Updated: Nov 10
Most children “bend the truth” at some point in their development. For example, many parents
have heard their very young child describe a make-believe friend or caught a child fibbing to
avoid punishment. However, when these behaviors extend into middle childhood, or occur
frequently, parents should be concerned. Frequent lying in children is likely to create hostility,
mistrust and feelings of betrayal in parents, causing potential problems in the parent/child
relationship. Parents also often fear that this behavior may be symptomatic or a more serious
Mental health professionals disagree on the cause(s) of lying in childhood. Some believe lying is unconscious, that children – especially very young children – are not fully aware that they are lying. Others believe lying is a symptom of a poor parent/child relationship. Mental health
professionals generally do agree, however, that frequent lying is a cause for serious concern and that the psychological, social and moral development of the child may be at risk.
A child’s lying can create a downward cycle in the parent/child relationship. Once in motion, the downward cycle is difficult to break without the guidance of a mental health professional. The following explanation describes this downward cycle and its effects on the parent/child
Once a child tells a lie, and depending on his/her moral development, some degree of guilt
usually is exhibited. Parents may become suspicious when they sense the child is feeling guilty.
However, if the child continues to lie, with or without detection, he/she will probably stop
feeling and acting guilty. Parental suspicion may then lead to a parent/child confrontation, the
severity of which largely depends on factors such as the level of parental suspicion, the nature of the lie and the prior parent/child relationship. The severity of sanctions for lying, and the prior parent/child relations, are probably the most important factors determining if the child denies having lied.
When parents discover that their child has lied, they often experience negative feelings such as betrayal, hostility, anger and resentment. The severity of the parental reaction is greatly
influenced by the circumstances of the discovery (Did the child admit to the lie when first
confronted, or did the child maintain the lie until confronted with irrefutable evidence?). The
severity of punishment is likewise dependent on factors such as the impact of the lie on others,
the degree of parental frustration or embarrassment and the frequency of lying.
Parents Become Overly Suspicious
Once the child has shown a capacity for serious lying, the parents may become increasingly
dubious about the child’s integrity. As a result, they may come to question nearly everything the child says or does. The child will probably resent this intense parental scrutiny and react by
displaying other provocative behaviors, thereby stimulating more conflict with the parents.
Child Senses Parental Mistrust
Sensing that his/her parents are distrustful may cause the child to feel alienated and rejected. In turn, these feelings may result in more rebellious, less inhibited, retaliatory behaviors.
Parents Feel Frustrated and Helpless
The child’s parents become consumed with frustration, feelings of helplessness and desperation. They may react increasingly more severely to every provocation, further alienating the child. Parent/child conflict escalates. The child continues to lie and is likely to develop other undesirable behaviors. Professional intervention is usually required to improve a parent/child relationship caught in such a vicious downward cycle.*
*Adapted from our book, Telling Lies in Childhood & Adolescence: Why Early Identification,