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How to Address Issues with Lying

By Chris McGinnis, Ph.D., BCBA-D.​, Director of the Behavioral Health Clinic at Boys Town South Florida, West Palm Beach

It's a fundamental truth of parenting that children lie. They start young, just as they begin to develop language skills and start figuring out how the world works as it relates to language. They're also starting to develop creativity at this point, which is an inherent part of telling a lie, yet it's something we as parents don't want to discourage. After all, young children who are telling tall tales are simply exercising their creativity. However, they can quickly figure out that a tall tale that mom or dad applauds can also come in handy when explaining why the cookie jar is empty.

The best way to handle these situations is to explain the difference between fiction and nonfiction. One way to approach this is to compare cartoon characters on TV with the people who live in your house. It's pretty easy for a young child to understand that a cartoon isn't real but mom and dad are. So, if when asked why the cookies are missing your child spins a tale of a monster eating them all up, you can respond by saying, "Well that sounds like fiction, like a cartoon on TV."

When Older Children Lie

By the time a child is older, he/she should well understand the difference between fact and fiction, just as he/she should understand that lying is wrong. When confronting an older child or teen about a lie, there are three things you should do:

  1. Know the truth before you ask the question. Otherwise, you won't know if your child is lying; you'll only suspect.
  2. Don't ask a question unless you know it will likely prompt your child to tell the truth rather than a lie. You want your child to practice telling the truth, not practice telling a lie.
  3. When your child does tell the truth, praise him/her for it by saying something like, "Thank you so much for telling me the truth."

If children do lie, simply walk away. This teaches them that when they tell the truth they get praise, and when they lie they get nothing. We have found this to be an effective approach across a large age range.

As with many aspects of parenting, maintaining a positive, open relationship with your child will go a long way to keeping him/her honest. After all, if children feel they can trust you — and that you can trust them — they are much less likely to lie to you.​