(Established in 1988)
A Neuro-Behavioral Medicine Clinic
Dr. Gautham's Neuro
Why Children Lie
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An older child or adolescent may
tell a lie to be self-serving (e.g. avoid doing something or deny responsibility
for their actions). Parents should respond to isolated instances of lying
by talking with the youngster about the importance of
truthfulness, honesty and trust.
adolescents discover that lying may be considered acceptable in certain
situations such as not telling a boyfriend or
girlfriend the real reasons for breaking up because they don't want to
hurt their feelings. Other adolescents may lie to
protect their privacy or to help them feel psychologically separate
and independent from their parents (e.g. denying they sneaked out late at
night with friends). There are some fundamental reasons
why we lie .
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, people who lie out of
fear usually know that they have done something that is wrong. Therefore
claiming "I've told you more than a hundred times..." does not
help the person deal with the heart of the error or disobedience. It
merely alienates them. We have to get beyond the lie,
and address the behaviour that "necessitated" the lie in the
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. 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 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 ad by example.
3. Over-prediction: People
also lie because they over-predict a reaction. One person was late because
of personal work said "I knew that the boss would say 'no', so I lied
that my wife was ill" In reality, the boss would merely have asked a
few questions and dropped the matter! One of the most productive ways of
addressing over-prediction is to provide a person with clear boundaries,
and yet emphasise 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. Whether a child or a
president, a liar can be a pretty beloved figure.
does habitual Lying differ from casual lying?
who know the difference between truthfulness and lying, tell elaborate
stories which appear believable. Children or
adolescents usually relate these stories with enthusiasm because they receive
a lot of attention as they tell the lie.
or adolescents, who otherwise seem responsible, fall into a pattern of
repetitive lying. They often feel that lying is the
easiest way to deal with the demands of parents, teachers and friends.
These children are usually not trying to be bad or malicious but the
repetitive pattern of lying becomes a bad habit.
There are also
some children and adolescents who are not bothered by lying or taking
advantage of others. Other adolescents may
frequently use lying to cover up another serious problem. For example,
an adolescent with a serious drug or alcohol problem will lie repeatedly
to hide the truth about where they have been, who they
were with, what they were doing, and where the money went.
Lying can also become a habit
formed through constant practice. It is possible that a person 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 person an opportunity to retract the lie without fear
Compulsive lying has often been
indicated in the early stages of children suffering from social behaviour
disorders, primarily that of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder and
Conduct Disorder. The current space does not permit a detailed discussion
of such disorders. Suffice it to say that in such cases, compulsive lying
usually accompanies other problem behaviours such as stealing, cheating,
aggression, violent temper tantrums, skipping school, constantly losing
items, and poor behaviour in groups, social settings or with authority
figures. Problems such as impulsivity, an apparent inability to link
consequences with behaviour, inattentiveness and discomfort with social
situations may be at the heart of lying. In such cases, the immediate
intervention of a qualified counsellor who is able to work with children
is required. Such counsellors would be able to provide parents with
specific parenting styles and a deeper understanding of the problem they
face. In addition, the child will receive age-appropriate psychotherapy,
and be connected with medical specialists providing the necessary
If a child or adolescent develops a pattern of lying which is serious and repetitive, then professional help may be indicated. Evaluation by a child and adolescent psychiatrist would help the child and parents understand the lying behavior and would also provide recommendations for the future.
lying a social skill?
Lying is in some ways a social skill, according to Prof. Feldman of the University of Massachusetts. White Lies are considered to be Okay. If we were always totally honest with other people, we would get ourselves in lots of unpleasant situations e.g Nobody wants to hear that you don�t like the gift you just gave them. At this point, we must distinguish between conventional lies and White lies.
White lying is the lying to get
out of a potentially embarassing or unpleasant situation without
causing harm to others. The essence of White lying is the lack of pre
planning of your lies ahead of time and making sure that your lies don't
spread out you ensure that no future harm is done and ensure that they do
not cause any damage. Regardless of who you are and
what you do, white lying can enhance your life and help you avoid major
We Punish Lying?
When we get to the "bottom
line", many parents want to know if they should punish a child for
lying, and if so how. Recall that one of the main motivators of lying is
fear. Many children choose to lie because it seems the
lesser of two evils, and they imagine they could get away with it. In a
sense, lying is punishment-avoidant behaviour. The dilemma
regarding punishment for lying is that the parent may risk reinforcing
fear, thus increasing the likelihood of lying in the future, rather than
there is the risk of confounding the message of the
punishment. While the parent is saying, "I'm punishing you
because you lied", the child may be thinking, "You are punishing
me because you found out the truth." For the child, punishment is not
associated with lying but being found out. The next time around, the child
finds new ways to misrepresent the truth, and the parent is left in a
quandary of suspicion and distrust.
important issues regarding punishment and lying:
is most effective in limiting habitual lying (discussed
earlier) since punishment is designed to reduce a
learned behaviour. The problem is that punishment is not designed to teach
and reinforce an alternate behaviour. Punishment without loving and
careful instruction is a useless tool, and one that often
leads to excessiveness and abuse.
2) Punishing a lie when it is
motivated by fear, modelling or overprediction tends to be ineffective in
the long run. Seek the deeper motivation for the lie and work at the
source rather than the symptom.
3) Use punishment as the last
option, not the first reaction. Parents are often surprised how soft
messages excel in impact over hard messages. For example, "You really
hurt mom and dad when you lie," is often more effective than,
"I'm really going to hurt you because you lied."
Above all, recognise that the purpose and desire of every parent is to encourage honesty. That is a characteristic, not just a behaviour. When all is said and done, we want our children to love the truth, not to fear it; and to hate lies, not merely the punishment that lying brings.