Why Children Lie and What To Do About It

The High Cost of Lying

When their child enters adolescence and begins pushing harder for freedom to grow, parents may begin to wonder: "Whatever happened to the truth?" Not that their little girl or boy was always honest, but their teenager seems more prone to lie both by commission (telling a deliberate falsehood) and by omission (not voluntarily disclosing all that parents need to know.)

Why do adolescents tend to lie more than children? Usually for freedom's sake - to escape punishment for misbehavior or to get to do what has been forbidden. To many teenagers, lying seems to be the easy way out of trouble or into adventure that has been disallowed. But lying is deceptive: what seems simpler at the moment proves complicated over time. The "easy way out" turns out to be extremely expensive, particularly for teenagers who have gotten so deeply into lying that they have a hard time getting out. To these young people, it can be helpful for parents to itemize the high cost of lying in order to encourage a return to truth. What to tell their errant teenager? Explain some of the costs that commonly accompany lying.

  • Liars Injure Those They Love. Parents who are lied to can feel hurt because lies take advantage of their trust, can feel angry because of being deliberately misled, and can feel frightened because now they don't know what to believe and so feel out of control.
  • Liars Are Double Punished. Lying is a gamble. If the teenager is not found out, then there is no punishment; but if the teenager is found out, he or she is punished twice - first for the offense, and second for lying about it.
  • Liars Complicate Their Lives. Liars lead double lives, having to remember what they really did (the truth of what happened) and the lie they told about what they did (the falsehood they created.) Because they have two versions of reality manage, not one, telling lies proves twice as complicated as telling the truth.
  • Liars Life in Fear. Concealing the truth, liars have to live in hiding, living in some degree of fear of being found out.
  • Liars Feel Out of Control. Covering up one lie with another, pretty soon liars lose track of all the lies they've told and find it harder and harder to keep their story straight.
  • Liars Lower Self-Esteem. Because they lack the courage to own up to the truth of their actions, liars live a coward's life; each time they run from the truth they run their self-esteem further down.
  • Liars Are Lonely People. To stay away from questions and to keep from being found out, liars distance themselves from intimate others, becoming isolated in their own home, this protection increasingly cutting them off from open communication with those they love.
  • Liars Fool Themselves. What begins as lying to others ends up as lying to them selves as liars lose track of what really happened and come to believe some of the untruths they have told.
  • Liars Feel Guilty. Knowing they have abused and exploited the trust of those they love, liars end up feeling guilty for the damage they have caused.
  • Liars Encourage Other People To Get Angry. Each time they are found out, liars must deal with people who usually resent being manipulated by lies.
  • Liars Lose Credibility. The more lies are told and found out, the less easy it becomes for liars to be believed when they are actually telling the truth.
  • Liars Lose Intimacy. With each lie that is told, estrangement builds in their relationships because there can be no intimacy without honesty, no trust without truth, no security without sincerity.
  • Liars Are Relieved When They Are Found Out. Even though they may have to pay their dues for lying by accepting punishment, liars are relieved to be found out because now they can get back on an honest footing with people, and can stop living a fugitive life.
  • Liars Victimize Themselves. Although people lied to feel mistreated, because of all the costs they pay, liars mistreat them selves even more.
  • Liars Learn the Lesson of Lying. Liars learn that it is far easier to be the person lied to than to be the one who has been telling all the lies.

Given so many costs of lying, why then do children lie?

First, understand what lying is. Lying is the act of deliberately NOT telling the truth on order to gain illicit freedom or some other gain. It is commonly done in three ways.

  • By falsifying information, swearing one truth when the contrary is true.
  • By withholding information, presenting part of the truth, but not the whole.
  • By manipulating information, misleading understanding by implying one truth to draw attention away from another.

There are many motivations behind why child children lie. A few of the more common causes are listed below:

  • To get to do the forbidden
  • To escape consequences of wrongdoing.
  • To compensate for feeling inadequate by creating a false image to impress other people.
  • To pretend that make-believe is real.
  • To deny the reality of painful feelings or actual events.
  • To avoid arousing emotional upset by being honest about what someone doesn't want to hear.
  • To outsmart adults by fooling them with dishonesty.
  • To self-protect from the threat of interpersonal harm.
  • To cover up for friends' or loved ones' misdeeds.
  • To conceal a source of guilt or shame.
  • To create secrecy in order to enable addiction.

Whatever the reason, parents need to treat lying seriously. The quality of family life depends as much as anything on the quality of communication, and lying can erode that quality to devastating effect. There is no trust without truth. There is no intimacy without honesty. There is no safety without sincerity. And there is no such thing as a small lie because when parents overlook one lie they only encourage the telling of another.

So, when a child lies, what might parents helpfully do?

  • Explain the high costs of lying so the child understands the risks that go with dishonesty.
  • Declare how it feels to be lied to so the child understands how loving relationships can be emotionally affected.
  • Apply some symbolic reparation - a task the child must do that he or she would not ordinarily have to do, to work the offense off.
  • Insist on a full discussion about the lying - why it occurred, how the child could have chosen differently so that lying did not occur, what the child is going to do to prevent further lying, and what the child may need from the parents in order to make future truth telling easier to do.
  • Declare that lying in the family will always be treated as a serious offense.
  • Finally, parents need to declare that they intend to reinstate trust and the expectation of truth in order to give the child a chance to resume an honest relationship.

About the Author

Carl E. Pickhardt, PhD, is the author of numerous articles and books on parenting, including The Connected Father: Understanding Your Unique Role and Responsibilities During Your Child Adolescence; Keys To Developing Your Child's Self-Esteem; and The Future of Your Only Child: How to Guide Your Child to a Happy and Successful Life. His books are available at amazon.com.

© Carl Pickhardt, PhD, 2001-2002 Used with permission.

Page last modified or reviewed on January 24, 2014