Parents usually manage to remain calm during the years when children's lying takes the form of fantastical stories or denials of having raided the cookie jar. But an older child who skimps on the truth sets off parents' alarm bells -- and rightly so. Lying takes on much greater significance as children enter adolescence because the child is doing it consciously, with full knowledge of the consequences. And these consequences have more potential to be serious when lies are about homework, curfews, driving, drugs, smoking, drinking, or sex. Try not to panic or lose your temper, though, when you uncover an untruth or obfuscation -- instead, take it as a signal to talk to your child about what's going on in his life. Here are answers to the most common questions parents ask about lying.
Why does my child lie to me?
A lie doesn't always mean your child is up to something dangerous. Here are some common reasons adolescents fib:
- To protect their privacy. As children enter and endure puberty, they need to feel that they're psychologically separate and independent from their parents. Your child might lie about what he did last night even if it was harmless, simply because he doesn't think you need to know every detail of his life.
- To make them feel grown up. With some justification, many teens feel that adults expect them to act grown up yet treat them like babies. Fibbing about the day's events may give your child a sense of control or power. Keeping something from you is one way your child can establish his independence and individuality.
- To spare someone's feelings. When a girl tells a boy in whom she's not interested that she has too much homework to go out tonight, she doesn't think she's lying. She thinks she's being tactful. (Guess who taught her this?)
- To avoid doing something. "Yes, I did my homework." A child who frequently lies about schoolwork may be having trouble with his workload and may need a tutor or some help getting organized. If your child claimed he walked the dog or returned your library book when he didn't, this may likewise be a sign that he is overwhelmed by too many responsibilities or needs help with time management.
- To avoid getting in trouble. This, as you might have guessed, is the numero uno reason that kids lie, but it has a positive side: It shows your child knows right from wrong. He's lying because he knows what he did (or plans to do) is unacceptable. So he says, "Yes, Todd's parents will be home during the party." "No, I'm not going with Luke on his motorcycle." "No, I'd never try smoking." "No, I didn't get ink on your sweater."
How should I respond when my child lies?
Because the behavior your child is hiding could have serious consequences, you can't let his stories slide. But he's unlikely to respond well to the parenting tactics that worked when he was younger. Instead of just doling out punishments after the fact, most experts agree that your focus should be on opening up communication and developing mutual trust.
You can start by giving your adolescent a decent amount of privacy so he won't feel he has to lie to get you off his back. Show your interest in his activities and friends, but don't butt in. Furthermore, instead of clinging to the rules that worked when he was younger, invite him to help you determine reasonable limits and consequences. Setting limits signals that you think he can handle a certain amount of freedom but you're still there for guidance, support, and love. Make sure your child understands where you draw the lines and what will happen if he steps over them.
When you catch your child in a lie, don't take it personally or give in to anger. Chewing him out won't make him eager to confide in you the next time. Dole out your disapproval and any penalty -- perhaps the temporary removal of a privilege like watching TV -- in a reasonable manner. If your response is excessive, your child may dig in his heels and really rebel. It may be reasonable to ground your adolescent for a night, but if you pen him in too long, he'll forget about his transgression in the light of what he sees as cruel and unusual treatment.
Pay close attention to what your child lies about. If the activities were fairly benign, you may be limiting him too much. Are your rules too strict for a high school student? Are they in line with those of other families with similar values and concerns? If the lie was a cover-up for risky behavior, you need to once again discuss the rules; emphasize that their purpose is to protect him, not to cramp his style. And remind him of the consequences of breaking the house rules.
Last but not least, praise your child when he tells you the truth even though he knows it might upset you. The truth, although painful, is always better than a lie and should be treated that way. In other words, when your child is this age, you shouldn't punish a wrongdoing to which he admits in the same way you would a wrongdoing that he denies or misrepresents. Of course a serious offense, even if your child fessed up, should have some consequence attached to it, but give him kudos for coming forward and maybe he'll do it more often.
When should I be worried about my child's lying?
A few isolated fibs and half-truths usually don't signal a serious problem, but if your child's lying is combined with a history of other offenses, such as aggressive behavior, stealing, or cutting class, or if he continues to lie regularly even after you've spoken with him about it, you may want to seek professional help.
In addition, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, your child may have an emotional problem that needs addressing if he consistently lies in certain ways. Consult a mental health professional if your child has one of the following problems:
- Weaving elaborate and convincing stories. Young children tell tall tales before they know the difference between reality and fantasy; it's a normal phase in their development. But when an older child exaggerates or embellishes nearly everything, it signals a need for attention that is cause for concern.
- Chronic lying. If your child lies repeatedly, it may just be a bad habit that he needs help in breaking, or it may be a sign that he can't tell right from wrong. A therapist can work with him on developing a conscience as well as help him with any family or socialization problems that might be hampering his emotional development.
- Lying to cover up a serious problem. An adolescent who's drinking or using drugs is apt to lie repeatedly to hide the truth. The best course is to address the emotional problems at the root of his reckless behavior.
- Lying without guilt. In very rare cases, children neither think twice nor feel sorry about lying or taking advantage of others. You're right to worry if your child seems to have no scruples about deceiving people.
Where can I get help?
If you're worried about your child's lying or about your relationship with him, there are several places to turn. Your first step could be to call both your child's doctor and the guidance counselor at his school. It may be helpful for you and your child to visit the guidance counselor and the doctor separately and then together. Either of these professionals can also put you in touch with specialists, support networks, and mental health facilities.
Therapists are also listed in the yellow pages of your phone book under Marriage, Family, and Child Counselors, Psychologists, or Mental Health Services. Or look in the government pages under Mental Health Department (state or municipal), Health Services Department, or Human Services.
For information on issues facing children and adolescents, visit the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Web site.
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Facts for Families: Normal Adolescent Development. June 2001.
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Facts for Families: Children and Lying. November 2004.