by Lisa Medoff
Dear Dr. Medoff,
I have been catching my 7-year-old daughter in a lot of lies lately. Most of them are small, but I am worried about putting a stop to this before it gets out of control. What should I do? From, Katie
The younger your daughter is, the less concerned I would be about her lying being indicative of a major problem, although you certainly do want to correct her whenever you catch her in a lie. Children your daughter’s age are still developing many thinking abilities. They may not always be able to make the distinction between what is real and what is imaginary, or what they wish to be true versus what really is true. Their memories are not as good as those of older children, so what they are reporting to you may really be what they remember. However, by the time children reach about eight years old, they should have a good understanding of what a lie is and why lying is wrong.
Unfortunately, learning to lie seems to be a part of growing up. The trick seems to be in figuring out when lying is acceptable. We teach children to be polite, so in many ways, we are subtly teaching them how to lie. We don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, so we lie and say that a new haircut looks great or we can’t make it out to dinner because we already have other plans. Younger children may be confused when you tell them that lying is wrong, but they also cannot hurt others’ feelings. Being able to think in shades of gray is an ability that does not truly develop until adolescence, and the younger a child is, the harder it will be for her to comprehend that different levels of lying are acceptable; therefore you need to make the rules very clear – lying is never okay.
Lying, like any other behavior, will increase if it is rewarded and decrease if it is not. Make sure that your daughter sees that lying eventually gets her in trouble and hurts others. Here are some ideas for dealing with lying:
- For younger children, and for first offenses, take more of an educational approach, rather than a disciplinary one. When you catch your child lying, talk about the difference between truth and imagination. Explain what you believe really happened, and why. Then give your child a chance to tell the truth.
- Clearly define what you mean by lying. Children may need a few examples so they really understand. Then tell your child exactly what the consequences will be for lying. Follow through the next time you catch your child in a lie. For subsequent offenses, the consequences should become more and more severe.
- Let your child see that telling the truth has its benefits. You may want to reduce a normal punishment if your child comes clean right away.
- Have ongoing conversations about why lying is wrong. Talk about how it can hurt the liar and others. Point out lying and its consequences when you see it in real life, in movies, or in books.
- Involve your child in determining the consequences for lying. It is best if the consequences involve finding a way for the child to make up for the lie. If your child has lied about another person, ask her to think about how that person is feeling and how her lie will affect that person. Have her write a letter of apology.
- Don’t become obsessed with being a lie detector. Be on alert for suspicious statements, but don’t try to trap your child or scrutinize everything she says. This strategy can backfire, as your child will begin to see lying as a game to try to outwit you, rather than really learning about the moral issues involved.
- Tell your child that you know she is an honest person who is trying her best to be truthful. The more that you label your child as honest or moral, the more she will internalize that label and start to act in accordance with it.
- Lying, like many other forms of misbehavior, may be a way for your child to get your attention. Make sure that you are spending enough time with your child on a daily basis without distractions. Give lots of praise to your children whenever they tell the truth in a case where they could have lied.
- Let your child know that you will love him, no matter what he has done. You may be angry about his behavior, and he will have to accept the consequences, but you still believe in his ability to act correctly. He should know that he will never have to lie about who he is or what he has done in order to win your approval.
- Be a good role model for your child. Monitor yourself for lies, even ones meant to spare others’ feelings.
- Constant lying that persists over time is a serious concern that could be a sign of more serious problems, such as conduct disorder or substance abuse. If your child’s lying seems to be out of control, or more extreme than others of his age, consult a mental health professional. Make sure to document all instances of lying and the circumstances that surrounded them, and share this with the counselor.
Lisa Medoff, Ph.D holds a B.A. in psychology, a master's degree in school counseling, and a Ph.D. in child and adolescent development. Although she’s worked with all types of children, for the past eight years, she has worked with students with special needs, such as ADHD, learning disabilities, depression and anxiety. She has taught courses in psychology and child/adolescent development at Stanford University, Santa Clara University, San Jose State University, and DeAnza College. She currently works as a resilience consultant for the non-profit Cleo Eulau Center, helping teachers at a low-performing elementary school understand issues of connectedness, special needs, and cultural sensitivity in order to build resilience in their students.