Guiding Your Child When They Tell Lies

By Lauren Hall
April 8, 2024

Last week, an adult told my son they didn’t believe him.

In short, my son did something he shouldn’t have, and he called it “an accident.” It wasn’t a big deal, but he didn’t want to get in trouble. Instead of admitting he did it, he lied. The adult didn’t buy his story and wanted him to know they didn’t like being lied to.

A few hours later, my son told me all about what happened. He started the conversation by asking, “Mom, am I a bad kid?” And ended it with the statement, “I guess some people love me and some people never will.” (Insert shocked emoji here.)

How did this situation create an existential and relational crisis in my five-year-old?

As parents, we want our children to be honest and trustworthy. But it’s normal for kids to lie sometimes. Research by Kang Lee, a developmental psychologist at the University of Toronto, suggests that lying is developmentally appropriate and children will begin experimenting with it between the ages of two and three. Lying doesn’t mean they’re bad kids, but they need our help.

Let me give a simple example: If you bring home a puppy, you know accidents will happen. It’s normal. Trainers say the best way to teach a puppy is by taking them out frequently and giving them over-the-top praise when they go outside. If they have an accident inside, you shouldn’t shame or yell at them. Otherwise, they’ll probably keep having accidents, but they will do it secretly and hide from you.

Likewise, when teaching kids not to lie, we have to show them how to tell the truth and encourage them. Shaming or yelling will make them feel like they have to hide a lie from you. And the cycle continues. Thankfully, there are many good ways to guide kids positively.

Here are some tips:

  1. Build a strong bond through a secure attachment. A warm and supportive relationship makes kids feel safe to tell the truth. Research conducted by Bowlby and Ainsworth in attachment theory shows how a secure attachment provides a foundation of trust and emotional security, which encourages honesty and open communication between parent and child. This doesn’t mean they’ll never lie, but it does mean they’ll feel better about telling you the truth when asked.
  2. Talk about feelings and how to process them. Kids might lie to avoid feeling bad. Teach them how to handle emotions in healthy ways. Research by Gross and Thompson highlights the importance of emotion regulation skills in promoting honesty and moral development in children.
  3. Teach empathy. Research by Hoffman and Eisenberg demonstrates that fostering empathy helps children understand the impact of their actions on others, reducing the likelihood of deceptive behavior. Help your child understand how their lies affect others and model compassionate behavior in your interactions.
  4. Solve problems together. Involve your child in finding solutions to why they lie. By collaborating with your child to identify alternative ways to handle challenging situations, you empower them to make honest choices and take responsibility for their actions.
  5. Respond, don’t react. If your child lies, stay calm and ask why. Ask why they didn’t feel like they could tell the truth, and let them know it’s okay to tell the truth. Remember, children tend to internalize between the ages of three and seven, meaning the words you use could have a lasting impact on your relationship with them and the way they see themselves.
  6. Get help if needed. If lying continues, seek advice from a doctor or counselor. Professional support can offer additional insights and strategies tailored to your child’s specific needs.

Lying is part of growing up. But how we handle it matters most. Remember to be patient, caring, and curious as you help your child learn honesty.

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