Does it really irk you when your kid blatantly lies right to your face? It used to drive me up the wall! Honesty is such an important value of mine. The first few times that my kid lied convincingly, it really scared me. I used to think, ‘why does my kid keep lying?’ How can I get my kid to stop lying using gentle parenting? What can I do to teach them the importance of telling the truth? Once I realised some of the reasons why my kid was lying to me, I was able to drastically reduce the lying with these few simple strategies.
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Lying is common in young kids
Lying is developmentally appropriate in young children who are still learning. I had no idea of this until my sister-in-law told me that it is actually a developmental stage they go through. Since then I have looked into it more and found the science to back this up. Check out this article by Parenting Science for more on this. Young children also genuinely struggle to differentiate what actually happened from fantasy, at times. At other times they tell you what they know they should have done, rather than what they actually did.
Of course sometimes children lie to get out of trouble. Now, be honest with yourself, have you ever done this as an adult? ‘Yes, that dress looks amazing on you’. ‘I’m so sorry I didn’t make it to your party at the weekend, I was feeling sick’. I’m not saying it’s right. What I am suggesting is that we give our little people some grace. It helps when we recognise that as adults we struggle to be honest 100% of the time too. Our kids don’t want to upset us, or get into trouble and that is completely normal. As they grow, it’s our job to teach them the value of honesty, even when it doesn’t appear to be in our best interests. However, they usually have to be older to understand that. This is why I don’t advocate for punishments as a result of being truthful, especially when they are young.
How to stop lying in an older kid
If an older child lies a lot then there is usually an underlying reason. Children who have experienced early childhood adversity, such as trauma, neglect or abuse, may be using lying as a survival technique. Telling the truth can sometimes be a challenge for children in foster care, or who have been adopted and are care expereinced. You may think that once in a safe home, they no longer need to lie to survive, but old habits are hard to break, especially when they have learnt them at a young age. There may also be a trust issue. In order to tell the truth to someone, you must be able to trust them with that truth. Trust takes time to build up, especially where there has been broken trust with someone who should have been looking out for you.
Children who have experienced trauma, and children with additional support needs may also be behind developmentally and therefore still in a younger stage of development, where lying is developmentally appropriate. For more specific information about lying in children who have experienced trauma, check out Adoption UK’s advice.
How to Stop your Kid Lying with Gentle Parenting
So this is probably what you are most interested in. You want to know how to make the lies stop and I get that. But understanding why your child is lying in the first place is important for building compassion and understanding, which will help when using these strategies.
It’s important to be aware that the child is rarely lying with the intention of annoying you or being disrespectful. It’s crucial to look for the reason behind the lie. They are most likely lying out of fear, to avoid a feeling of shame that is too overwhelming to handle, or because they genuinely believe the lie themselves.
1. Get rid of punishments to reduce lying out of fear
Have you ever lied to avoid being caught? If I’m being honest, I have done this, even as an adult, often without thinking about it. As an adult, I am unlikely to get punished. Most of the time, if I lie, I am doing it to avoid disappointing people with the truth. How much more tempting must it be for our kids to lie when they fear our disappointment and a punishment?
When we stopped punishing our kids, it really helped them to confess the truth to us more often. We will always remind them that they will not get in trouble from us for telling the truth. When they do tell the truth, we thank them for being honest and doing the right thing. We tell them that we are proud of them for telling the truth when its the harder thing to do. If they have done something that needs to be put right, the assumption is they fix their mess, but we always offer to help them. We are on their team and as their parents we are always there to help them.
This one is particularly important to start now, ready for the teen years. We want them to be sure that we are their safe person and that no matter what they have done, they can tell us and know that we will help them to sort things out, put things right and not pile on more guilt or punishment.
2. Avoid shame to reduce lying
Traditional parenting techniques focus on making a child feel bad about what they did, in order to produce change. However, this can result in kids lying to avoid the feeling of shame. This is particularly the case with children who have experienced abuse or neglect. As with many challenges our kids face, I have found it so important to look for the underlying cause of the behaviour instead. If the underlying cause of their lying is to avoid feelings of shame, then by trying to make them feel bad about what they have done, we simply increase their shame. This usually makes them work harder to avoid being caught next time.
If your child is care experienced, then check out these super helpful books, on Amazon, for more on trauma informed ways to parent.
We all want our kids to feel that they can open up to us and tell us anything. We want them to be truthful. However, sometimes we unintentionally make this very difficult for them. Although we tell our kids that it makes us happy when they tell the truth, often our actions don’t match our words. When they own up to drawing on the walls for example, they see a cross face, tense body language, and hear a slightly raised voice. They might then get a punishment, such as loss of screen time for example. Non of this tells them that we value their honesty, and it all makes them feel like a bad person. We might tell them that it’s the behaviour we don’t like, not them, however its them we are punishing.
3. Prioritise honesty
To prioritise honesty, we have to be careful with our facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. The first thing we do is take a small breath and then thank them for being honest with us and telling us what happened. We offer a hug. It’s a really hard thing to admit you did wrong. The fact that they have come and told us means they know what they did was wrong. So we don’t lecture.
Sometimes, if we feel it is appropriate we may consider together what they could do next time if they were in a similar situation. We brainstorm ideas together as a team. We are there to help guide them. Then, we discuss together what we can do to put the situation right, and assure them we will help them clean up their mess. This may be scrubbing up a mess, repainting a wall, writing a sorry card for a sibling they have hurt, doing some jobs to save up to pay for something broken, talking to a teacher or other adult who they upset and helping them explain what happened and say sorry. The main idea is that this is led by the child and we are there to help them.
Relevance to the future
This is so relevant for when they become teens and adults. It teaches them the skills they need to put things right when they mess up. If they upset their friend, or bump someones car, it wouldn’t help the situation for them to go home and sit in their room engulfed in shame, feeling like a terrible person. So perhaps time out is not the way to go? We want them to proactively look for a way to make amends and fix their mistake, asking for help and support if they need it. We start this mindset whilst they are little.
There was a special moment the other night where my son had yelled at his dad and hit him (that’s not the special part!). He came running though to see me. He fell into me for a big hug and I just held him, stroked his hair and told him I loved him. Once I had co-regulated him, he looked up at me and told me what had happened. I empathised with his feelings of frustration that had led to the angry outburst. He then asked me if I could come with him and help him say sorry to his Daddy. Once he had calmed down he wanted to put things right and he looked to me as someone who wouldn’t judge or punish, but was there to help him put right his mistakes. That is the kind of relationship I always want to have with him. To learn more about the problem of shame and how to reduce it for your child, take a look at, Helping my adopted child with shame.
4. Stop your kid lying by teaching the difference between fantasy and reality
One way to reduce lying is to help your kid distinguish between reality and fantasy. This one always makes me think of Tracy Beaker. With my own kids, I found it helped to teach them to differentiate between reality and fantasy in a gentle non-confrontational way. So, instead of accusing them of lying, I would gently ask, ‘Did that really happen or is that a wonderful story from your imagination?’
I find it’s also helpful to differentiate between what really happened and what they would have liked to happen. Kids generally want to please us and tell us what we want to hear. They also want to avoid trouble. Don’t we all!
One day, after school, when I asked my 6 year old son who he played with at playtime, he told me that he played with me. I said that I wasn’t there. He argued that I was, and told me a whole story about what we played together. I told him it sounded great fun. His imagination is brilliant, so I let him know that. I then wondered aloud if he had missed me at school and wanted me there, so had imagined that I was. I spoke about how I missed him when he was at school and would love to play those games with him in real life. Gently and subtly, I helped him differentiate between what he imagined in his head and what really happened.
5. Try not to be confrontational when tackling lying
We try to avoid telling our children to stop lying, or stating outright that they are lying. Not easy in the moment, I know! We try to gently challenge what they have said, by wondering if that is what really happened, or what they wish had happened. Let’s face it, none of us respond well to being called a ‘liar’! It adds more shame too. Compassion and empathy are needed to remain curious and look for the reason behind the lie. We want to keep communication open and maintain our relationship with our kids.
6. Keep those communication levels open
So, in conclusion, what I have found is that when I work to reduce fear and shame, help my kids distinguish fantasy from reality, and cut out punishments, I reduce their need to lie. I want them to see me as someone to confide in. They should see me as someone they can always come to for help, not judgement. This is really important to me, not just for our present relationship, but also our future relationship. As a bonus, having a close relationship with your kid and reducing fear of punishments for them, really does help your kid stop lying. This might not be an instant fix. Are there ever really quick fixes when it comes to parenting anyway? However, if you want an honest kid and honest grown-up in the future, this is the way to go.