Why Do Children Lie?
By Dr. Renae Lapin, LMFT / January - February 2012
Children lie for a variety of different reasons, with each reason having a different meaning and requiring a different solution. As children pass through developmental stages, some lying is common. When parents consider what is normal or typical for their child, according to the developmental stage, certain types of lies require less concern than other types. Know the difference and how to respond to some of the different types of lies from your child.
AVOIDANCE: Your child doesn't want to get into trouble for doing something he or she should not have done ("no, I did not eat that cookie"), avoiding a task ("yes, I brushed my teeth"), or earning credit for something he or she does not deserve ("yes, I finished my homework today").
Should a parent worry? That depends on how much of a habit your child has gotten into by avoiding something through a lie. Focusing on how to avoid or postpone a task can become a habit and can supersede learning to make the task a habit. If this is a frequent response, it can be a worrisome problem, which needs intervention.
It is not a good idea to test your child by asking him or her a question that you already know the answer to. For example, if you know that your child did not do her homework or brush her teeth, do not inquire. This challenges your child to test to see if she can earn more time avoiding the inevitable task, which can become habit-forming. It would be better to teach the skill of completing homework or brushing teeth by reminding your child of the expectation and monitoring her progress. Consistent consequences and rewards will help teach these important life skills.
EXAGGERATION: "No one likes me." "She always yells at me." "I will never eat another thing!" These are phrases uttered by children. Always and never are key words to listen for. Children often imitate parents and teachers in their use of these words. Something that happens several times or very recently can feel like always to a child who has a different sense of time than an adult.
Exaggerating is a common occurrence in our society and maybe even in your household. If your child is merely imitating the way the adults around him or her describe how life feels to them, this is not a serious concern.
Your child is concerned that actual facts might not be convincing enough to convey his feeling or message. Presenting the facts, which dispute your child's claim of "everyone" or "never" can be seen as a challenge to defend, thus encouraging more lying. It also distracts the attention away from the original topic or message your child is conveying. For example, "no one likes me" needs to be followed by a discussion of why your child is feeling so rejected. Trying to point out that it is factually incorrect to claim that he is liked by no one will result in your child defending his claim, possibly exaggerating more in attempts to get his important message across to you. It would be better to respond to the message your child is trying to express.
CATASTROPHIZING: This is a combination of anxiety and exaggeration. "I know I failed the test!" "I will never go out again." "I will never learn math." All of these illustrate the point.
A small fear or worry can become magnified in your child's mind, to the point of developing disturbing thoughts. These thoughts may overwhelm your child, interfering with daily routines of sleeping, eating and going to school.
Physiological symptoms can result from these fears, such as stomachaches and headaches. If your child is not able to conquer these fears on his or her own or with your reassurance, professional help may provide relief. The earlier your child learns to develop and utilize self-calming skills, the less the likelihood of developing an anxiety disorder.
Observe and monitor the statements your child makes in response to worries. Some exaggeration is a typical and normal way adults and children often express themselves. If you notice your child's worrying interfering with daily life, and he or she is not responsive to your attempts to reassure, it is important to seek professional help early. Self-calming skills can be taught at a young age, saving your child from a life of painful, disruptive anxiety.
UNREALISTIC: Perhaps you have frequently heard your child making promises that cannot possibly be fulfilled, along the lines of "I'll be there in five minutes," "I can do this myself," and "I will remember to write it down."
Your child may still be learning how to judge time, space, and his or her abilities, and may not be accurate in an estimation of how long it takes to accomplish a task. Even adults are reluctant to write down reminders, continuing to believe that they will simply remember on their own, despite repeated evidence to the contrary. This is a common problem, which usually resolves itself after repeated mistakes.
Confronting your child at the time you hear him or her voice an unrealistic promise will usually make him or her more defensive, trapping the child into defending an unrealistic claim.
A better approach would be to teach time management in the form of a game. Have your child estimate the time a task might take, followed by timing himself or herself doing that task. For example, ask your child to estimate how long a particular homework assignment will take to complete. Have the child write down the start and finish time and check to see how close the estimate was. If done in a neutral, not punitive tone, your child might view this as a helpful tool. You may also wish to ask your child to clock time or mileage between two locations, using an electronic device, something most children enjoy.
Avoidance, exaggeration, catastrophizing and being unrealistic are some of the types of lies children speak. Parents would do best by focusing on the skill, feeling or topic of the lie, rather than getting distracted into confronting the actual lie at the moment.
Children are well versed at recognizing the difference between the truth and a lie. They have proved that you have taught them well. After all, when you are avoiding, exaggerating, catastrophizing and being unrealistic, aren't they very quick to notice?
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