Friday, September 27, 2013

When children and teens lie…

By Dr Rania Chiourea
Many parents feel betrayed, angry, hurt and frustrated when they catch their child lying. But the truth is that lying is considered, by most child development specialists, to be a natural developmental occurrence in childhood (Encyclopedia of Children's Health). It's wrong, but it's normal. In fact, we all do it to some degree,  hoping to get out of something. So, it’s important to understand what’s behind the lies. All lying isn’t the same. All “lies” aren’t even lies.

 A lie is any deliberate deviation from the truth; it is a falsehood communicated with the intention to mislead or deceive Though there is no empirical data about how children learn to lie, parental honesty is recognized as a primary influence on the development of truthfulness in children (Encyclopedia of Children's Health).  Kids are not born with a moral code. It’s something they have to figure out and to learn. They get it that there are social rules. They watch the adults constantly to see what they are supposed to do and how they are supposed to negotiate their world. The need for truthtelling and the ability to understand the concept of lying are things that kids grow into as they grow.

        Developmental Stage (according to Dr Marie Hartwell-Walker) 


  •         From birth to 3:  kids are in a highly confusing world where they are dependent on adults for their very survival. Often what looks like “lies” are either honest mistakes or efforts to protect themselves or to mollify the grownups. They take their cue from our tone of voice. “Did you break the jar?” said angrily is likely to get a “Not me” response. “Did you eat the cookie?” “Not me!” Of course not. Kids don’t want to be in trouble with the adults they depend on. The angry tone in the adult’s question scares them. They just want to make things feel safe again.
  • From ages 3 to 7:  Children are still figuring out the difference between fantasy and reality. They create imaginary worlds in their play. Sometimes they’re not clear where their creations leave off and the real world begins. We adults often find it cute and participate in the fantasies. We encourage belief in the tooth fairy and Santa. No wonder they’re sometimes confused. We don’t want to shut down their creativity, but we do want to help them sort out when it’s appropriate to tell tall tales and when it’s not.
  • From ages 7 to 10: kids gradually develop an understanding of what it means to lie. If they’ve been raised in a home and neighborhood and school where there are clear rules about the importance of telling the truth, they will do their best to comply. They want to be “big kids.” They want adult approval. They want to be on the side of truth and justice. Kids being kids, they will also monitor one another – and us. They’re the ones who will shout “liar liar, pants on fire” when they spot one.
  • Over 10:  They know perfectly well when they are stretching the truth or outright lying. Other reasons kick in that are just as compelling as developmental understanding.

    Why do children lie?

Social issues overlap with developmental ones. The older kids get, the more likely one or more of these reasons factors:
  •  To establish identity and as a way to fit in.: One of the ways kids use lying is to establish an identity and to connect with peers, even if that identity is false. Kids who are less than sure about their standing in the cliques and crowds of middle and high school sometimes fall in with less than upstanding peers. So, lying can be a response to peer pressure. A child might be lying to his peers about things he says he’s done, that he really hasn’t, to make him sound more impressive and so, win peer approval. Also, they lie to cover for each other and cover their tracks when they’ve done something they shouldn’t.
  • To individuate from parents: When parents won’t allow them to gain some independence, teens almost have to be devious to grow normally. So, sometimes they use lying to keep parts of their lives separate from their parents. At times it may even seem that they make up small lies about things that don’t even seem terribly important.
  • To get attention: When a child is little and the lies are inconsequential, this behavior may just be his way of getting a little attention. When a small child says, “Mommy, I just saw Santa fly by the window,” it is very different from an older child who says, “I finished my homework,” when he really didn’t. Younger children also make up stories during imaginative play, or playing “make believe.” This is not lying but a way for them to engage their imaginations and start to make sense of the world around them.
  • To get out of doing something they don’t want to do. “Have you done your math homework?” says a dad. “Oh yeah. I did it when I got home today,” says the middle school son. Son hates math. Son doesn’t like feeling like a failure because he doesn’t understand it. Son doesn’t want to struggle with it. Better to “lie.” Hopefully the math room will have fallen into a sinkhole before math class tomorrow so he won’t have to deal with it.
  •  Not understanding when it’s socially appropriate to lie and when it isn’t. It’s a formula question: “How are you?” The formula answer is “Fine.” But what if you’re not fine? Is it a lie to say you are? When someone asks a friend “Do these jeans make me look fat?”; “How do you like my new sweater?”; “Do you think I’ll make the team?” – they aren’t necessarily looking for an honest answer. How’s a kid supposed to understand that?
  • To avoid trouble: Sometimes kids lie without thinking and then dig themselves in deeper. Mom says angrily, “Who let the dog out?” Kid automatically says, “Not me!” He knows he did. You know he did. He knows you know he did. Now what’s he going to do? “Well. Maybe it was the wind that opened the door.” The truth gets more and more tangled. The kid knows the jig is up but doesn’t want to admit it. Mom is getting more and more angry. Now there are three problems: The original issue, the lying, and mom’s anger.
  •  Fear: When the adults in a kid’s life are dangerous (violent, irrational, or overpunishing), kids get so worried about the consequences to fessing up to a misdemeanor they try to avoid it altogether. Understandable. No one likes to be yelled at, hit, or confined to quarters.
  •   Related to those lies of fear is when the children perceive the house rules and restrictions to be too strict. So let’s say you have a 16–year–old who isn’t allowed to wear makeup, but all her friends are wearing it. So she wears it outside the house, then lies to you about it. Lying may become a way for her to have you believe she’s following your rules and still do “normal” teen activities.
  •  Parental example: It’s hard to hold a teen to driving at the speed limit if a parent uses a “Fuzz-buster” to avoid the consequences of speeding. When a parent brags about cheating on their income tax or a financial aid form, it tells kids that it’s okay to lie as long as you don’t get caught. They inevitably try out what they’ve observed at home and are often stunned when parents don’t see them as simply doing as the adults do.
  • Rarely, lying is an indication of an emerging mental illness like conduct disorder or pathological lying. Usually there is more than one symptom besides the lying. These are the kids who often become so adept at it, they lie whether they need to or not. It’s a reflex, not a considered manipulation (Marie Hartwell-Walker).

      How To Help the Lying Child

It’s our job to help our kids understand the importance of honesty. Being trust-worthy (worthy of trust) is the key to solid friendships, trusting romantic relationships, and academic and occupational success. Honesty really and truly is the best policy.
 1.  Be a good example. First of all remember that children learn more through watching other people’s behavior than through any other form of direct guidance or discipline. This means, our job is to be consistently good models of honest living. If we want to raise honest kids, we can’t model the opposite. (e.g.: if you take a few years of your child’s age when buying a bus ticket, you will inadvertently be teaching your child that lying is acceptable).

    2.  Look for the reason behind the lie. Try to understand why your child is finding it hard to be honest. It’s important to think about why your child feels she needs to lie. Perhaps your child lies about the marks she get at school because she is feeling overly pressurised to achieve. Or if your child repeatedly lies about their actions to avoid discipline, perhaps the consequences you are using are so severe that your child is too afraid to tell the truth. Remember that consequences are about teaching a child, not inflicting distress. Once you’ve identified potential reasons for your child’s fibbing, encourage them to talk about their worries by calmly raising the issue in a supportive and warm manner: “It seems it’s really important for you to get good marks. Do you worry about disappointing us?”
    3.  Never label a kid as a liar. Negative labels such as this can erode self-esteem and lead to self-confirming behaviour. When a kid’s identity gets tangled up with a label, it becomes harder and harder to correct. Some kids become good at being bad when they are convinced there isn’t a way to win approval and love by being good. Also, it is not helpful to bring up past transgressions “This is the x time you’ve lied about this”.
    4.  Stay calm,  name the issue but don’t demand confessions. If you catch your child in a problematic lie, do not react in the moment. Instead, send him to his room so you can calm down. Talk with your spouse or a trusted friend or family member and come up with a game plan. Allow yourself time to think about it. Remember, when you respond without thinking, you’re not going to be effective. So give yourself a little time to plan this out.
    ·         Don’t ask questions about behavior if you already know the answer! Trying to force your child to confess is rarely effective: most children (and adults) will lie to protect themselves when put on the spot. Parents shouldn’t mimic interrogators. Trying to force the truth out of kids only makes them more scared. It’s enough to simply say that we’re reasonably sure they’re wrong and to ask them if they want to stick with their story. Stay with the facts and set clear consequences.
    ·         When you do talk, don’t argue with your child about the lie. Just state what you saw, and what is obvious. You may not know the reason behind it, but eventually your child might fill you in on it. Again, simply state the behaviors that you saw.
    ·         For a preschooler whose comments reveal a blurring of reality and fantasy, calmly tell them that you know what they are saying is untrue: “I know you’d love a pet cat, so you were imagining we’d got five kittens?
    ·         If you know your child is lying to avoid getting into trouble, calmly describe the problem: “I see you got pen on the wall, how can we sort that out?” If possible, avoid lecturing or criticising your child as this tends to be counter-productive, leading to defensiveness and more lying.
    ·         Give your child the chance to make amends. For example, if you know they’ve not prepared their bag for school, don’t ask them: “Have you packed your bag?” (which just invites a lie). Instead, briefly describe the problem: “I noticed your bag isn’t ready.” Or better still, invite them to take responsibility: “Please show me your bag when it’s packed.”
    ·         If you catch your child telling a blatant lie, tell them you know they’re not being honest: “I know that isn’t true. It’s normal to worry about telling the truth if we’re afraid we’ve done something wrong, but lying isn’t helpful. Let’s see what we can do solve the problem”.
    5.    Take the time to train and explain. When little ones stretch the truth or tell tall tales, don’t accuse them of lying. Instead talk about how we may wish some things were true and that it’s fun to pretend, play and imagine. By all means, don’t shut down their creativity but do help them understand that there’s a time for play and a time for real life (Marie Hartwell-Walker).  
    6.  Teach your child about why lying doesn’t work. Teach him about the importance of telling the truth and how lying can stop people believing them even when they are being honest. Read books with your child which give a clear message that lying is not helpful; 'The Boy who Cried Wolf’ is an obvious example. It helps to take time after reading the stories to chat with your child about what he has learnt. Remember this should be relaxed and fun, not a morality lecture! (Victoria Samuel).
    7.  Understand that comprehending moral issues is difficult. Give your child the benefit of the doubt. If she or he really did lie, give them a way to back down. Then talk about what happened and what they can do differently the next time they are tempted to lie (Marie Hartwell-Walker).
    8.  Respond with clear consequences. By around the age of six, children are able to know the difference between truth and lies. So if they lie to try to cover up something they’ve done, it may be helpful to give consequences, both for the lying and for the behaviour they are attempting to conceal. Make it clear to your child that honesty will get your approval and mean they get off more lightly.
    ·         This approach means that if your child does something wrong they’re less likely to take the risk of covering up with a lie. Again, remember that consequences should not be overly severe as this may push your child to lie to protect themselves.
     9.   Praise honesty. Always be encouraging and positive whenever your child tells the truth and praise them for being honest: “Thank you for telling me you broke the glass. I really like it when you’re honest”.

    ·         If your child is going through a phase of frequent lying, set up a reward system so that she gets a sticker every day there are no lies. Agree in advance that she will get treats once a certain number of stickers have been gained! (Victoria Samuel).

     References & Sources:

    1.     “Encyclopedia of Children's Health
    2.    Hartwell-Walker, Marie “When a child lies”
             3.  Lehman, Janet: “How to Deal with Lying in Children and Teens”
             4.    Samuel, Victoria: “Why do children lie?”


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