How to Deal with Lying in Children and Teens


How to Deal with Lying in Children and TeensWhen you catch your child in a lie, it’s natural to feel betrayed, hurt, angry and frustrated. But here’s the truth: lying is normal. It’s wrong, but it’s normal. In fact, we all do it to some degree. Consider how adults use lies in their daily lives: When we’re stopped for speeding, we often minimize what we’ve done wrong, if not out–and–out lie about it. Why? We’re hoping to get out of something, even if we know better.

I believe that with kids, lying is a faulty problem–solving skill. It’s our job as parents to teach our children how to solve those problems in more constructive ways. Here are a few of the reasons why kids lie. (Later, I’ll explain how to handle it when they do.)

Why Kids Lie

To establish identity: One of the ways kids use lying is to establish an identity and to connect with peers, even if that identity is false. Lying can also be a response to peer pressure. Your child might be lying to his peers about things he says he’s done that he really hasn’t to make him sound more impressive.

To individuate from parents: Sometimes teens use lying to keep parts of their lives separate from their parents. At times it may even seem that they make up small lies about things that don’t even seem terribly important. Another reason children lie is when they perceive the house rules and restrictions to be too tight. So let’s say you have a 16–year–old who isn’t allowed to wear makeup, but all her friends are wearing it. So she wears it outside the house, then lies to you about it. Lying may become a way for her to have you believe she’s following your rules and still do “normal” teen activities.

To get attention: When your child is little and the lies are inconsequential, this behavior may just be his way of getting a little attention. When a small child says, “Mommy, I just saw Santa fly by the window,” I think it is very different from an older child who says, “I finished my homework,” when he really didn’t. Younger children also make up stories during imaginative play, or playing “make believe.” This is not lying but a way for them to engage their imaginations and start to make sense of the world around them.

To avoid hurting other’s feelings: At some point, most people learn how to minimize things in order not to hurt other people’s feelings. Instead of saying, “I love your new shoes,” we might say, “Those shoes are really trendy right now.” But kids don’t have the same sophistication that adults do, so it’s often easier for them to lie. I think as adults, we learn how to say things more carefully; we all know how to minimize hurt. But kids don’t know how to do that. Lying is a first step toward learning how to say something more carefully. In some ways, we teach them how to lie when we say, “Tell Grandma you like the present even if you don’t, because it will hurt her feelings otherwise.” We have a justifiable reason—we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings who’s gone out of their way for us—but we are still teaching our kids how to bend the truth.

To avoid trouble: Most kids lie at one time or another to get out of trouble. Let’s say they’ve gotten themselves into a jam because they did something they shouldn’t have done. Maybe they broke a rule or they didn’t do something they were supposed to do, like their chores. If they don’t have another way out, rather than suffer the consequences, they lie to avoid getting into trouble.

Again, in my opinion, the overall reason why kids lie is because they don’t have another way of dealing with a problem or conflict. In fact, sometimes it’s the only way they know how to solve a problem; it’s almost like a faulty survival skill for kids.

I believe it’s really the parent’s job to differentiate the type of lie their child has told, and to make sure that it isn’t connected to unsafe, illegal or risky behavior. This gets to the whole point about picking your battles. If you see your child say to another child, “Oh I really like that dress,” and they later tell you in the car, “I really don’t like that dress,” you might say something to them, but you might also let it go, especially if this is unusual for your child. If they’re lying about something that’s risky or illegal or really unsafe, you definitely have to address it. And if it’s to the point of being really significant—like a lie about risky sexual behavior, drugs, or other harmful activities—you may need to seek some help from a professional.

So pick your battles. Decipher what’s really important versus looking at what’s normal. And again, that often depends on the developmental age of your child. A four–year–old is going to make up big whopping stories as a way to be creative and begin to figure out their world. It’s a normal developmental stage. Seven– and eight–year–olds are going to do some of that as well, but they may have more black and white thinking. So they might say, “I hated that lady” when they simply disliked something that person did. I think you can let those kinds of things slide or just gently correct your child. You can say something like, “Do you mean you didn’t like what she did yesterday?” This type of stretching of the truth is really the result of concrete thinking because kids in this age group don’t have good skills to say something else more neutral or tactful.

I don’t believe lying in children is a moral issue. I think it’s imperative not to take it personally if your child lies. Most kids don’t lie to hurt their parents; they lie because there’s something else going on. The important part for you as a parent is to address the behavior behind the lie. If you’re taking it personally, you’re probably angry and upset—and not dealing with the more specific information concerning the behavior.

Here’s an example. Let’s say your child didn’t do his homework but he told you he did. When you find out that he’s lying, he admits he didn’t do it because he was playing sports with friends after school. If you yell at your child about being betrayed and say, “How dare you lie to me,” that’s all you’re going to be able to address. You’re not going to be able to deal with the real issue of your child needing to do his homework before he plays sports. The bottom line is that your anger and frustration about the lie is not going to help your child change his behavior.

So lying is not a moral issue; it’s a problem–solving issue, a lack of skill issue, and an avoiding consequence issue. Often kids know right from wrong—in fact, that’s why they’re lying. They don’t want to get in trouble for what they’ve done and they’re using lying to solve their problems. What that means is that they need better skills, and you can respond as a parent by helping them work on their ability to problem solve.

How to Address Lying: Staging a “Lying Intervention”

While it’s important to address the behavior behind the lying, if your child lies chronically or lies about unsafe, risky or unhealthy behavior, I think it makes sense to address the actual lying by having an intervention. A “lying intervention” is really just a planned and structured conversation about the lying behavior. This lets your child know what you’ve been seeing, and gives you a chance to tell them that you are concerned. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Plan ahead of time: Think about how you’re going to intervene beforehand. Plan it out ahead of time with your spouse; if you’re single, ask another close adult family member to be there with you. When this issue came up with our son, my husband James and I planned out what we were going to say, how we were going to react emotionally, and even where we were going to sit. We decided we were going to be neutral and that we would be as unemotional as possible. We made a decision about what the problem behaviors we wanted to address were. We also decided what the consequences for our son’s behavior would be. We did almost all of this ahead of time.

Don’t lecture: When you catch your child lying, remember that lecturing is not going to be helpful. Kids just tune that out. They’ve heard it over and over—and when you start lecturing, the kids are gone. They’re no longer listening and nothing changes. So what you need to do instead is to identify what it is that you’re seeing and what you’re concerned about.

Be specific and talk about what’s obvious: When you’re talking with your child, be specific about what you saw and what the problems are. You can state calmly and in a matter of fact way, “If the lying about homework continues, this will be the consequence.” Or “It’s obvious you snuck out last night. There will be a consequence for that behavior.” Remember, it has to be a consequence that you can actually deliver on and are willing to follow through with.

Don’t be too complicated in your message: Keep it very focused and simple for your child; concentrate on the behavior. And then tell him that you want to hear what was happening that made him feel he needed to lie. (You are not looking for an excuse for the lie, but rather to identify the problem your child was having that they used lying to solve.) Be direct and specific. The intervention itself would be quick and to–the–point; you don’t want to lecture your child for a long time. This is just ineffective.

Keep the door open: Because the lie is most likely a way your child is trying to problem solve, make sure you indicate that you want to hear what’s going on with him. He may not be ready to talk with you about it the first time you raise the subject—and this is where the neutrality on the parent’s part comes in. You want to be open to hearing what your child or teen’s problem is. You want to create a safe environment for him to tell you during that intervention or that first conversation. But if your child is not ready, it’s important to keep that door open. Create this environment by being neutral and not attacking him.

If You Catch Your Child in a Lie…

If you catch your child in a problematic lie, I recommend that you not react in the moment. Instead, send him to his room so you can calm down. Talk with your spouse or a trusted friend or family member and come up with a game plan. Allow yourself time to think about it. Remember, when you respond without thinking, you’re not going to be effective. So give yourself a little time to plan this out.

When you do talk, don’t argue with your child about the lie. Just state what you saw, and what is obvious. You may not know the reason behind it, but eventually your child might fill you in on it. Again, simply state the behaviors that you saw.

So the conversation would go something like, “I got a call from the neighbor; they saw you sneaking out of your window. You were falling asleep at the kitchen table this morning at breakfast. But you told us that you were home all night.”And you might then say to your teen, “There’s going to be a consequence for that. You’re not going to be able to stay over at your friend’s house next weekend. And we’re concerned about where you went.” Leave the door open for him to tell you what happened.

Remember, state what you believe based on the facts you have. Do it without arguing, just say it matter–of–factly. “We have this information, we believe it to be true and these are the consequences.”Keep it very simple and hear what your child has to say, but be really firm in what you believe.

A Word about “Magical Thinking

Be aware that kids and adolescents are prone to engage in “magical thinking.” This means that when your child gets away with a few lies, he will start thinking he should be able to get away with them the next time. Often that just feeds on itself, and the lies become more and more abundant—and absurd. Your child might convince himself they’re true in order to get out of the trouble. I also think kids often don’t want to believe they’re lying; no one really wants to be a liar.

So you’ll see kids who’ve gotten caught smoking at school say, “No, I wasn’t smoking”—even though the smoke is still in the air. And when you’re a kid, you think that if you keep repeating the same thing over and over again, it will be true. But it’s your job as a parent to say as matter–of–factly as possible what you feel is the truth. Acknowledge the lie, but give the consequence for the behavior, not for the lie.

Realize that most kids are not going to lie forever and ever. There is a very small percentage of kids who lie chronically. That’s more difficult for parents to deal with, and it requires professional help. In all my years in working with adolescents, there were very, very few kids that I met who lied chronically for no reason. Usually, kids don’t lie arbitrarily; they have a reason for doing so, no matter how faulty that reason might be. Your child really does know right from wrong, but sometimes he overrides the truth.

I’m a parent too, and I understand that it’s hard not to take that personally or be disappointed. But just remember, your child is trying to solve a problem in an ineffective way. Our job is to teach them how to face their problems head on, and to coach them through these confusing years. Over time, I believe they will learn to do that without lying.


How to Deal with Lying in Children and Teens reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit www.empoweringparents.com

Janet Lehman, MSW has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. She held various roles during her career as a social worker, including juvenile probation officer, case manager and therapist. Janet also worked as a program director for 22 years in traditional residential care and in group homes for difficult children.

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Calm Parenting: How to Get Control When Your Child is Making You Angry


Why is it so easy to go from “zero to 60” when our kids make us angry? There are many reasons, but I think it’s mainly because we allow ourselves to go to 60. And in a sense, when we get up to 60—when we react emotionally—we’re allowing the behavior of our kids to determine how we’ll behave rather than the other way around.

We do so many things automatically without even thinking about it. This is often because we believe that we need to get our kids under control, rather than taking a moment to stop and think and say, “Wait, let me get myself under control first before I respond.” The best way to prevent yourself from getting up to 60 is to recognize that you are going there—and what makes you go there. In fact, in my opinion, that is probably one of the most important things you can do as a parent.

When you try to manage your child’s behavior instead of your own anxiety, what you’re saying is, ‘I’m out of control. I need you to change so that I can feel better.

Here’s a secret: when you get yourself under control, your kids will also usually calm down. Remember, calm is contagious—and so is anxiety. When we as parents are nervous or anxious, it’s been proven that it creates anxiety in our kids. I would even go so far as to say that being emotionally reactive is probably your greatest concern as a parent. Think of it this way: if you can’t get calm—if you can’t get to zero—then what you’re really doing is inadvertently creating the exact atmosphere you’re trying to avoid.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re teaching your child how to ride a bike. Your child is not getting it and is being whiny and cranky and talks back to you. You’re frustrated, annoyed, angry and disappointed, because inside you somehow feel responsible to teach him to learn how to ride this bike, and he just won’t listen. Now you’re starting to get agitated about it. You yell at your child because you’re up to 60. The end result is that your child will probably fall off the bike. Here’s why: he’s so filled with the anxiety that’s surrounding him that he can’t concentrate. He’s feeling pushed to do something and he reacts to it by failing. What can you do? Instead of snapping and reacting because you feel like you have to get your child to learn how to ride the bike, try turning it around and ask yourself, “How do I get myself to really be calm and how will that be helpful for my child to get to where he needs to be?” Remind yourself that you’re not responsible to get him to ride the bike, you’re responsible to get yourself to zero. From there, you can think about the most effective way to help him learn.

This is why I say that if we can’t calm down we’ll probably create exactly what we’re trying to avoid—failure. Think about someone you know who is calm and serene; their presence helps center everybody in the room. When you’re calm, that’s the effect it has on your child and your family. It will help your child de-escalate, learn how to soothe himself when he’s nervous or agitated, and will make him better able to do what he has to do in tense moments. And in that moment, he won’t have to fight against you, because you’ve effectively taken that push-pull—the power struggle—away by being calm when he pushes your buttons.

By the way, I understand that nobody wants to go to 60—no one likes to be upset. I think most parents’ goal is to get to zero, but often they just don’t know how to do it. The truth is, everybody has to find the best way to do that for themselves. (I have some ideas about how to do that that I will explain in a moment.) But ultimately, it’s about understanding how important it is not to lose it—and not giving yourself permission to do so. And there’s a good reason for this. When we hit the roof in front of our kids, what we’re really communicating is “There are no grown-ups at home.” We’re saying that we can’t manage our anxiety. And when you try to manage your child’s behavior instead of your own anxiety, what you’re saying is, “I’m out of control. I need you to change so that I can feel better.” So the goal is to acknowledge what’s going on, and to understand how important it is to get control—and to ultimately gain control of ourselves. The question you’re probably asking is, “Easy for you to say. How am I going to get there?” Here are some things I’ve found to be helpful for parents when I work with them.

1. Make the commitment not to lose it. Remind yourself that you’re going to try to stay in control from now on. Notice what sets you off—is it your child ignoring you? Or does backtalk drive you up the wall? It’s not always easy, and I think it’s hard for anyone to control their temper 100 percent of the time, but still, making that first promise to yourself is the beginning of calm—for your whole family.

2. Expect that your child is going to push your buttons. Usually we get upset when our kids are not doing what we want them to do. They’re not listening or they’re not complying. In our heads, we start worrying that we’re not doing a good job as parents. We worry that we don’t know what to do to get them under our control. Sometimes, we fast forward to the future and wonder if this is how they’re going to be the rest of their lives. In short, we go through all sorts of faulty thinking. And in doing that, our anxiety goes way up. I think the best solution is to prepare for your child to push your buttons and not take it personally. In a sense, your child is doing his job (being a kid who can’t yet solve his problems)—and your job is to remain calm so you can guide him.

3. Realize what you aren’t responsible for. There’s confusion for many parents as to what we’re really responsible for and what we’re not responsible for. And so if you feel responsible for things that really don’t belong in your “box”—things like him getting up on time or having his homework completed—it will result in frustration. They don’t belong in your box—they belong in your child’s box. If you always think you’re responsible for how things turn out, then you’re going to be on your child in a way that’s going to create more stress and reactivity. So you can say, “I’m responsible for helping you figure out how to solve the problem. But I’m not responsible for solving the problem for you.” If you feel like you’re responsible for solving your child’s problems, then he’s not going to feel like he has to solve them himself. You’re going to become more and more agitated and try harder and harder. You’re not responsible for getting your child to listen to you, but you are responsible for deciding how to respond to him when he doesn’t listen to you.

So already you’re going to be calmer with that kind of thinking. If you feel responsible for getting your child to listen, think about it—just how are you supposed to do that? How is anyone supposed to get another person to do something; how are we supposed to control what somebody else really does? Instead, decide to be responsible for how you want to deal with your child if he doesn’t listen. Think about the kind of consequences you want to hand out, based on what you can and can’t live with—your own bottom line. In the long run, standing up for yourself will help you be the leader your kids need.

4. Prepare ahead of time. Notice when the anxiety is high and try to prepare for it. You might observe that every day at five o’clock, your family’s nerves are on edge. Everyone is home from work or school, they’re hungry, and they’re decompressing. For many families, it’s just a terrible time of day; everybody’s anxiety is up and patience is at low ebb. Ask yourself, “How am I going to handle this when I know my teen is going to come screaming at me? What do I do when she asks to use the car when she knows I’m going to say no?” Prepare yourself. Say, “This time, I’m not getting into an argument with her. Nobody can make me do that. I’m not giving her permission to hit my buttons.” Your stance should be, “No matter how hard you try to pull me into a power struggle, it’s not going to happen.” Let yourself be guided by the way you want to see yourself as a parent versus your feeling of the moment.

5. Ask yourself “What’s helped me in the past?” Start thinking about what’s helped you to manage your anxiety in the past. What’s helped to soothe you through something that makes you uncomfortable? Usually the first thing is to just commit yourself to not saying anything when that feeling comes up inside of you. In your head, you can say something like, “I’m not saying anything; I’m going to step back; I’m going to take a deep breath.” Give yourself that moment to be able to do whatever it is you need to do to get calmer. I always have to walk out of the room. Sometimes I go into the bedroom or bathroom, but I leave the situation temporarily. Remember: there’s nothing wrong with that. You don’t have to react to your child.

6. Take a breath. Take a deep breath when you feel yourself escalating—and take a moment to think things through. There is a big difference between responding and reacting. When you respond, you’re actually taking some time to think about what you want to say. When you react, you’re just on autopilot. As much as possible, you want to respond thoughtfully to what your child is saying or doing. Make sure that you take that deep breath before you respond to your child because that moment will give you a chance to think about what you want to say.

Think of it this way: when we’re upset and trying to get our child to do what we want, we’re going to press harder. We’re going to try to control them more, to shape them up or talk some sense into them, so we yell harder. And we go from 20 to 40 and it keeps escalating. It might be the time of day. Perhaps your child has had a hard day and then we react to their mood. And then they respond in kind and it just escalates. The anxiety feeds on itself.

7. Keep some slogans in your head. Say something to yourself every time you feel your emotions rising. It can be anything from “Stop” or “Breathe” or “Slow down” to “Does it really matter?” or “Is this that important?” Whatever words will help you, take that moment and go through a list of priorities. I personally keep a mental picture handy to calm myself down: I think of a beautiful place in my mind that always calms and relaxes me. Try to come up with that mental picture for yourself. Working on that will increase your ability to be able to go there more automatically.

8. Think about what you want your relationship to look like. How do you want your relationship with your child to be some day? If the way things are now is not how you want your relationship to look in 25 years, start thinking about what you do want. Ask yourself, “Is how I’m responding to my child now going to help? Is that going to help me reach my goal?” This doesn’t mean that you should do what your child wants all the time—far from it. Standing by the rules of the house and giving consequences when your child acts out is all part of being an effective, loving parent. What it does mean is that you try to treat your child with respect—the way you want him to treat you. Keep that goal in your head. Ask yourself, “Will my response be worth it?” If your goal is to have a solid relationship with your child, will your reaction get you closer to that goal?

When your child is aggravating you, your thinking process at that moment is very important. The whole goal is really to be as objective as we can with what’s going on with ourselves and with our kids. Ask, “What’s my kid doing right now? What’s he trying to do? Is he reacting to tension in the house?” You don’t have to get him to listen, but you do have to understand what’s going on—and figure out how you’re going to respond to what’s going on. Then you can stay on track and not be pulled in a thousand different directions.

The thinking process itself helps us to calm down. As parents, what we’re really working toward is “What’s within my power to do to get myself calm?” So the less we can react, the better—and the more we think things through, the more positive the outcome will be. Thinking helps us to be calm and breathe; calm helps us to get to better thinking. Observing ourselves helps activate the thinking part of the brain and reduces the kind of “emotionality” that gets in the way of better thinking.

That’s really what we’re talking about here: responding thoughtfully rather than simply reacting. Someone once said, “Response comes from the word responsibility.” So it’s taking responsibility for how we want to act rather than having that knee-jerk reaction when our buttons are pushed. And if we can get our thinking out in front of our emotions, we’re going to do better as parents. And that’s really the goal.


Calm Parenting: How to Get Control When Your Child is Making You Angry reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit www.empoweringparents.com

For more than 25 years, Debbie Pincus MS LMHC has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie also facilitates parenting groups and is the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.

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