Dr. MJ Bazos MD,
A Child's Compulsive
Children lie. That is a fact most parents would
attest to. They don't seem to need instruction on lying; they don't need
encouragement to do so. They just do. Children exaggerate, twist the truth, hide
the facts, manufacture stories, and deny the obvious.
Lying ought to concern us. Yet what concerns us
most is when a child lies compulsively. By that we mean that a child lies
frequently or for no apparent reason. Parents subject to compulsive lying become
suspicious and distrustful of their children, and the children conversely become
more unruly and more dishonest. Once the cycle of lying and distrust is in full
swing, it is difficult to find a single way in which the cycle may be stopped.
That is the primary purpose of this pamphlet: to initiate a process of thinking
through why a child lies, and then find the help necessary in discontinuing the
Lying As An Indicator
Before we consider why children lie, it is
essential to recognize that lying may be an early indicator of a more severe
problem. Compulsive lying has often been indicated in the early stages of
children suffering from social behaviour disorders, primarily that of Attention
Deficit Hyperactive Disorder and Conduct Disorder. The current space does not
permit a detailed discussion of such disorders. Suffice it to say that in such
cases, compulsive lying usually accompanies other problem behaviours such as
stealing, cheating, aggression, violent temper tantrums, skipping school,
constantly losing items, and poor behaviour in groups, social settings or with
authority figures. Problems such as impulsivity, an apparent inability to link
consequences with behaviour, inattentiveness and discomfort with social
situations may be at the heart of lying.
In such cases, the immediate intervention of a
qualified counsellor who is able to work with children is required. Such
counsellors would be able to provide parents with specific parenting styles and
a deeper understanding of the problem they face. In addition, the child will
receive age- appropriate psychotherapy, and be connected with medical
specialists providing the necessary services.
Why Are You Lying?
Recognizing that there are "special needs",
however, only allows the parent to seek more help. There are still some
fundamental reasons why children lie compulsively.
1. Fear. Fear is a common motivator for
lying. Consider the child who lies because she fears that her mother would "blow
up" at her, or that dad would take privileges away, or that the teacher would
send her (or her friend) to the principal's office. Such fear may be rational or
irrational, but the effect of lying is similar - a temporary shelter from
What do we do about fear motivated lies?
Consider two important implications. First, children who lie out of fear
usually know that they have done something that is wrong. This provides an
important clue for parents responding to the lying child. Consider that the
child's problem is not in knowing what is wrong, but in resisting its
temptation. Claiming "I've told you more than a hundred times..." does not help
children deal with the heart of the error or disobedience. It merely alienates
them. Parents have to get beyond the lie, and address the behaviour that
"necessitated" the lie in the first place.
Second, parents may need to accept that
their children lie because they are afraid of their parents' temperament. It is
not surprising that constantly angry, shouting, rigid or restrictive parents
often encounter compulsively lying children. Allowing room for negotiation,
compromise, listening before accusing, and keeping your volume down usually
helps in paving the way for more honest communication.
2. Habit. Lying can also become a habit
formed through constant practice. It is possible that a child can "lie by
reflex", and when confronted insist that it is the truth. Habitual lying is
often strengthened by hostile confrontation. One of the most effective ways of
dealing with habitual lying is to give the child an opportunity to retract the
lie without fear of consequences.
3. Modelling. Lying is a commonplace
behaviour, and children are subject to lies all the time. The problem is that
children learn to lie through experiencing others lie. The dilemma is that it is
impossible to shield children from lies. One parent who limited her child's
friends to those who did not lie reduced the number of approved companions to
just one, and that under close supervision!
One potent source of modelling, however, is from
within the home. There is an old proverb that says, "What parents do in
moderation, children do in excess." "Moderate" lying is thought of by many
parents as harmless (such as a "white" lie, or a "harmless excuse") or mistakes
(such as an unkept promise), or even purposeful and calculated distortions of
the truth ("I had to lie because..."). Children, however, do not appreciate the
nuances of a lie. Since it is difficult for parents to control the lies that
children will encounter outside the home, it is more useful to start eliminating
lies from within the home. Make telling the truth a priority both in instruction
and by example.
4. Overprediction. Children also lie
because they overpredict a reaction. One child said, "I know mom would say 'no',
so I lied." In reality, mom would merely have asked more questions and given her
permission! One of the most productive ways of addressing overprediction is to
provide a child with clear boundaries, and yet emphasize that these boundaries
are negotiable. Making up the rules as you go along, and far too many "don'ts"
and restrictions can promote lying behaviour.
Do I Punish Lying?
When we get to the "bottom line", many parents
want to know if they should punish a child for lying, and if so how. Recall that
one of the main motivators of lying is fear. Many children choose to lie because
it seems the lesser of two evils, and they imagine they could get away with it.
In a sense, lying is punishment-avoidant behaviour. The dilemma regarding
punishment for lying is that the parent may risk reinforcing fear, thus
increasing the likelihood of lying in the future, rather than decreasing
In addition, there is the risk of confounding
the message of the punishment. While the parent is saying, "I'm punishing you
because you lied", the child may be thinking, "You are punishing me because you
found out the truth." For the child, punishment is not associated with lying but
being found out. The next time around, the child finds new ways to misrepresent
the truth, and the parent is left in a quandary of suspicion and
Consider some important issues regarding
punishment and lying:
1) Punishment is most
effective in limiting habitual lying (discussed earlier) since punishment is
designed to reduce a learned behaviour. The problem is that punishment is not
designed to teach and reinforce an alternate behaviour. Punishment without
loving and careful instruction is a useless tool, and one that often leads to
excessiveness and abuse.
2) Punishing a
lie when it is motivated by fear, modelling or overprediction tends to be
ineffective in the long run. Seek the deeper motivation for the lie and work at
the source rather than the symptom.
Use punishment as the last option, not the first reaction. Parents are often
surprised how soft messages excel in impact over hard messages. For example,
"You really hurt mom and dad when you lie," is often more effective than, "I'm
really going to hurt you because you lied."
Above all, recognize that the purpose and
desire of every parent is to encourage honesty. That is a characteristic, not
just a behaviour. When all is said and done, we want our children to love the
truth, not to fear it; and to hate lies, not merely the punishment that lying
Train up a child in the
way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it. Proverbs