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Lying is a common behavior among children. It can develop in very early childhood and persist into the teenage years. However, the reasons for lying change with age.
Lying is one of the earliest antisocial behaviors that children develop. When dealing with your child’s lying, it’s important to consider your child’s age and developmental stage, the type of lies being used, and possible reasons behind the behavior.
Lying can sometimes occur with cheating and/or stealing. When this behavior occurs frequently and over an extended period of time, it may indicate a more serious problem.
Until your child understands the difference between truth and fiction, lying may not be intentional. Your child also must mature to the point where he or she has a conscience in order to understand that lying is wrong.
Researchers at the University of Arizona categorized lying into the following categories:
Lying occurs for different reasons as children grow.
Children younger than three years old typically do not lie on purpose. They don’t always know that they are telling untruths. At this age, they are too young to have a moral code against which their lies can be judged. Their lies may be testing ways to use language and communicate.
Children between the ages of three and seven years old may not be able to differentiate between reality and fantasy. Their daily activities often emphasize imaginary playmates and pretend play. They may not realize that they are being untruthful, so lies may be unintentional.
By the time most children are seven years old, they typically understand the definition of lying. They can be taught that it is morally wrong to lie. They may be confused by a double standard that allows parents to lie. Older children may be testing adult rules and limits by lying.
When they lie intentionally, children may be trying to:
Occasional lying is considered common among school-age children. It is more common in boys than girls.
Children may be morelikely to lie when they are under significant stress to meet unattainable goals. If a parent is likely to overreact and be extremely negative, he or she may push a child into lying to avoid consequences.
If your child has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), he or she may not be able to fully control lying. A child who is involved in drug or alcohol abuse also may lie to hide these activities.
There are no definite signs that your child is lying. However, if your child is lying, some common clues are:
You may need to consult your child’s physician if lying becomes problematic. Lying that remains constant may be a sign of a conduct disorder, a learning disability, or an antisocial personality disorder.
Evaluation from a mental health professional may be necessary if:
If you realize that your child is lying, it’s important to let him or her know right away that you know about the deception attempt. When you discuss the topic with your child, it’s important to emphasize:
Excessive lying may require treatment from a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist who can help your child identify underlying causes for lying and work toward ending the behavior.
Isolated lying typically doesn’t indicate a lifetime problem. All children lie at some time. In most cases, discussing and modeling honest behavior can help your child act honestly.
When lying is repetitive, accompanied by other antisocial behaviors, or used to conceal dangerous activities, professional intervention is needed. Chronic lying may be a sign that your child isn’t able to tell the difference between right and wrong. It also may be an indication of problems affecting the child within the family or outside the home.
You can discourage lying in these ways:
Written by: Anna Zernone Giorgi
Medically reviewed on: Dec 17, 2013: George Krucik, MD, MBA
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