Everyone has tried it. Especially as a child. Either it was when we were caught red-handed eating the chocolates that we were asked not to eat, or it was when we had broken something that we knew that we weren’t supposed to touch. Suddenly, with no escape and trouble imminent we tried the same strategy that people have been trying since all throughout history – we lied.

But even though we’ve all done it, every parent seems to experience a strong surge of frustration and even anger when their child lies to them. That’s generally because lying is one of the most destructive forces in any relationship. Lies erode trust and without trust a relationship is not particularly strong.

Lying is one of the most destructive forces in any relationship.

Generally by adulthood we’ve probably seen the result of dishonesty first-hand in our lives, and as parents, we become quite determined to spare our children the experience of this pain. A life of broken relationships is not a very fulfilling life. It is no surprise then, that when it comes to behaviour that parents least want their children to exhibit, lying is often at the top of the list.

However, the first question that we should always ask when our child lies to us is this: have I made it difficult for my child to tell me the truth? There are a number of ways that this can happen. It could be that our emotions tend to get a little out of control when our child makes a mistake, it could be that we don’t sufficiently hear them out, or it could be that our discipline is excessive. As a result it is always helpful to start here first. Ask yourself this question before you start reading the riot act to your little one.

The second thing is to remember what it was like to be the one telling the lie. Remember the guilt and the shame and the regret about having let your mum and dad down. Children often do not need to be reminded how much they have disappointed us on these occasions. Generally, they know.

Once we’ve moved through those things for ourselves the next step is to focus on how to help your child to learn not to lie.

  • The first thing I recommend families do when they are confronted with their child’s lie is to offer them an out. Start by flagging with them that you are not sure whether what they have told you is the full story and then offer them a moment to be alone and consider if there is anything that they have neglected to tell you. This gives your child a chance to tell the truth.
  • Your discipline for your child should then be commensurate to whether or not they have come clean. If your child is blatantly lying and refuses to admit the truth your discipline should be pretty firm. If possible the consequence you use should be linked to what the lie was trying to achieve. For instance if they lied about taking their sister’s toy then the discipline should probably involve returning the toy, apologising and relinquishing control of play (which was likely the goal with snatching her toy) to her sister. This might mean allowing her little sister to pick a special toy of hers that she can borrow for the week.
  • I would also strongly discourage revealing how you know that your child is lying – don’t give your secrets away! Besides, how you know doesn’t matter. What does is matter is whether or not your child has told the truth. Do not argue, just bring the conversation succinctly back to this fact.
  • If your child comes clean congratulate them on their honesty. Reflect on how much better it feels to tell the truth, and provide a consequence that only matches the initial transgression (in this case snatching the toy). You should also be clear that because she came clean she avoided a much bigger consequence because lying always brings about the biggest consequences.
  • In some cases, your child may stick to their guns and you may have no way of knowing that they told you the truth or not. In this case, don’t stress. The truth will always come out. Let your child know that you trust them and then leave it. You may find that in a few minutes their own guilt brings about a confession that no amount of arguing was going to bring about. But even in cases where the child holds the secret for days, weeks, even months, do not stress. The truth will come. And when the truth does come the consequence for the lie should be commensurate with how long and to what lengths they went to to keep you in the dark. This is a principle for real life that is important for children to learn in the security of their own home.

Lying is an almost universal part of childhood. Helping them learn how to curb it is essential part of growing up. Something that we all had to learn.