Although I can now confidently say that integrity is a value that I hold in high regard, as a child, I must confess that I had a bit of a lying problem. I frequently lied as an attempt to stay out of trouble or to “earn” approval. Honesty was a virtue that I had to learn overtime. The truth is (now you can trust me) that all children lie at times, it is a natural part of growing up. Children who are securely attached may lie on occasion, but they are more likely to feel bad about it, tell the truth when confronted, and accept a consequence. What may seem peculiar to us is that children who demonstrate disrupted attachment do not always respond in the anticipated way when caught in a lie. They may continue a pattern of lying even when there is clear evidence against the lie. They may also struggle with assuming responsibility for the lie and they may not feel any guilt or remorse for their behavior. Of course this can be the source of much parental angst.

WHY CHILDREN LIE: Let’s explore why children who have been wounded have a propensity to lie. The explanations are vast, but to name just a few, a child may lie:

-Because of unmet needs: Ask yourself, “does my child believe he needs to lie to get his needs met?”

-Out of fear or self-protection: You can also ask yourself, “is my child fearful of my reaction?” Perhaps you, like all parents at times, have been over-reactive in the past. Or perhaps, due to your child’s history and former negative experiences with others, he is fearful of a harsh reaction or consequence that you personally may have never even exhibited. If fear is what is driving your child to lie, you still have to address the behavior, but it needs to be addressed and confronted with compassion and gentleness.

-To avoid vulnerability: Sometimes a child might lie because to tell the truth can expose them in an unwanted manner and bring about an undesired feeling of vulnerability.

-Out of habit: For some children, lying has become habitual. Lying has been a way of life and it is easier to continue in this manner of learned behavior than to make a change.

-For power and control: Sometimes it provides the child with the feeling of power and control. They may think, “I know the truth and you don’t.”  It can be a source of leverage and power over parental figures when all else seems to be out of their control.

-To prevent closeness: Lying maintains emotional distance between the parents and the child. Some children are fearful of emotional connectedness because they believe that closeness leads to pain and rejection. They may lie to intentionally push their parents away. A child may know that it is difficult to maintain intimacy with a liar, and use this as a tool to protect them from a healthy, vulnerable relationship.

-Due to low self-esteem: When a child (or adult) does not feel good about himself, he is prone to try to boost his self-image by exaggerating his abilities and accomplishments. He may also make up stories to gain sympathy or create an emotional reaction.

-Due to development: Exploring the parameters of what is really true is a part of natural human development. Dr. Karyn Purvis has explained that there is a developmental stage that occurs at about 4-6 years where children explore truth. If the child did not go through a normal developmental sequence during this time period, they may explore it at a much older stage of life. It is possible to bring home an adolescent who has never had a normal developmental trajectory and may be exploring the boundaries of truth.

HOW TO RESPOND TO LYING: Dealing with the behavior of lying is a challenge for most parents. It is common for parents to feel hurt and frustrated by the behavior of chronic lying. Parents might find themselves in a place where they over-react to their child’s lying or they do not react at all.  Neither is an appropriate response. Regardless of the underlying cause, this behavior of lying must be addressed. Yet, how we deal with it is important. Your goal must be to address this behavior in a way that allows you and your child to stay connected.

As with any misbehavior, we do not need to only focus on stopping the negative behavior, we must also focus on teaching the appropriate alternative behavior. Parents need to teach their child the value of telling the truth. More important than catching a child in a lie is teaching them to tell the truth! Keep this idea in mind: it is most imperative that they practice telling the truth, not to be punished for telling a lie. If your child’s instinct is to immediately lie, constantly disciplining them for lying may only be of limited effectiveness when it is a deeply ingrained habit. They need to be able to create and practice the new habit of telling the truth. Oftentimes parents want to catch the child in a lie for illustrative purposes, but rather we need to focus on celebrating  when they tell the truth. We don’t need to find pleasure in the feeling of “Ha! I caught you in the wrong.” 1 Corinthians 13: 6 says “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” So we can see from scripture that God rejoices in good, not in wrong. Parents must do the same. Let your child see your joy when he tells the truth and let it be clear that you want to help him succeed. When a child understands you desire to help him succeed and you want to work together, on the same team, the child is more likely to tell the truth. Show your child that you desire to help him solve the problem he is facing or you desire to help meet the need that was the motivating force behind the lie. Your primary goal needs to be to teach your child to communicate honestly. This is one of the most important skills for life.

Practical Reminders and Suggestions…..

Model telling the truth: Perhaps the example of dishonesty is what was previously modeled for your child. You need to think about your own example. Make sure you avoid saying things like “don’t tell Daddy.” Also, be careful of what may even be perceived as a lie, like “if you eat that candy, your teeth will fall out.”

-Try to be preventative: When a child feels pressured by you, it is putting him in a position where he is more prone to lie. As with anything, you need to create an environment of safety, openness, and honesty. Responding playfully to a lie can help your child not feel threatened and it creates an atmosphere where he is more inclined to tell the truth. For example, you could playfully say “Whoa! Is that real or pretend?” Likewise, you need to try to avoid putting your child in a position where he will want to tell a lie. Instead of asking, “did you hit your sister?” when you already know that he did, you can say, “there are consequences for hitting.” Try to avoid asking questions that you already know the answer to! Or you can say “I am going to ask you a question and before you answer I want you to think about the importance of telling the truth. Remember that there are consequences for negative behavior, but there are more consequences when we do something wrong and then lie about it.”

-Don’t get stuck on the lie: Lying is frequently a secondary misbehavior. A child may misbehave and then lie about what he just did. Parents, especially those who are easily triggered by lying, often have a tendency to fall into the trap of this downward spiral—getting angry by not only the original misbehavior but even more so by the lie that followed, forgetting what originally needed to be addressed. Ensure you are disciplining the original behavior and not getting stuck on the lie, letting it unnecessarily overshadow the original offense.

-Implement the “whoops rule”:  Orlans and Levy, authors of the book Healing Parents, suggest you implement what they call the “Whoops Rule.” They say you can encourage your child to say “Whoops,” as the lie leaves his lips. For example, “Whoops, that wasn’t the truth; this is what really happened.” Then you respond by saying something like, “Thanks for catching yourself. Good job.”

-Practice helpful scripts: In the midst of frustration and feelings of betrayal, it is difficult for parents to think of helpful responses to their child lying. It takes practice to consistently respond appropriately. Try implementing responses like these….

-“Oh really? Do you want to think about that and try again? That isn’t what I thought I saw happen. I’d like for you think about it and come back to me and let me know what you think really happened.”

-“I want to help you with this issue, but I need you to tell me the truth. When you tell me the truth, I am able to trust you and we are able to work together.”

-“I don’t think you had time to think about that before answering so I am going to give you a second chance to tell the truth. I’m going to ask you again and this time I want you to be honest. If you are honest there will be no consequences.” You can say afterwards “next time there might not be a second chance, so it is important that we tell the truth the first time.”

CONCLUSION: Parents need to understand why their child may have a tendency to not tell the truth and attempt to address the underlying need or fear behind this action. They also need to help their children practice truth telling and remember that learning to tell the truth is a gradual process. When parents try to be preventative and when they focus on building attachment and trust with their child, telling the truth will be a natural by product of this newly found trust and secure relationship.

Developed by:   Whitney White, Med, APC, NCC, DCC References: Orlans, M. & Levy, T. (2006), Healing Parents: Helping Wounded Children Learn to Trust & Love. Washington DC: Child Welfare League of America, Inc.

Purvis, K. & Monroe, M. How Do I Handle Lying? Retrieved from