Parents (mothers, especially) are infamously good at knowing when their child is lying. Despite your intuition, it can still hurt to be right. Clinical psychologist Erik Fisher says understanding why your child lies can help take the sting out. Plus, it's important to your child's development. If you stay emotionally balanced, you can better focus on helping him fix the behavior.

In his book The Art of Empowered Parenting (Ovation Books, 2007), Fisher says children most often lie to avoid feeling shame, embarrassment, humiliation or the old classic “I didn't want to get in trouble.” He points out that those are the same reasons adults lie, too. And therein lies the rub: Our culture “is surrounded by exaggerations, cover-ups and outright lies, whether in our homes, from our politicians, or in the media,” Fisher says. Parents can help clear up these mixed messages by avoiding those little white lies themselves.

Because it is all around them, most kids give lying a try. “I think that kids lie more at younger ages because they're trying to see how it works," Fisher says. He stresses that this is part of a child's natural development and isn't necessarily a psychological problem. That said, repetitive and continued lying can be a symptom of low self-esteem, attachment problems, and anxiety.

Here are some of Fisher's guidelines for handling those pesky, and often hurtful, fibs:

  • Set immediate consequences when children lie. For example, a letter of apology to the person they lied to. If your child lied to cover up something she did wrong, give her two separate consequences and clearly explain that the second consequence is for failing to tell the truth. "If parents talk to their kids about their actions and help them see how their actions affect things like trust, security, friendships, freedoms, and responsibilities, they will see that lying is a short term fix and creates a longer-term problem," Fisher says.  
  • Talk to your children about their motivations for lying. Fisher says kids of kindergarten age often don't realize the way that lies affect relationships because they still see themselves as the center of the universe and are only looking at how they benefit from a lie.
  •  Create an environment where it's easy to tell the truth, by calmly handling your child's mistakes and problems. "If kids feel afraid of their parents and the consequences, they're more likely to hide things from them," Fisher says.

The next time your child tries to pull your leg, don't push away in anger. Instead, help him understand there are alternatives to lying that make everyone feel better about themselves. Himself included.