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Help! My Child Lies

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist

Question:

Recently I caught my 5-year-old daughter in three lies. They are all simple, yes, but her approach and answers to me were so convincing, it really has broken my heart. I am a single divorced mom and she and I have had a special bond. Now, she is lying so well that I feel bad to even question her further, but I just know they are lies. She even gives details to make me think she has told the truth. She has always been bright, articulate, excelled in learning and has a steamy temper. I have to admit here that I am frightened of what she might become if I don't figure out the right mode to break this ugliness she seems to have adopted.

Answer:

It is perfectly natural to feel hurt and betrayed when you catch someone you love in a lie. When it's your child, those feelings are also accompanied by fear and doubt - what does this mean? Why is she doing it now? Is she going to grow up to be a con artist or a criminal? Before you go down that road any further, let me assure you that there is no reason to panic! Lying is actually a normal and healthy part of young children's cognitive development. As their thinking skills and imaginations develop, young children "try out" their new abilities in many different ways. Pretend play and imaginary scenarios are a big part of their repertoire, and lying is not much different. Here are several types of lying commonly seen in young children:

Avoidance: Lying often occurs at this age to avoid undesired activities or consequences. For example, when asked if she made her bed or brushed her teeth, a child might quickly say "yes", even when there is evidence to the contrary (e.g., the toothbrush is dry or the bed is unmade). She doesn't want to stop what she's re doing to perform the requested task, so she lies. Similarly, at five years of age children know that bad behavior leads to punishment. And who wants to be punished? So she lies. Even though the fact that she lied is (in most adults' minds) a bigger problem, in her young mind being punished (or disappointing you) is far, far worse.

Tall Tales: Sometimes children tell lies in the form of exaggeration or what are commonly called "tall tales." These convoluted stories tend to be somewhat believable, and are fascinating to other kids. A child telling peers that her mother is a movie star or her father is a professional football player are examples of tall tales. These types of stories usually garner a lot of interest from other kids, and may even increase the storyteller's social status.

Habitual Lying: Another type of lying involves children who have developed a pattern of lying repeatedly. These are not "problem children," but they start lying to avoid consequences, deal with teachers, and keep from hurting their friends' feelings. The old joke where the kid tells his teacher "the dog ate my homework" is an example of this type of lie. Children who fall into this category have simply lied so much that it has become a reflexive reaction.

My suggestion is that you view the lying as behavior, and handle it the same way you would any other misbehavior - with consequences. Do this in a calm, matter-of-fact manner. Don't spend time asking her questions or getting further details, because doing so would be giving her negative attention, which only reinforces the lying behavior. In your own mind, try to figure out what her "goal" was in telling a lie. Was she avoiding punishment? Was she trying to get your attention? Was she trying to avoid your disappointment/anger? Was she feeling anxious, afraid, or ashamed? There's always a reason, and even though it might seem illogical to you, remember that it is logical to her. When she does tell the truth, praise her for doing so.


Dr. Stacie Bunning is a licensed clinical psychologist in the St. Louis area. She has worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of clinical settings for 20 years. Bunning also teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent psychology, and human development at Maryville University in St. Louis.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

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