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Family Life

When Children Lie

​Children younger than age 6 often have difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy. Hence, for them there is often an uncertain boundary between truth and fiction. After about age 6, however, children clearly can differentiate truth from fantasy. As a result, when a child lies she knows she is being deceitful.

Feeling Guilty  

Many pressures can cause a child to lie. Most frequently, when a youngster has been brought up in a loving and responsible home, she will first lie when she is confronted with having done something wrong and feels afraid of disappointing her parents or being punished by them. Already feeling guilty, she will try to protect herself from what she thinks will be harsh discipline.

In many cases, parents of children who lie have unusually high standards of behavior and expectations. These youngsters know right from wrong and, in what they view as a difficult situation, are trying to save face.

Sometimes children lie when they are under significant stress to meet impossible demands. Thus, youngsters who are struggling at school and cannot keep up with their studies may feel overwhelmed and lie about having completed all their homework. Because of circumstances like these, lying has to be interpreted in relation to the surrounding events.

Lying Has A Purpose

Remember, lying shows that a child is aware that she has done something wrong. By attempting to protect herself from parental disappointment and disapproval, she is demonstrating that her conscience is working. Parents who overreact and become extremely negative may push their child into a position of feeling that she needs to lie again and again to protect herself.

Little "White Lies"

Youngsters in middle childhood also might become confused in a home where there is a double standard about lying - that is, where she is forbidden to lie but her parents sometimes tell "white lies," distorting the truth for their own convenience. It gives confusing signals to a child who has always been told to be honest, to witness a parent stretching the truth on the phone or with neighbors with white lies. Children often have a hard time differentiating among the subtleties in situations like these.

What Parents Can Do About Lying

If you discover that your child has lied, let her know immediately that you are aware she is not telling the truth. Harsh punishment is usually not very effective. Instead, make the following points with both your words and your behavior:

  • "I want you to tell me only the truth, and I will always tell you the truth, so that we can always believe each other."
  • "You will get in much less trouble if you tell the truth instead of lying."

Also, remember that your own actions and your own style of telling the truth are probably the most important ways you can teach your child the importance of honesty.

When To Seek Additional Help

A child with a history of chronic lying should be seen by a counselor, child-guidance clinic or a mental-health professional. Chronic liars often have had difficulty establishing a true conscience that can clearly differentiate between right and wrong. These children also may be crying out for help because of disturbances in their family life or outside the home.

Last Updated
Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12 (Copyright © 2004 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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