Inclement Weather Update (Click post for more info)

Why Our Kids Lie and How To Respond

It’s been so long since the Disney movie Pinocchio was popular. It is a sweet story of a wooden doll who dreams of being a real boy. When his dream comes true, he must live with an unusual characteristic — his nose grows any time he tells a lie.

 Some people are really good at hiding a lie, and others are not. Have you caught your child in a lie and didn’t know how to deal with it? Do they lie a blue streak, and you can’t tell whether they are lying or telling the truth?

As parents, we all want our children to be good, kind human beings. When we catch them in a lie, we wonder where we went wrong or worry that they will become untrustworthy.  

A Universal Biological Response

If we look at it from a psychological point of view, however, we need to understand that lying isn’t a moral failure. Lying is often a universal biological response, a pattern of protection that allows us to gain a reward or avoid pain, according to Lisa Dion, a licensed professional counselor, a registered play therapist supervisor, and creator of Synergetic Play Therapy. Other play therapists and medical professionals agree. 

This pain-pleasure principle is hard-wired into all of us. This means that as humans, we seek pleasure or avoid pain to meet our own psychological and biological needs, and lying helps us do that. And yes, even as grown adults, we need to admit that we also sometimes lie.

To help us correct lying behavior in our children, we need to get curious without exploding and try to understand what our children are protecting or gaining when they lie. Some motivations for lying include:

  • Avoiding conflict or punishment: “I did not hit my sister.” 
  • Avoiding shame or guilt: “I didn’t cheat on the test.”
  • Gaining a reward: “I ate all my dinner” (half the food is in the trash)
  • Impressing others: “My parents own a ski chalet in Europe.”
  • Getting attention: “I went to the  hospital last week and had surgery on my leg.”
  • Wishful thinking: “We have a horse in our backyard.”

How To Respond

When we do catch our children in lies, most experts warn against punishing them. Instead, look for the reason behind it and be empathetic: “You knew that if you hit your sister, Mom and Dad would get angry with you. Is that why you didn’t want to tell us?”

You can point out the lie in an indirect way. “You said you ate all your dinner. But I’m confused. Whose meatloaf is in the trash?”  

We can also use humor. “I really wish we had a horse in our backyard so we could ride anytime!”  

Neutral moments — those times when you are both calm and there has been space from an episode — are perfect times to discuss with our children the importance of honesty and integrity. Think of ways you can model honesty and integrity in your daily lives. Did you overpay or underpay at the grocery store? Go back, fix the mistake and explain to your kids how honesty and integrity are important to you and to God.

Some good Scripture verses addressing honesty include:

Proverbs 12:22 – “Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD, but those who act faithfully are his delight.”

Colossians 3:9 – “Don’t lie to each other, for you have stripped off your old sinful nature and all its wicked deeds.”

Psalms 119:29 – “Keep me from lying to myself; give me the privilege of knowing your instructions.”

Psalms 120:2 – “Lord, deliver me from lying lips and a deceitful tongue.”

By understanding the motivation behind the lie and responding calmly, with grace and empathy, we create an atmosphere of safety for our children. We can acknowledge their feelings without attacking their protective pattern. If we punish our children for lying, or react with yelling and high emotion, they will continue to protect themselves. By calling it out in a gentle way, we create safety within the relationship that allows them to identify and acknowledge their underlying motivations and emotions without being shamed for them. Over time, their need to lie will diminish. 

Amy Zacaroli, MABC

Licensed Resident in Counseling