What Should You Do When You Suspect Your Child is Lying?

Child telling Mom lies
Cultura RM?Innecenti / Collection Mix: Subjects / Getty Images

Everyone lies sometimes. From little ones who tell elaborate fantasies—and insist that they’re true—to teenagers who lie to avoid getting into trouble to adults who tell white lies to save face or get out of social obligations, lying is human nature. In fact, some experts saying that the ability to lie is a development milestone that can occur as early as 2 or 3 years old.

It doesn’t feel like that, though, when you first suspect that your child is lying to you.

It feels like a betrayal and a slap in the face. The key is to make your little one understand that lying, especially to your parents, is not appropriate and it can have negative consequences. However, the way you go about confirming that your child has lied and how you dole out those consequences can make a big difference in your parent-child relationship.

The Benefit of the Doubt

When you just suspect a lie but cannot confirm it, give your child the benefit of the doubt. If you automatically assume the child is lying when she’s not, this, too, can damage your relationship. She might lose faith that you believe her, and then feel like it doesn’t matter whether or not she lies. Accusing her erroneously can have long-lasting repercussions.

Confirm the Lie

Avoid being too accusatory when trying to get to the truth. If your child refuses to fess up, don’t continue to press—it’s unlikely he’ll come clean if he’s worried he’s digger a deeper hole.

What you can do, however, is take a deep breath and tell your child that you want to understand what happened, but some things he’s saying don’t make sense. Ask him to think about it a little bit more and say you’ll talk again later. He might reconsider the lie.

However, if you’re 100 percent sure that your child is lying, don’t try to set them up for a lie.

Simply tell the child that you know what happened and you’re disappointed that they didn’t choose to tell the truth. Then, move on. If your child sees that you’re more disappointed about the lie than the act that caused the lie, he might choose to tell the truth next time. Don’t harp on the lie.

Determine the Consequences

Try to get to the bottom of why your child lied to you. Was it a purposeful attempt to mislead you? Was he afraid that you would be angry? Did he want to avoid hurting someone’s feelings? A child might make up a white lie—particularly if he’s seen you do it on occasion—and not fully realize that you would be angry with that.

Research shows harsh discipline turns kids into good liars, so it’s important to avoid consequences that are too severe. Corporal punishment, for example, causes kids to work harder to cover up their misbehavior, and increases the chances a child will lie. Consider more effective consequences, like taking away a privilege for 24 hours.

Reward Honesty

One of the top ways to ensure your child tells the truth in the future is to praise her when she fesses up.

Tell her that you’re so happy that she trusted you enough to tell the truth. Of course, this doesn’t mean that an action that could have led to a lie doesn’t have ramifications—your child should still be responsible for apologies, clean-up and any other responsibility she needs to take for her actions.

In the end, the goal is to foster a relationship of trust between parent and child. Keep in mind that this goes both ways, so you shouldn’t feel free to lie to your child, nor to other family members. With honesty from both sides, a lie-free relationship can flourish.

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