10 Steps to Stop a Child From Lying

Child crossing fingers behind while lying to parent
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All kids lie sometimes and a little dishonesty usually shouldn't be cause for alarm. However, when lying becomes a regular occurrence, it can turn into a significant problem. Teaching your child the value of telling the truth also establishes the importance of personal responsibility, trust, and caring.

Lying can become a bad habit when kids see it's an effective way to get out of trouble or shirk responsibility. So, when your child tells a lie, address it in a straightforward manner and discourage it from happening again. 

Here are 10 strategies that stop a child from lying.

Make Telling the Truth a Household Rule

As a part of your family rules and values, create a clear household rule that stresses the importance of honesty and truthful communication. This will ensure that your children understand that you value the truth, even when it's hard to tell.

Talk about the different kinds of lies and the damage each type can cause. Explain the various reasons people have for lying and why you expect honesty.

Role Model Honesty

Role model the behavior you want to see from your child—that means telling the truth all the time. Kids can’t distinguish “little white lies” from other lies. So, don’t lie about your child's age to get them the cheaper meal at a restaurant and don't say you aren't feeling well to get out of a social engagement you don't want to attend. Your child will imitate what they watch you do.

Discuss Telling the Truth vs. Lying

No matter how old your child is, it’s important to explain the difference between telling the truth versus telling a lie. Be aware, however, that up until around the age of four, little children won't fully understand the difference between lies and truth.

With young children, it can be helpful to say things like, "If I said the sky was green, would that be the truth or a lie?" Talk about the potential consequences of being dishonest, such as that people will stop believing what you say.

It's equally important to talk about telling the truth versus being brutally honest. Kids need to learn that they don’t necessarily need to announce, “That’s an ugly shirt," or "You have pimples," just because it’s honest. Balancing honesty with compassion is a sophisticated social skill that you should aim to start teaching early.

Additionally, talk to your child about what will happen if they are caught lying. Discussing consequences for dishonestly before it happens can act as a deterrent and will also help you both know exactly what to do if/when lying occurs.

Distinguish the Reason for the Lie

There are three main reasons kids lie: fantasy, bragging, or to prevent negative consequences. When you distinguish the likely reason for the lie, it can help you develop a plan to respond to it.

Fantasy

Preschoolers often tell fantasy lies. If your child says, “I went to the moon last night,” ask, “Is that something that’s really true? Or something you wish was true?” This can help kids understand the difference between reality and make-believe. However, if your child is simply playing pretend, it's OK to indulge in the fantasy—as long as everyone is aware that it fiction rather than fact.

Bragging

If a child lies because they are bragging, it may be because they have low self-esteem or want to gain attention. They may benefit from learning new social skills and from engaging in positive activities to boost their self-esteem.

Avoiding Responsibility

All kids lie to get out of trouble sometimes. It’s important that their lies aren’t successful. Instead, make it clear to your kids that you will be double-checking the facts.

Another component of using lies to avoid responsibility is that kids may use lying to workaround expectations or to get to do what they want. Examples include lies of omission, ignoring, or partial truths, such as a child who may claim to need to use the bathroom to get out of unloading the dishwasher—they may use the toilet but then never return to the kitchen.

ADHD

Additionally, be aware that children with attention-deficient/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more prone to lying. The common ADHD symptoms of forgetfulness, impulsivity, and disorganization can result in a predisposition to dishonesty—often magnified by misunderstandings.

For example, you might ask a child to put away their toys, then when they haven't done it, they might stubbornly insist you never told them to do it. This may not really be a lie—they may actually have forgotten about your directive.

However, don't let their diagnosis become a free pass. Simply remember to consider how ADHD may impact your child's honesty and aim to bolster the skills and support they may need more help with.

Give a Warning

Give kids one warning when you are fairly confident you caught them in a lie. For example, calmly say, “I’ll give you one more chance to tell me the truth. If I catch you lying, you will receive an extra consequence.”

It's also helpful to reiterate what the consequence will be for dishonesty. But focus on teaching responsibility and honesty, rather than on blaming or shaming your child. Keeping your tone calm and compassionate also helps. If you are angry, yelling, or threatening, your child will feel less comfortable coming clean.

Provide an Extra Consequence

Give your child an extra consequence when you catch them lying. For example, instead of just taking away their electronics for the day, give them extra chores to do as well. Take away privileges and/or use restitution as a consequence for telling a lie.

Make sure the consequence is appropriate and fair. Avoid the temptation to go overboard on punishments. If you heap on consequences or are prone to overreacting, your child is likely to walk away thinking about how unfair their parent is rather than focusing on their misdeed.

Discuss Natural Consequences

Talk to your child about the natural consequences of lying. Explain that dishonesty will make it hard for you to believe them next time, even when they're telling the truth. And other people don't tend to like or trust people who are known to tell lies.

Reinforce Honesty

Catch your child telling the truth and provide positive reinforcement. Praise them by saying, “I know that must have been hard to tell me that you broke that dish, but I’m so glad that you chose to be honest about it.”

Help Your Child Re-Establish Trust

If your child has a bad habit of lying, develop a plan to help them re-establish trust. For example, create a behavior contract that links more privileges to honesty. When they tell the truth, they'll be one step closer to earning back more privileges. 

Seek Professional Help

There are times when lying can become a serious problem for children. If your child’s lying seems to be pathological, or it causes problems for your child at school or with peers, seek professional help to address their lying.

A Word From Verywell

All kids will lie occasionally but it's vital to nip dishonesty in the bud so that it doesn't become habitual. Kids have a variety of reasons for lying but the most common, and worrisome, one is keeping out of trouble. Once your child knows you expect the truth (and you consistently back up this expectation with consequences), you'll likely see much more honesty in your home.

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  • American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Lying and Children. Updated July 2017.