice, then lying or covering up is expected.
    • Aim to pick your battles with your lying child so that he or she feels capable of opening up a dialogue with you. Decide which issues are non-negotiable and allow your maturing teen some input in the decision-making on issues that are more flexible. Of course, the final say should always be left up to the parents, particularly in cases involving safety. However, more effective collaboration may help to eliminate your child's lying habit.[16][17]
    • It may be necessary to visit with a family therapist if you are having trouble releasing the reigns on your growing adolescent child. A professional can help you set boundaries, but also assist your entire family in improving communication.
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    Avoid arguing back and forth. State the obvious and explain the consequences. If you have caught your adolescent child in a lie, there is no need to go on and on about the details, or ask clarifying questions that only result in your child telling more lies. Be upfront with your child by saying, "I know you lied about ____". If you want to understand their lie, then ask. Otherwise, tell your child the consequences of lying and carry on.
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    Follow through on punishments. If you (and your partner or spouse) determine that your child's lying requires consequences, be sure to carry them out. Not following through on punishments, or presenting "empty threats", can undermine your authority and cause your child to think he or she can get away with inappropriate behavior. That's why you should always give yourself space to ponder over - and maybe discuss with someone else - your child's behavior before dolling out punishments, so you can be sure the punishment is reasonable based on the infraction.[18][19]
    • Strive to enforce logical consequences to your child's lying. In other words, make sure the punishment fits the crime. For example, if your adolescent son lied and said he was watching a younger sibling, but the sibling was injured because your son was actually distracted by TV, an appropriate consequence would be to take away TV privileges.[20]


  • Recognize that lying is a healthy and essential part of cognitive development. If your child lies, it is not necessarily your fault. By applying these skills, you may find that your child's lying fades with time.


  • Refrain from yelling, cursing, or using physical violence in response to a lying child. If you find that you are unable to control your anger, you may need to work with an anger management specialist.

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Categories: Behavioral Issues