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Effective Strategies for Redirecting a Child With Lying Behavior

by Becky Swain

If you are a parent who finds it difficult not to erupt when you hear your child tell a lie, take comfort. The reason for lying behavior varies according to a child’s developmental level, and infrequent tall tales are usually not a cause for acute concern. You can implement effective strategies for redirecting lying behavior when you explore your child’s motivation for lying. Discovering the purpose for lying is the key for redirecting your child’s behavior.

Motivation for Lying Behavior

Before talking with your child about lying, consider reasons that might motivate lying behavior. For example, the fictional characters that only exist within the pages of books are sometimes real to a preschooler, and pretend play is an everyday activity. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the concept of lying remains difficult to understand in the preschool world, where reality and make-believe are often indistinguishable. Preschool children are people pleasers and typically tell parents what they want to hear. Between 7 and 9 years of age, most children understand the importance of telling the truth, but will lie to avoid punishment, seek attention or escape a task. Older children lie to avoid punishment, please others and seek independence from parental monitoring.

Redirecting Your Preschool Child

Some of your preschooler’s lies are simple attempts to please you. For example, if you ask your preschooler whether she drank the milk presented with her snack, she might respond that the milk cup is empty, because the lie is the desired response. Be patient with your preschool child, who might need time, practice and real-life examples that illustrate the distinction between truth and lying. Preschool children require loving reminders that telling the truth is always OK, and that while telling a lie will not anger you, it is never OK. Praise your child's honesty with loving enthusiasm.

Redirecting Your School-Age Child

When your school-age child lies, your response can minimize or reinforce future lying behavior. School children often use lying behavior as a shield against their parents’ admonishment. According to pediatrician and author Dr. William Sears at Askdrsears.com, children who fear a punishment that is disproportionate to the offense, and children who receive corporal punishment for inappropriate behavior, might adopt lying as a strategy to temporarily avoid the dreaded outcome. You can encourage your child to tell the truth by reassuring her that honesty will not be met with anger, remaining unruffled when she is honest and helping your child to amend the inappropriate behavior.

Teach and Model Honesty

Your words and actions add up. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that children pay attention when a parent’s behavior underscores their instruction, and when the behavior does not. Parents who teach the importance of honesty, and model honesty in their daily behavior send a persuasive message to their children that honesty matters. Children might appear confused when parents insist on honesty from their children, but demonstrate less-than-honest behavior in interactions with others.

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