A parent submitted a question about a child who lies, and I will answer it here in case any other parents have a similar one.

Q: My eight-year-old continues to lie. For example, if I ask if she has eaten breakfast, she says “yes” when she really hasn’t. When I ask if her homework is done, she says, “yes” – but it isn’t. This is going on and on, and has been since she was four. I have talked to her about trust, disciplined her by taking away dessert/ TV/ video games/ or her favourite things. Why does a child do this and what is the best course to follow to correct this behaviour?

Lying is often seen as a separate behavioural situation that needs to be fixed. I look at it more as a symptom of a larger, underlying problem, and this is where parents should begin when trying to put an end to lying.

But what that underlying problem is will take a bit of detective work. The issue could be as small as the child being distracted, not hearing what the parent is asking, and using avoidance tactics to try and get out of a mistake.

Is telling the truth worse than lying?

The first question to ask yourself is: “Does my child feel safe enough to tell the truth?” If punishments have been used when a child comes clean, that child might feel too scared to admit a mistake. Then your goal is to not make lying a better alternative than getting punished for admitting wrong-doing.

How is your connection?

The next questions for parents to ask are about your connection and your child’s attachment:

  • How is my relationship with my child?
  • Am I telling my child what to do too much?
  • Is my child’s attachment tank full or empty?
  • Does my child feel connected to me?

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, a Developmental Psychologist who also writes at www.rootsofaction.com, offered some great insights when I spoke with her about the topic of lying with teens, but I believe her words apply to younger children as well. She said, “Teens do not lie to people with who they have positive ‘relational experiences.’ These are relationships where they feel seen, feel felt and feel understood. These kinds of relationships actually change the way our brains are wired to care for and respect others. When teens don’t have this kind of relationship with parents, they feel disconnected. It’s easy to lie when you feel disconnected because you have nothing to lose.”

Examine the relationship with your child: does your child feel seen, felt and understood by you, as Price-Mitchell mentioned? If you believe that answer could be “no,” think about how you can build a relationship with your child to really demonstrate that she matters. Turn your love into action.

Finally, examine how you are handling the situation. Is there open communication?

Moderate your response.

If your child lies a lot, I imagine that you must be frustrated with your child’s responses. Taking things away to change the behaviour won’t stop the lying, and may actually make it worse. Children can shut down, go into defensive mode, or get very angry with parents when things they love get taken away. Please do not feel that your child is trying to hurt you. I bet she just isn’t sure what to do when you ask if she has done something when she knows she has not, and will likely disappoint you.

Don’t set your child up to lie.

Here is a suggestion for what to do when you believe your child has done or not done something properly. For the common question, “Did you do your homework?” parents can address this with the following steps:

1) Do not set the child up to lie. Don’t ask a question — make a statement about what you see:

“I see your homework pages are still blank.”

2) Identify what the child likely wanted to accomplish:

“I bet you wanted to finish that work.”

3) Use friendly and firm limits:

“I know you probably wanted to finish your homework, but I see that the pages are still blank. How can I help you to get that done? Do you have a question?” You could also use a WHEN/THEN technique like this, “When you are finished your homework, then I’ll be ready to read a book with you.”

Also, I continually post free parenting resources on my Facebook page.