When you catch your child in a lie, it’s natural to feel betrayed, hurt, angry, and frustrated. But here’s the truth: lying is a normal child behavior problem. It needs to be addressed, but for most kids, it’s not a character flaw, and it’s not an issue of morality.
Instead, lying is the immature and ineffective way they choose to solve a problem. Rather than fix an underlying problem, your child lies about it.
If your child doesn’t complete his homework, he solves that problem by lying and telling you he did. If your child doesn’t get home before her curfew, she lies about why. Or about where she was or who she was with. Lying is used to avoid consequences rather than face them.
I believe that with kids, lying is used as a faulty problem–solving skill. And it’s our job as parents to teach our children how to solve those problems in more constructive ways. Sometimes that means addressing the lying directly, but other times it means addressing the underlying behavior that made the lie seem necessary.
In this article, I explain the various reasons why kids lie and how to handle specific lying situations.
Most often, kids lie to avoid trouble. Let’s say they’ve gotten themselves into a jam because they did something they shouldn’t have done. Maybe they broke a rule, or they didn’t do something they were supposed to do, like their chores. If they don’t have another way out, rather than suffer the consequences, they lie to avoid getting into trouble.
Again, in my opinion, the primary reason kids lie is that they don’t have another way of dealing with a problem or conflict. Sometimes it’s the only way they know how to solve a problem. It’s a survival skill, albeit a faulty one.
Sometimes kids use lying as a way to keep part of their lives separate from their parents. In psychology, we call this individuation, and it’s quite normal.
At times it may even seem that they make up needless lies about things that seem trivial. It can be baffling to parents.
And, of course, children lie when they think the house rules are too strict and they decide to disobey them.
Let’s say you have a 16–year–old who isn’t allowed to wear makeup, but all her friends are wearing it. So she wears it outside the house, then lies to you about it. Lying may become a way for her to have you believe she’s following your rules and still do typical teen activities.
Kids will use lying to establish an identity, even if that identity is false. This can be used to impress their peers, perhaps in response to peer pressure. Your child might lie to his peers about things he says he’s done (that he hasn’t) to make himself sound more impressive. This is not unusual, and we all know adults who still do this in one way or another.
When your child is young, and the lies are inconsequential, this behavior may just be his way of getting a little attention. This is normal.
Younger children also make up stories during imaginative play. Understand that this is not lying but rather a way for them to engage their imaginations and start to make sense of the world around them.
So, when a small child says, “Mommy, I just saw Santa fly by the window,” I think it is very different from an older child who says, “I finished my homework,” when he hasn’t.
At some point, most people learn how to bend the truth in order not to hurt other people’s feelings. If someone asks you if you like their new shoes, and you don’t, you might still say, “Hey, those look great on you” instead of being completely honest.
But kids don’t have the same sophistication that adults do, so it’s often more comfortable for them to lie instead. This type of lying is a first step toward learning how to say something more carefully.
Indeed, we teach our kids to lie when we say, “Tell Grandma you like the present even if you don’t because it will hurt her feelings otherwise.”
We have a justifiable reason—we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings who’s gone out of their way for us. Nevertheless, we are still teaching our kids how to bend the truth. And again, this is normal.
I don’t believe lying in children is a moral issue. Therefore, I think it’s imperative not to take it personally if your child lies.
Indeed, most kids don’t lie to hurt their parents. They lie because there’s something else going on. The important part for you as a parent is to address the behavior behind the lie. If you’re taking it personally, you’re probably angry and upset—and not dealing with the behavior that led to the lie.
Here’s an example. Let’s say your child didn’t do his homework, but he told you he did. When you find out that he’s lying and confront him, he confesses and explains that he was playing sports with friends after school, and that’s why he didn’t do his homework.
At this point, you have a choice to make as a parent. Either you can focus on the fact that your child lied to you, or you can focus on the fact that he did not complete his homework.
I strongly recommend that you focus on the underlying behavior—the homework not being completed. As your child improves the underlying behavior, the reason for lying will go away. He won’t need to lie.
In contrast, if you yell at your child about the lying, about being betrayed, or about being disrespected, then that’s all you’re going to be able to address. Your child will shut down. And you’re not going to be able to deal with the real issue of your child ensuring that his homework is completed.
The bottom line is that your anger and frustration about the lie is not going to help your child change the behavior (not doing his homework) that made the lie necessary for him.
So lying is not strictly a moral issue; it’s a problem–solving issue. Lying is a lack of skills issue and an avoiding consequences issue. Your child isn’t lying because he is immoral; he’s lying because he can’t figure out how to get his homework done on time.
Most kids know right from wrong—that’s why they’re lying in the first place. They don’t want to get in trouble for what they’ve done, and they’re using lying to solve their problems.
That means our kids need better problem-solving skills, and you can respond as a parent by helping them work on their ability to problem-solve, which can be accomplished with effective consequences that teach your child how to problem-solve.
I believe it’s the parent’s job to determine which lies are serious and which are not. And the most serious lies pertain to unsafe, illegal, or risky behavior. Therefore, I recommend that you pick your battles and focus on the serious lies.
For example, you may hear your child say to another child, “Oh, I like that dress,” and then later on in the car, they tell you, “I didn’t like that dress.” You might decide to confront your child about this contradiction. But you might also let it go, especially if this happens only occasionally.
But if they’re lying about something risky or illegal or unsafe, you must address it. And if it’s about risky sexual behavior, drugs, or other harmful activities—you may need to seek some help from a professional.
So pick your battles. Focus on what’s important.
If you catch your child in a serious lie, I recommend that you do not react immediately. Instead, send him to his room so you can calm down. Talk with your spouse or a trusted friend or family member and come up with a game plan. Allow yourself time to think about how to handle the situation.
Remember, when you respond without thinking, you’re not going to be effective. So give yourself a little time to plan this out.
When you do talk, don’t argue with your child about the lie. Just state what you saw, and what is obvious. You may not know the reason for the lie, but eventually, your child might fill you in on it. Again, simply state the behaviors that you saw.
The conversation might go something like this:
“I got a call from our neighbor. She saw you sneaking out of your window. And I noticed that you were falling asleep at the kitchen table this morning at breakfast. But you told us that you were home all night.”
And then say to your teen:
“There’s going to be a consequence for that. You’re not going to be able to stay over at your friend’s house next weekend. And we’re concerned about where you went.”
Leave the door open for him to tell you what happened.
Remember, state what you believe based on the facts you have. Do it without arguing; just say it matter–of–factly.
“We have this information, we believe it to be true, and these are the consequences.”
Keep it very simple and listen to what your child has to say, but be firm.
If your child lies chronically or lies about unsafe, risky, or unhealthy behavior, I think it makes sense to address the actual lying in addition to the underlying behavior. You can do this by staging a lying intervention.
A lying intervention is a planned and structured conversation about lying behavior. This conversation lets your child know what you’ve been seeing, and it gives you a chance to tell them that you are concerned.
Here are some things to keep in mind when staging an intervention.
Think about how you’re going to intervene in advance. Plan it with your spouse or co-parent. If you’re single, ask another close adult family member to be there with you.
When this issue came up with our son, my husband James and I planned out what we were going to say, how we were going to react, and even where we were going to sit.
We decided we were going to be as neutral and unemotional as possible. We identified the problem behaviors we wanted to address. We also decided what would be the consequences for our son’s behavior.
We did all of this ahead of time.
When you’re talking with your child, be specific about what you saw and what the problems are. State your intentions calmly and matter-of-factly:
“If the lying about homework continues, this will be the consequence.”
“It’s obvious you snuck out last night. There will be a consequence for that behavior.”
Remember, it has to be a consequence that you can and will follow through with.
Keep it very focused and simple for your child. Concentrate on the behavior. And then tell him that you want to hear what was happening that made him feel he needed to lie.
Understand that you are not looking for an excuse for the lie, but rather to identify the problem your child was having that they used lying to solve.
Be direct and specific. The intervention itself should be quick and to–the–point. Don’t lecture your child for a long time. Remember that lecturing is not going to be helpful. Kids just tune that out. They’ve heard it over and over. They stop listening, and nothing changes. Lecturing is ineffective.
Because lying is most likely the way your child is trying to problem-solve, make sure you indicate that you want to hear what’s going on with her. Allow your child to explain herself and be prepared just to listen.
She may not be ready to talk with you about it initially. Therefore, just be open to hearing what your child’s problem is. You want to create a safe environment for her to open up to you.
But if your child is not ready, don’t push her. Instead, simply reiterate that you are willing to listen whenever she wants to talk. Try to be patient.
Related content: How to Talk to Your Child About Lying
Be aware that kids and adolescents are prone to engage in what psychologists call magical thinking. Your child engages in magical thinking when he convinces himself that his lies are true. Understand that your child doesn’t want to believe he’s a liar. No one wants to be known as a liar.
So you’ll see kids who’ve gotten caught smoking at school say, “No, I wasn’t smoking”—even though the smoke is still in the air. That’s magical thinking.
And when you’re a kid, you think that if you keep repeating the same thing over and over again, it will magically be true.
Moreover, if your child gets away with a few lies, he will start thinking he should be able to get away with them the next time. The lies become more and more abundant—and absurd.
But it’s your job as a parent to say in a matter–of–fact way what you feel is the truth. Acknowledge the lie, but give the consequence for the behavior, not for the lie.
Realize that most kids are not going to lie forever. In all my years in working with adolescents, there were very, very few kids that I met who lied chronically for no reason. Usually, kids don’t lie arbitrarily; they have a reason for doing so, no matter how wrong that reason might be. Your child does know right from wrong, but sometimes he chooses to lie.
I understand that it’s hard not to take lying personally or to be disappointed when your child lies. But just remember, your child is trying to solve a problem ineffectively. Our job is to teach them appropriate and effective ways to solve problems and to coach them through these confusing years. Over time, they can learn to do that without lying.
Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.