How to Tell if Your Child is Lying
I’m sure this won’t come as a shock to anyone. Kids lie. From time-to-time adults lie too; never parents of course, just some other adults. Obviously if a parent accidentally lies to a kid it is only because we want the best for our children. We also just want them to go to sleep at bedtime. If we fib a little and tell them that there is no monster under their bed or that we can’t lie in bed with them any longer because we need to go to the bathroom / clean up the kitchen / do work / etc. it is only because we want five minutes alone with our partner to discuss which show we should binge watch next before we pass out on the floor.
Why Kids Lie
I am sure someone has done some research on this topic. Having been a kid myself who may have told the occasional tall tale and now being a parent for almost ten years I feel I can answer this without any facts or evidence whatsoever.
Kids, like adults generally lie for one of three or four reasons
To Avoid Punishment
Nobody wants to get in trouble for doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing. A lamp gets broken playing baseball in the house – it was probably the cat / younger sibling / a bear. A sibling gets hurt – I didn’t mean to hit them / They tripped / Wasn’t me. They come home with a chunk of hair missing when they are in kindergarten – another kid on the playground did it – anyone? No? That was just me then.
Kids are afraid of what might happen if they admit they did something wrong. I’m sure some of this comes down to parenting styles. I think no matter our style we get the message as kids that there are consequences for doing something wrong. After all that is why we have police officers right? We tell our kids that the police are supposed to be there to protect us from people who break the law. (It is clearly more complex than that.) Our kids know that bad kids get sent to the principal’s office at school. They see the enforcement of rules all around them.
To Avoid Causing Disappointment
I had a teacher in high school that nobody wanted to disappoint. We all wanted to do our best in her class because none of us wanted to risk disappointing her. Kids are often the same in their desire not to disappoint their parents. This is probably closely tied to avoiding getting in trouble. The loss of parental esteem is a punishment in and of itself.
To Avoid Doing Something
This is a challenge in our house. I have one kid who frequently tells me she has brushed her teeth, cleaned her room, picked up something I asked her to pick up, etc. All those pesky requests of mine for her to do a task just cramp her style and requires her to stop doing something that she wants to do instead. She seems to think that telling me she has done it means I won’t notice that it hasn’t been done.
To Impress Others
Sometimes we think our days or lives aren’t exciting or interesting enough. Kids are the same as they begin to compare themselves to the stories they hear from other kids. They may want to up their own storytelling to make their experiences sound more exciting.
How to Know if a Child is Lying
Some simple lies are very easy to identify. If you ask your child if they have cleaned their room and they say yes, it is pretty easy to look in their room and determine whether that is true or not. If the lie is more complex it can be harder to determine whether the story is true or not.
There are several indicators that someone is not telling the truth or hiding something. Those indicators are equally visible in children and in adults, although adults may be able to hide some of them better than kids.
Changes in Voice or Behaviour
When someone is not telling the truth, it is likely tha you will be able to see behavioural changes. If your child is normally calm, they may be anxious. If they are normally a loud talker, they may be quiet. One way to test whether they are lying is to ask baseline questions that you know will elicit a regular response. You see them doing this on crime shows when someone is connected to a lie detector machine – what is your name, age, where do you live, etc. Then ask questions related to what you think the lie is and listen for changes in their voice and watch for behavioural changes.
They are Uneasy
In addition to overall behavioural changes, a child who is lying will likely be visibly uncomfortable. They may be fidgeting with their hands or an object, unable to sit or stand still, etc. They will likely be unable to meet your gaze and look you in the eye when they are lying.
Story is Too Elaborate
Ask someone why they are late getting somewhere or what they had for breakfast and you will generally get a straightforward answer if they are telling the truth. If they are a kid you can verify what they had for breakfast based on the food stains on their clothes and the food remaining around their mouths. If they are lying the story about being late will involve numerous challenges and much more information than you requested. They also won’t likely hesitate to provide that answer since it may have been practiced in advance.
Inconsistencies and Contradictions
When someone makes up a story it can be hard to keep the story straight. Ask questions that are unexpected to look for inconsistencies in the story. Watch for body language that contradicts the story being told. Are they talking about something making them angry while grinning or shaking their head no.
You know your kids, you can tell when something isn’t right. You might not be able to identify a specific thing they are saying or doing that is off and you might just have a gut reaction telling you that what you are being told is not right.
Trust that sense. Also keep in mind that there may be something else wrong that your child is concealing that may be unrelated to the story you are being told. Maybe they have a friend at school who is being bullied, maybe they heard something on the radio that is worrying them. Maybe they have something they want to tell or ask you and aren’t sure how to do it. Probe for the source of what is causing your suspicions and don’t automatically assume that they are lying.
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How to Respond to a Lying Child
We all know that lying is bad, except of course when it is necessary as social lubricant. We all tell white lies on a regular basis. We conceal opinions about other people’s clothing choices, hair styles, etc. So we want our kids to learn it is bad to lie and also we demonstrate through our actions and words that some lying is ok.
If we punish our kids for lying, we create a vicious cycle where they lie to us because they are afraid they will be punished for whatever they are lying to avoid and then they get punished for lying, which in turn justifies their fear of punishment. That then makes it less likely that they will tell the truth in the future.
7 Ways to Create a Safe Environment for the Truth
Amy McCready from Positive Parenting Solutions offers seven tips to help you manage kids who are lying and encourage them to be truthful instead.
Be aware of how you respond to misbehaviour
If your kids are worried about being punished or yelled at when they mess up, they won’t feel safe telling you the truth. Practice using your calm voice (although it can be hard at times!) and focus on solutions that will solve the problem instead of assigning blame.
Allow your child to save face
Don’t give your child the opportunity to fib by asking questions to which you already know the answer. For example, instead of asking, “Did you finish your homework?” try, “What are your plans for finishing your homework?” If your child hasn’t completed his homework, he can save face by focusing on a plan of action rather than inventing a story.
Focus on the feeling
When your child is being dishonest, try to understand what made him feel that he couldn’t be honest with you. Instead of calling him out about the lie, try, “That sounds like a bit of a story to me. You must have felt afraid to tell me the truth. Let’s talk about that.” You’ll get the honesty you’re looking for, as well as information that may help you foster the truth in the future
Acknowledge and appreciate honesty
Express encouragement when your kids tell the truth. “That must have been difficult for you to tell me what really happened. I admire your courage for telling the truth. You are really growing up!”
Think of mistakes as a way to learn to make better choices in the future. If kids know that you won’t be angry or disappointed when they mess up, they’ll be more likely to share honestly. To respond, simply say something like, “That’s a great opportunity to learn for the future. If you could have a do-over, what would you do differently?” If your child’s actions negatively affected another person, ask what needs to be done to “make it right” with the injured party.
Reinforce unconditional love
Make sure your kids know that while you sometimes don’t like their behaviour, there isn’t anything they could possibly do that would change your love for them.
Watch your white lies
Remember that young ears and eyes are always tuned in. Whether you’re failing to correct the barista who gives you too much change or making up a story about why you can’t volunteer at the school fundraiser, remember your actions set the example for acceptable behaviour.
If you want to further explore how to identify when adults and kids are lying, check out these resources.
by Vanessa Van Edwards
Why Kids Lie: How Parents Can Encourage Truthfulness
by Paul Ekman
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