The child lies: what truth is hidden behind the child’s lie?

May 06, 2019

Children like fantasizing. They make their stories in bright colors, and tend to make up unrealistic tales. Definitely lying can be a sort of joy and entertainment for a child, however, it may indicate deep psychological problems. It is a signal which should not be ignored by parents.

If you do not cultivate honesty in your child, he/she will be communicating with people according to the idea “it’s easier to lie” in adulthood. Absence of friends, unhealthy relations with a spouse, failed career – these are the results of the bad habit of building communication and relationships on a lie. So, why is the child lying? What should you pay attention to, in order not to bring up an inveterate liar?   


Types of a child’s lie

  1. The lie is a deliberate statement which doesn’t correspond with the truth. It is a release of disinformation with an intention of getting some benefits. [1]

    «My son is 7 years old. He has always loved to “make up” different stories. And, although earlier his stories were more like fantasies, now they can be called serious lies. My child has started to lie frequently, any time he has an opportunity. I have begun to consider his behavior seriously after a recent incident. I woke him up to get ready for school and a few minutes later my son started crying and begging me not to go to school. I was frightened at first – what had happened? He told me that a teacher slapped his hands when he didn’t “manage” to write in a copybook well. That day he stayed at home and later he took some sick leave. I was going to go to school  to discuss the inappropriate teacher’s attitude. While we were at home together, I started discussing this situation again, and he confessed to lying. I was upset, didn’t know how react and what to do. His lie could have had serious consequences»

    — Anastasia, mother of 7-years old Sasha

    Psychologists and educators strictly divide the concepts of a “child’s lie” and a “child’s fantasy”. It is considered that stories made up by children under eight years old are related their healthy psychological development. But, by eight, a child can clearly understand that it is wrong to tell a lie.   

    There are quite a few classifications of a lie – including as a way of achieving the desirable and an attempt to cause damage to those around. However, any lie can be classified as passive or active. [2]

Passive lie

If a child refuses to divulge something he knows really well – it is a passive lie. That is the way he protects himself or his best friend, for example. It may seem to a child, that he doesn’t really lie, because he doesn’t make up any stories.  

Hiding the truth can be absolute or partial. In both cases – it is a lie, too.

Active lie

This is when the truth is deformed beyond recognition, and the story is presented to a dialog partner as fact and is therefore an active lie. A child can make up the craziest stories and skillfully juggle with facts, if it allows him to reach some specific goal.

There are two options. In the first the child can “forget” to tell some specific parts of the story, which would save him from parents’ disapproval. The second is when the child wants to put a positive spin on himself in front of his friends, thus adding some unrealistic facts to a real event.

Why is the child lying

Before you blame the child for dishonesty, it’s better to analyze the reasons behind this behavior. The lie often indicates not moral, but psychological issues.   

So, why is the child lying?

  1. Fear of punishment.
  2. A way of building self-confidence.
  3. A reaction to parental prohibition.
  4. A way of setting personal boundaries or expressing an objection.
  5. To attract someone’s attention.

Depending on the age, these reasons can be expressed differently.

Age peculiarities of a child’s lie

The lie is an extremely difficult intellectual process. In order to lie “correctly”, you need to evaluate all the risks, make up a true-to-life story and keep calm. People are not born with an ability to lie. This skill is developed through the years and can become a habit. 

Psychologists have carried out interesting research among children of different age groups. They were asked only one question: is it good or bad to tell lies? 92 % of five-year olds answered that telling lies – is always bad. The results among 10-12 years old children were different – only 28 % of them said that a lie is an example of serious misbehavior. [1]    

Let’s have a more precise look at the psychological peculiarities of a lie in each age group.

Children under 3

Psychologists believe that children under 3 years old just can’t tell lies. First of all, they don’t understand what a lie is, yet, and how it “works”. Secondly, small children have nothing to hide, as their connection with parents is still strong. At this age they fantasize a lot and they substitute the fantasy for  reality. Moreover, very young children don’t understand, what is the truth, and what is their fantasy. [3] 

3-4 year-olds  

According to a psychologist P. Akman, at the age of 3-4 years a child can lie deliberately. [1] it is one of the first childhood explorations. It turns out that you can not only tell the truth, but also hide it. The first lie is not a real lie. The child doesn’t want to gain any benefits. He just tells what he would like to see in reality.  

5-6 year-olds

For children at 5-6 years, lying is a pure social experiment. They “try” boundaries of what’s allowed in their family and sometimes test their parents to the limit. The child tries to understand, what a lie is and whether it really is as bad as Mom and Dad say. It is at 5-6 years that children often lie to their parents to get away with their misbehavior.  

7-8 year-olds

At 8 years, a child lies rather consciously, because he clearly understands the difference between a lie and a fantasy.

Children, who have just started school, often lie to bolster self-esteem in their new society and to gain respect among their peers. Also, a child lies when he/she realizes that there is no other way to get what he/she desires from  parents. 

9-11 year-olds

The child at the age of 9-11 lies mainly to raise the profile among peers and to find excuses in front of adults. Most commonly, it is “harmless” bragging to classmates and suppression of some situations or actions to parents.  

However, when the lie becomes almost the only way of communication with the outside world it becomes a cry for help, much more expressive than any words. Often children lie to their parents to attract attention. Constant lies, which cover the serious misbehaviors of a child, is a pause for thought – is  everything all right in the family? It often happens with children whose parents are at the edge of a divorce. Tense relationships in a family may initially take their toll on its youngest members – the child often lies, misbehaves, doesn’t study well or even steals.   

What should you do, if a child of ten or older constantly lies? It’s is important for parents to “have a finger on the pulse”. In some cases, the child’s lies can make life more difficult for them, as well as for the child, because they have a more serious nature at their core.

If prohibitions and explanations don’t help any more, a child can be offered the 7Spsy behavior modification course. By changing the behavioral pattern, a child can realize how useful and pleasant it is to tell the truth.  

Children above 12

By 12 years old, a child doesn’t consider a lie as a pure evil. Becoming more flexible, he clearly realizes, that in some situations, deception can be very useful – it helps to escape serious problems or to attract people’s attention. Early puberty is often accompanied by the child’s propensity to constantly lie. Reasons for lying are often connected with parents’ strictness, their overprotectiveness and multiple prohibitions. The lie is the way for a child to widen the borders set by adults.

How to wean a child from lying?

The main problem is when the habit to lie, gained in early childhood and puberty, just becomes stronger through the years. That is why it’s so important to pay attention to it as early as possible.

Having figured out the reasons for such behavior, you need to have a heart-to-heart talk with your child.  

Installing honesty within a family is based on trusting relations and with mutual respect at its core. It can’t exist without personal example because children of any age will copy adults’ behavior. It is no surprise, that a child will lie if his parents do it at the drop of a hat and don’t keep their promises.  

American psychologist E. Fromm in his book advises parents, who have  caught a child in a lie, to say the following: “Tell me how it happened. Just don’t hide anything from me, because I’m not going to punish you, even if you are guilty of something. I’ll try to explain, why you did a bad thing.” [5] 

In order to solve this problem, you may need to change your attitude to parenting as well. According to psychologists, the child won’t lie, if:

  • he will not be afraid of parents’ anger which follows his faults;
  • he knows, that even if he is punished, the punishment will be justified;
  • he knows that parents won’t set insulting interrogations;
  • he is sure, that parents won’t pin bitter “labels” on him (“you are a big fat liar”, “you lie all the time”, “you’re one-of-a-kind liar”…);
  • he is sure, that, no matter what the situation is, his parents will help, either with actions or advice;

he clearly understands that the lie or even the minor under-reporting can have huge and serious consequences. [4]

What should you do if your child is constantly lying?

«My son is 10. He is sociable and into sports. He has many friends. The last year was very difficult for all our family, because he started telling lies at every given opportunity. It all started with pages in his report card glued together, and notebook pages torn away, to hide bad marks. Teachers started complaining over his awful behavior at school. To hide some misbehavior, my son will tell convincing versions of what happened with a totally calm face. Then he confesses and he is sorry, but it all happens again in a few days. The final straw was when a small sum of money disappeared from the house, and soon after he brought a new toy. He answered my questions, saying he had exchanged with a friend. I believed him, but then the truth came out – my son had taken the money. We had a serious conversation, with mutual crying and promises that it won’t happen again. But nothing has changed. I don’t understand what he’s thinking about, why he’s constantly lying and how he could have stolen from us in the first place. The limit of my forgiveness has already reached the ceiling. I don’t know how to wean my child from lying, to my mind it is unacceptable at 10 years old. I can’t accept what he’s doing – horrible behavior, neglected studying and stealing. What will come next? »

— Elena, mother of 10-years old Vlad

When a child is constantly lying, and the lie becomes associated with his/her personal communication style, it’s time to take serious measures. In some cases the necessity to wean a child from lying is a task beyond parents’ strength. If you can’t explain to a child why it is important for people to be honest, a psychologist will help you. To tell the truth and be sincere – these are healthy habits, which can be built in the process of changing the behavior model. This is what the 7Spsy behavior modification technique is oriented towards.   

This is the patented method of behavior psychology, based on the theories of famous psychologists I.P.Pavlov, B.F.Skinner, A.A.Ukhtomsky and others. The program, depending on the depth of the problem, is intended to last from 2 to 6 weeks. The child will work individually with the materials of the course and will be able to change the pathological lying behavior model which causes troubles in communication with peers and leads to arguments with parents and problems with academic performance. The course can help the child change a negative mind set to a positive one. This will become a solid basis of trustworthy, open relationships within family and with society.   

The course can be conducted at any time that is comfortable for the child, without the need to leave the house. The work with the psychologist is done remotely, on a totally non-disclosure basis. The child and his parents get the multifaceted assistance of specialists – via cell phone, e-mail, and during on-line chats.

Information from this website cannot be used for self-therapy and self-diagnostics. 

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