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Most parents are quite concerned when they find that their child lies to them. But when is lying simply an unpleasant behaviour, and when is it cause for real worry?

Lying that is probably not a serious problem:

Young children (age 4-6) often make up stories and tell tales. This is a normal activity, which is fun for them. This behaviour is partially due to the vivid imaginations children possess at this age. Young children often blur the line between reality and fantasy.
An older child or adolescent may tell a lie to be self-serving (to avoid doing something, or to deny responsibility for his or her actions). An older child may also tell a lie to impress others, when they feel that the truth is not as exciting.

Some adolescents discover that lying may be considered socially acceptable in some situations. An example of this would be lying to spare someone's feelings, when the truth might prove hurtful. Adolescents also may lie to protect their privacy or to assert their independence.

Parents should be aware that their own behaviour, such as telling "little white lies" may have a great impact on their children. For example, saying to a child, "tell Mary I`m not home" in response to an unwanted phone call only encourages a child to believe their parents` credo is to "do as I say, not as I do."

Lying that may indicate emotional problems:

Some children, who know the difference between truthfulness and lying, tell elaborate stories which appear believable. Children or adolescents may get a lot of attention from peers or adults from telling these stories. If this occurs often, and the child continually denies that the story is not true, he or she may have a poor self-image. The child may believe that, "If they knew the real me, they wouldn`t like me."

Other children or adolescents fall into a pattern of repetitive lying, as this seems to be the easiest way to deal with demands of parents, teachers and friends. Lying then becomes a habit that is hard to break.

There are also some children and adolescents who are not bothered by lying. Some may be covering up a serious problem such as alcohol or drug abuse. They therefore may lie about their whereabouts, whom they associate with, or where their money is spent.

All of the above situations may warrant seeking a professional opinion, if the behaviour continues over any extended period of time.

What to do if a child or adolescent lies:

Parents are the most important role models for their children. When lying persists, parents should take time to have a serious talk and discuss:

  • The difference between make believe and reality, lying and telling the truth.
  • The importance of honesty at home and in the community.
  • The consequences of lying, in terms of lack of trust, and the negative impact lying will have on the child`s relationships with others.
  • That the freedom or independence that they want can only come when they show that they are trustworthy.

Parents should avoid punishing a child for lying, as this may only encourage a child to "lie better" in the future.

Parents should also avoid labelling a child a "liar" as this will only encourage the child to live up to that image.

If a child or adolescent develops a pattern of lying that is serious and repetitive, then professional help may be indicated. Your School Social Worker may be helpful in your search for assistance in dealing with this problem.

This article was partially derived from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

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