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 punishment.

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.