Kids And Lying: How Can I Get My Son To Tell The Truth?

11/04/2011 08:31 am ET | Updated Jan 03, 2012

Dear Susan,

My 11-year-old son has a problem with lying. Sometimes he tells big lies like "I have no idea why it says I'm failing English," and other times they are small. He usually sticks to his story, only admitting guilt when there is concrete evidence that he is lying. This habit has gotten his father and me into uncomfortable situations with his teachers and classmates' parents. We've talked in depth about the importance of telling the truth. Is this normal?

Pinocchio's Mom

Dear Pinocchio's Mom,

Let me start by saying that I'm not a big fan of the word “normal.” It places an undue burden on parents to determine whether their child Is or Isn't. We end up with parents trying fear-based strategies if they're told their child's behavior is not normal. And, others adopt a laissez-faire attitude toward legitimate problems if they hear their child is normal.

All that said, many children lie, for various reasons and at various stages. Four-year olds weave elaborate tales that reflect their relatively fragile hold on what is real and what is fantasy. Grade-schoolers lie to avoid getting caught, or because they can't keep track of the truth; they often believe the stories they're telling. Some children -- especially teens -- lie because in effect, their parents have “taught” them not to tell the truth by reacting harshly, or breaking down in tears when a truth is difficult to hear.

So it could be said that your son's behavior is “normal,” but that doesn't mean you shouldn't address it. Lying is an awful habit; it doesn't serve the child beyond helping him avoid punishment or momentary discomfort, and it can lead to a lifelong habit of skirting the truth, rather than asking for help when it's needed. Here's my advice:

Make it safe for your son to tell you the truth. Take a look at whether your reactions to your his honesty might be discouraging him from speaking up. What would your reaction have been if he had told you he was failing English because he has lost one of his projects? Would you have shouted at him or delivered an angry lecture? Or would you have worked with him to create work habits that would help him improve his grades?

Acknowledge your own errors. Kids watch us to learn how we handle our flubs. If you blame other people when you arrive late for a family dinner (“I couldn't get out of the house because Jessie wouldn't get his shoes on!”), your kids will have a hard time learning accountability. Instead, own your shortcomings. (“I lost track of time as I sometimes do; I'm so sorry we're late.”) Don't defend, justify or rationalize. By demonstrating what it looks like to take responsibility for your mistakes, your son will be less tempted to concoct stories to hide his own.

Address the source of chronic lying. If your son always says he has no homework when he actually does, find out why he's hiding the truth. Is he having trouble staying focused? Are the assignments too difficult for him? Does he get so many problems wrong that he doesn't see any point in doing them? Likewise, when he lies about taking his sister's toys, try to find the payoff he feels this behavior is giving him.Trying to get back at her for teasing him about his weight? Or, is it his way of trying to get her to pay attention to him when she typically pretends he doesn't exist? By looking for the cause of a youngster's lying, you can deal with it at its root.

Kids make mistakes. If your son is sure that telling you the truth about why he's stumbling through English will lead to getting grounded or yelled at, he's likely to lie. Same goes for “...there was vodka at the party last night...” or “...I did break the lamp...” We need to make it possible for our kids to be honest with us, if we want them to be.

Yours in parenting support,

Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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