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The Informed Parent

Liar, Liar, Pants On Fire

by Sandra Smith, Ph.D.
Published on Aug. 22, 2011

When your child develops the habit of lying HOW DO YOU BREAK IT? This habit alone can cause frustration and rattled nerves beyond most other negative behaviors that your child presents you with.

One must remember that lying is a normal part of development for four and five year olds. An “active imagination” and the use of “magical thinking” allows the child the chance to explore his new world safely--i.e., in fantasy life, he can explore all of the ideas he is developing. An active imagination is a sign of emotional health at age four and even five--even when it leads to emotional untruths, as it very often does.

The first task of parents is to avoid overreaction. Most often, parents experienced being caught in lies themselves as children, and they may harbor unresolved feelings or even fears as a result--especially if they were punished harshly, or made to feel shame. Other parents may believe (erroneously) that children who lie may be “doomed” to committing serious crimes later. In any case, many parents (yes, even informed parents) react to the first signs of lying with horror. Try NOT to do this.

Instead, try to understand the circumstances that led to the lie in the first place. Perhaps, think back to the first lie you recall telling your parents. Trust that your child MEANT well, and try to help him to understand his reasons for formulating the lie. The “reasoning” process (with less sophisticated wording) might go something like this in the five-year-old mind: “….hmmmm…if I say baby sister broke that lamp my mom loves so much, I can avoid that initial onslaught of maternal anger. I can identify with her attachment to the lamp, please her and magically erase all of the damage done. I even know that baby sister won’t get in trouble because she is too little. I can make everything perfect again.” 

It is important to remember that guilt does not occur until after the lie, and in response to the recognition of disapproval. The long-term goal is the development of a conscience, so that the child stops lying in recognition of his responsibility to others. Again, a good reason to avoid overreacting: if parental requirements about lying are too rigid, or the punishment too severe, the child will be far more likely to develop a conscience, which is too rigid and relentless. Alternately, the child may develop a fierce rebellion, and/or develop a pattern of compulsive lying.

You will know you are making progress when you and your child can discuss each episode of lying, and when he or she begins to understand his own reasons for lying. When he begins to acknowledge the truth, you are on the right track. By elementary school age (between 6 and 8 years old) most children begin to respect the rights and feelings of others, which includes a policy of not lying.

If the lying persists, however, with no change in the pattern despite your discussions afterward, you may be putting too much pressure on him. If you have in fact overdone your criticism or punishment, admit it to your child. You can use it as an opportunity to explore how anxious your child’s lying makes you, and to avoid undermining his sense of emerging competence at the same time. You should also evaluate any pressures on your child. It may help to use dolls or stories to play and talk out any issues your child is experiencing.

You must definitely refrain from strict punishments if your child begins to exhibit signs of generalized anxiety, e.g., by increasing fearfulness and night terrors; or that consistent lying is a symptom of underlying anxiety or fearfulness which must be addressed, not suppressed. Certainly, consult your child’s pediatrician or a mental health professional if you are really worried and no amount of patience and guidance on your part seems to be helping your child.

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