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Kids and Lying: Does Your Child Twist the Truth?

by Janet Lehman, MSW
Kids and Lying: Does Your Child Twist the Truth?

You: “You failed your biology test? You said you studied!”

Your child: “Well, I forgot my books at school the night before the test. It wasn’t my fault!”

You: “Why didn’t you tell me? I’m so tired of your lies.”

When your child lies to you, whether she does it by telling a half–truth or conveniently "forgetting" some key facts, it’s frustrating and upsetting. You wonder, “How can I trust her if she’s not being honest with me?” And if this behavior turns into a habit, it becomes difficult to know when your child is telling the truth, twisting it a little—or making up a complete fabrication.

"When your child lies, it doesn’t mean she’s inherently dishonest or unethical—it just means she’s solving her problems in a faulty way in order to get out of punishment or consequences."

As hard as lying is to deal with, I want to be clear here and say that it’s a normal part of growing up. It’s another way for kids to test the limits and see how far they can go, and most kids will do it at one time or another. It’s important to realize that when your child lies, it doesn’t mean she’s inherently dishonest or unethical—it just means she’s solving her problems in a faulty way in order to get out of punishment or consequences. The danger with allowing this behavior to continue is that your child will keep using this technique to cover up mistakes and the faulty coping skill will become a bad habit.

Related: Teach your child to stop lying and start solving his problems appropriately.

I think one of the biggest problems with this issue is that parents often overreact or under–react when kids lie.  Don’t get me wrong, parenting is hard, and most of us are exhausted at the end of the day. It’s easy to let half–truths slide by without saying anything because on the surface, these distortions of the truth can seem harmless. We minimize their importance, but in doing so, we also teach our kids that lying is an acceptable way to solve their problems. Or we overreact and take it personally, and start to believe that our children are somehow intrinsically flawed or untrustworthy. But both ways of approaching lying in children are ineffective—and neither will make the behavior stop.

Half–truths, Omissions and Misrepresentations of the Truth

Don't kid yourself: half-truths, omissions, and misrepresentations of the truth are really the same as lying. It all comes down to the same thing—your child is not giving you complete information. Why do kids do this in the first place? In addition to using lying as a quick fix to get out of trouble, they also see other children, older siblings and even the adults around them being less than honest at times.  They see examples of these behaviors, often without seeing any negative consequence for the lie. As a parent, you just want to make sure that lying is uncomfortable for your child so he doesn’t use it to solve his problems. In my opinion, you shouldn’t be surprised or shocked when your child lies—instead, be prepared. Decide ahead of time how you’ll deal with the situation when you catch your child in a half–truth and then follow through on it. And always remember to stay as neutral and objective as possible when you do this—your child probably isn’t lying to make you look bad or to hurt you; he’s lying because he doesn’t know a better way to solve his problems yet.

When Our Son Lied: How We Handled It

I’ll give you an example from my own life. When our son was in first grade, he came home from school one afternoon acting as if he’d had a good day. But later that afternoon I got a call from the teacher saying that he’d bitten another child on the playground. Our son had lied by omission; he didn’t tell us about his misbehavior. We dealt with it by saying, “We got a phone call from your school and they told us what you did. This is very serious behavior.” We let him know that it wasn’t okay to omit the facts and pretend as if nothing had happened. Then we sent him to his room.

For kids, it’s tempting to leave out information about school because parents aren’t there and don’t know what happened. That’s why it’s really important to have that dialogue with your child’s teacher. You need to know what’s going on at school; do whatever you can to get a general sense of the situation. I always say that parents need to be good detectives where their kids are concerned, and having good lines of communication open with the school will help you understand what’s really going on when incidents crop up again.

Later, when our son was a teenager, he and some friends engaged in some minor vandalism in our town on Halloween night. Again, he came home and didn’t mention anything—but this time, he sat down with us the next morning and told us what he’d done. We handled it by having him call the police immediately and turn himself in. They made him write an account of what happened and he was dealt with through the legal system. We didn’t involve the other kids who’d been there that night—we just focused on our own child. While calling the police is a choice every parent has to make on their own, we felt the consequence was appropriate, given what he had done.

Was it easy to follow through on this decision? Not at all. I understand how hard it is for parents to handle difficult situations like this one. Often it takes a great deal of energy as a parent to be consistent, but it’s so important to have consequences and follow through on them. And it’s the best way to show your child that you can be trusted to be there for them.

When You Catch Your Child in a Lie

Our job as parents is to go to work and provide a home for our kids, while our child’s job is to go to school and fulfill his responsibilities at home. As I mentioned before, I believe it’s also part of our job to stay actively involved and know how our children are doing in school. Let’s say your teen daughter tells you that everything’s going fine academically and then you learn she’s failing in two subjects. When something like that happens, both you and your child need to do things differently. At this point in time it would be helpful to be more vigilant and start checking her homework. You might also meet with her teachers and set up stronger lines of communication.

When you discuss these changes with your child, you don’t have to talk at great length about her half truths and lying. Instead, you can say, “I don’t like that you’re not being honest with me. You said that things were going well in school, but they’re not. Now I’m going to be more involved in making sure you’re doing your homework until you show me that you can be responsible and bring your grades back up.” If your child continues misrepresenting the truth, you can set limits by giving her less free time until she completes her schoolwork at a satisfactory level. You can say, “If you do your work, you get the same amount of free time. If you don’t, you’ll have less.” I can’t state this enough: When you confront your child in these situations, stay matter of fact and objective. It’s not about you; it’s about the situation at hand. Try to avoid either overreacting or under–reacting. Be honest, above board and clear. And again, it’s the follow through that’s important.

Related: How to follow through and be consistent as a parent.

When You’re Not Sure If Your Child is Lying

If you have a hunch your child isn’t telling the truth, it’s important to talk to her—but you have to be careful and non–intrusive. A way to discuss something you suspect is happening is to start by expressing the concern you feel. You can say, “It seems like there’s something going on and I’m worried about you.” Deliver that concern in a matter of fact, caring way. If your child tries to avoid the discussion or has a reaction that makes you even more worried, this is a good indicator that you need to look into the situation further. Kids also need to know that you’re going to follow through, so you should say something like, “I’m pretty concerned about this situation. I don’t really know the details right now and you’re not willing to tell me, but I’m going to talk to your friend’s mother to find out more about it.” In this way, you’re not charging in there and accusing your child of something without all the details. Instead, you’re stating your concern and telling them that you’re going to find out more of the details.

If you actually catch your child in a lie, I think it’s always good to be direct and calm. The message doesn’t need to be complicated—instead, keep it simple and specific. It’s also up to you to control the conversation—in fact, it’s important to avoid getting into long–winded discussions, particularly if your child is a junior lawyer who’s very good at twisting the facts. When this happens, it becomes more about the words and the slicing and dicing of the situation than the actual situation itself. You can say, “I know that you took your sister’s new sweater; I found it on the floor in your closet. That’s not okay. You need to apologize to her and pay to have it dry cleaned, or buy her a new one.” Instead of engaging in the argument that your child might try to draw you into, get up and walk away.

Consequences for Lying

In most cases, I recommend that you give consequences for the behavior rather than for the lie. Again, your child is using lying, half truths and misrepresentations of the truth to solve a problem. But I also believe there are certain times when you should give your child consequences for lying, as well. Let’s say your teen tells you he’s going to a friend’s house to sleepover, but you find out from a neighbor that he and his friends were out all night in town. In this situation, I would give a consequence both for the inappropriate, risky behavior and for the lie.

If you say to your child, “Were you out last night?” and he says, “Yes, I was. I snuck out with my friends and I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have done it.” This is an opportunity for your child to admit his mistake. There should still be consequences for that, but for the teen who says, “No way; I wasn’t out! That wasn’t me,” you’re also dealing with denial. Either way, there will be consequences for both the lying and the risky behavior. For the child who admits his mistake, you might set the limit of not allowing him to sleep over at a friend’s house until you can see he’s adhering to his curfew and being honest about coming home. But if there’s total denial on the part of your child, the consequences need to be more severe. He may lose his privileges to go out and to sleep over at a friend’s house for a longer period of time. You’ll also be watching him more carefully.  The ante will be upped, so to speak. The important thing is that you’re monitoring your child—and he knows that you’re doing it.  Your child won’t thank you for restricting his behavior for a time, but he will respect you for sticking to your limits.

Related: How to give consequences to your child that really work.

We work so hard as parents and often feel pretty overwhelmed when our kids lie. But remember, you’ll do a better job when you respond objectively instead of reacting emotionally in these situations. You’re not a bad parent because your child tells a lie or misrepresents the truth—this is simply a chance for him to learn that lying isn’t the right way to solve his problems. The way to be a good parent in these situations is to call your child on his actions, give consequences and follow through.


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Janet Lehman, MSW has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years and is the co-creator of The Total Transformation Program. She is a social worker who has held a variety of positions during her career, including juvenile probation officer, case manager, therapist and program director for 22 years in traditional residential care and in group homes for difficult children.

READER'S COMMENTS

Every article I read is talking about if the child doesn't do what she is supposed to, there should be a consequence. Well, how much more can we take away from them??? At some point the child will get tired and stops being good or trying to be good totally. I have a 9 year old. She is too smart for me and can push my limits however she can. We can take away her previlog of watching Tv or having friends over or playing Wii but there is nothing more we can do. how much more can we cut and our message still not getting acrossed. So at some point even we get tired of ponishments and start ignoring the bad behaviors and just ponishing the horrible ones. experts say that punishment should be 1/100 of praising but do we get enough opportunity to make them feel good??? as the result, the number of punishments are getting way more than praising.

Comment By : NNG

* Hi NNG: We frequently get this question on the support line: “I’ve taken away everything and my child still isn’t doing what they’re supposed to! What else can I take away??” The truth is, there is no “magic consequence” that you can give your child and have her behavior change. This is because consequences alone do not change behavior-you have to also teach her what you want her to do instead and help her solve her problem in a more effective way. For example, if your daughter screams at you when you ask her to clean her room, and you take away TV for two weeks, she is learning how to live without watching TV, not how to get her room clean without screaming at you. A more effective consequence in this situation may be that when she calms down, you tell her that she needs to talk with you about what she can do differently next time you ask her to clean her room, and that she is not allowed to watch TV until she is willing to talk with you and her room is clean. For more information about consequences, I am attaching some articles for you to review:
How to Give Kids Consequences That Work
Why Consequences Aren't Enough, Part 1: How to Coach Your Child to Better Behavior
Why Consequences Aren't Enough, Part 2 Making Child Behavior Changes That Last
Good luck to you and your family as you work through this.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

I wish I had seen this when my daughter was younger. She's 17 now and we are enforcing limits on her behavior. It would have been easier if we had started when she was younger.

Comment By : megatalker

So, I tend to agree w/ NNG. There is only so much you can take away. And often, taking those things away actually ends up punishing the parent more than the child. Rather than always tying it to something they already 'have'... I've been taking a slightly different approach. There are always a few things that I know they 'want'... and a few special things we've talked about doing. When they lie about something or disobey or talk disrespectfully, I frame their behavior as a 'barrier to something they want'. I might say something like "You know... you've been asking for a Facebook account and telling me you're responsible enough and have good self-control and can handle it. Treating us disrespectfully doesn't come across as being particularly responsible and definitely doesn't show much self control... and it sure doesn't motivate us to have a Facebook account". Or a new cell phone, or a new video game or a drivers license. For younger kids, taking away things or privileges works okay. Not great, but it can help some. But if you tie an improvement in their behavior to some future opportunity, you'll have better results ("Hey, I was thinking of taking you to the movies next weekend... but that's off the table unless I see some changes ASAP.") For teens, tie their behavior to where they are going in life. What they want for themselves and what they want from you. Frame it as a "character" issue. "Who do you want to be when you grow up? Lying creates a barrier to achieving your dreams/goals." It's about THEM, not us. Saying "I don't like it when you lie" makes it about us. They don't particularly care if you like it. It's about them and who they are becoming. I've found it to be very freeing and more effective. Hope this is helpful to someone out there!

Comment By : ForConsideration

We are consistent but she won't stop lying. My 14 year old daughter has been lying since she was old enough to talk. She never feels bad unless she gets caught and I am beginning to wonder if she has a criminal devious mind. She never seems to learn from the consequences and we are so worn out playing the wardens in our house. In our case our new approach is to let the natural consequences fall upon her (such as her friends dropping her because she lies) and trying to show some empathy that she is suffering for her bad choices. Who knows if it will work we will see. I totally agree that you have to take the emotion out of your parenting. Be a parent robot with a smile.

Comment By : warden

My son tells dumb lies all the time and I do mpt know how to handle it. Yesterday I found a banana peel laying in the front yard in the bushes. When I said who left their banana peel in the front yard? he immediately blamed the dog and said she dug it up from the gound. No she did NOT! She can not even reach that area on her lead and there was no dirt moved. It was obviously a fresh peel. I told him that and then he starts tearing up and tells me he did not do it. I know he did it. It wouldn not have been a big deal. I would have just said pick it up and do not do it again. But I do not want to be lied to. He will lie and say he took the dog for a walk when he obviously did not because the leash exactly where I left it, etc). But when I confront him, very calmly, he cries. He is 10! What do I do???

Comment By : gina5620

* To 'gina5620': It is really frustrating when your child lies to you. Many parents do not know how to handle this type of situation and take this personally. James Lehman talks about dealing with lying as a problem solving issue, not a moral issue. In other words, your son is not lying to you because he is a bad kid, or because he is looking for ways to upset you; rather, this is a technique to solve a problem that is working for him. We advise giving a standard, small consequence for the lying itself, and then moving on to deal with whatever he is lying about if appropriate. For example, you might tell him that because he lied about taking the dog for a walk, he is going to bed 30 minutes early tonight, and now he needs to walk the dog. Once you have said that in a calm, business-like manner, simply turn around and walk away. I’m including a link to another article on lying that How to Deal with Lying in Children and Teens. Good luck to you and your son as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

Lying is especially hard to tell, but being firm you can tell. Weather their telling the truth as some thing like I forgot, Well this is where you get strict, and say well you should have remembered. Go make the make up for it...or ask them to prove it. ask their teacher how their doing in class. They're so many ways to find out. That's why they have partent teacher conferance. Plus it also helps if you can scare you children from lying. My partents did, I dare not to tell a lie ever! They did their job well, but becarefull how you handle this, some times you cna take it to far...Be reonable and respectful to your kids, and they will start to be respectful to you and do good.

Comment By : koga

Koga,! Your right, it worked for me

Comment By : Nathaniel

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