Dealing with lies

Boy hiding behind his hands
White lies, black lies, big lies, small lies, tall tales, porkies, fibs... lies come in all sorts of shapes and guises and there are just as many reasons why children resort to them. Danielle Weekes investigates why children lie and whether dishonesty matters.

Kinds of lies

Lies fall into four categories:

  • Exploratory lies to test reactions from authority figures;
  • Exaggerated stories to obtain social approval from peers or to avoid embarrassmen
  • Fantasies, such as fabricating an invisible friend
  • Cover up lies to avoid punishment

Should you be worried about your child lying?

The child's age and the frequency of lies should give you a good idea of whether there is a serious problem, says Dr Phillip Hodson, a fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. He believes that parents have about eight years from birth to teach their child the value of honesty: “Children reflect the values of their home background up to the age of eight. After that they tend to reflect the values of their peer group.”

A sudden change in attitude in a child may also be a reflection of an internal emotional disturbance. “Children lash out in different ways when they are angry and insecure,” Dr Hodson explains, “However, vindictive lying to get revenge or to create conflict, when done frequently, should raise alarm bells and may require professional intervention.”

Statistics show that children who lie tend to engage in other forms of delinquent behaviour like stealing or fighting.

A sign of something deeper?

Internationally renowned child behavioural expert Bryan Post believes that early trauma may also contribute to the more severe incidences of dishonesty and advises that parents ensure there is not a bigger hidden problem causing the child to act out.

Dr Post believes that problems should be approached with love rather than the intent to instil fear. So he recommends, in the first instance, that parents ignore the lie and focus on the child, reiterating that no matter what their behaviour, they still love them. After a few minutes the parent should then approach the child again.

“Yelling at a child will only increase fear, which will lead to more lying,” he says, “By showing love, you need not worry that you are taking a softly-softly approach. Instead you are showing that you are willing to listen no matter what the truth might be.”

Top tips for dealing with children's lies

  • Lead by example – it is not helpful to show your children that lying is useful, or can be used for gain.
  • Never trap your child into a lie. Demanding angrily whether your child has done something wrong when you know this is the case only encourages them to lie to avoid punishment. Instead explain calmly that you know they have lied and that you want to be able to trust them. It is important for your child to know that you will not tolerate dishonesty.
  • Never call your child a liar. You want to avoid this becoming a part of your child's self-image. Instead try to teach the importance of trust. If they are still below five explain why it is wrong to tell lies and use examples of how it has got people into trouble in the past. Read them The Boy Who Cried Wolf or Pinocchio.
  • Pay attention to when they lie to identify why they lie, whether it is to impress their friends or avoid punishment.