Maybe they’ve always done it, or maybe you’re noticing it more now that you’ve got so much time together at home – whatever the case, know that lying is a pretty common, albeit bad, habit amongst children.
And while it’s comforting to know that learning to lie is a normal developmental milestone, registered psychologist and parenting expert Rachel Tomlinson says parents should intervene before excessive lying becomes detrimental.
“Lying is quite an adaptive and social skill,” says Rachel. “It requires kids to really try to understand things from others’ points of view, and the knowledge that people have different perspectives. Lying also requires an ability to plan and curb unwanted reactions – or, increase favourable outcomes for themselves.
“With that being said, if a child is rewarded for their lying – for example, by avoiding punishment – it can strengthen their desire to continue. If they don’t learn how to accept or understand the impact of their behaviour on others, such as through consequences, it can negatively impact their relationships, as well as their general empathy and capacity to consider the needs of others.”
But what if you aren’t certain your child is lying? Rachel says that while it isn’t always easy to tell, there are a few ways to spot a lie:
- A long lag between you asking a question and their answer – usually, this is because they are having to concoct a response.
- Talking faster or more than usual, either to fill silence, distract you or try to convince you.
- Reduced eye contact, physical distancing and other non-verbal cues could indicate they are hiding something. By avoiding close contact, they may be hoping you don’t pick up on their lie.
“There are a number of reasons your child might be lying,” says Rachel. “Some common ones include testing boundaries and expectations to see what they can get away with, making themselves seem more important or to fit in socially, or to protect or care for somebody else. Probably the most serious reason to lie, however, is to avoid punishment or consequences from wrongdoing.”
While lying in general isn’t great, Rachel says the severity typically depends on the purpose of the lie and your family rules or expectations around honesty.
“Some lies are socially appropriate, like telling a friend you love their new skirt when really you don’t like it,” says Rachel. “Even though this is still lying, the purpose is to protect and care for someone else’s feelings. But there are other lies that are more self-serving and more detrimental.”
And while it may be tempting to catch your child out in a lie, Rachel advises against shaming them or reducing their self-esteem.
“Addressing lying has to be done carefully,” says Rachel.
First, try to figure out the purpose of the lie – this will help you come up with ways to address the behaviour that underpins it.
“I suggest asking curious questions rather than making judgments or assumptions. For example, you could say, ‘I wonder if you were worried about getting in trouble because you hadn’t completed your homework. Is that right?’,” says Rachel. “Instead of lecturing them if you catch them out in a lie, ask them to tell the story again by saying something like, ‘I’m not quite sure if that’s right, can you try and tell me again what really happened?’.”
Use the opportunity to set some clear expectations for the future, says Rachel, and explore strategies to help your child communicate their needs without having to lie.
“Excessive lying might indicate that you need to help your child with their problem solving skills, conflict resolution skills or other communication skills,” says Rachel.