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The Parent Practice's Elaine Halligan on "How do you deal with your child's lies?"

This blog post was written by Elaine Halligan at The Parent Practice

Recent events have really focussed my mind on the fact that everyone lies and on a given day, studies show that you may be lied to anywhere from 10 to 200 times. Lying and deception is a deeply engrained evolutionary fact and we can all recount examples of those in public life telling us something, that we didn’t quite buy into.

Who can forget Bill Clinton’s statement : “I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”

Or Dominic Cummins trip to Barnard Castle : “ We agreed to go for a short drive, to see if I could drive safely.

Boris Johnson’s original xmas partygate claim “There was no Christmas party. Covid rules have been followed at all times.” and Novak Djokovic who recently denied knowing he had the COVID when attending public events. Really?

It’s endemic in society and has been for centuries.

Lying is one of those things that greatly upsets us as parents. We assume that if our five year old is telling whopping great porkies, that we’ll be visiting them behind bars as adults. However lying is something that happens as part of normal development and actually shows that our children are mastering certain useful skills such as being able to keep one version of reality to one side while offering another view. Good multi-tasking. Children with better cognitive abilities tell the best lies.

We all do it, and therein lies the hypocrisy as despite our moral outrage, we all have at some point told a white lie in order not to offend. “Thank you for the fabulous dinner party you hosted the other night”. Meanwhile you couldn’t wait to get away.

However, what I’m interested in, is the big fat lie. Partial truths, or not giving all the information, is the same as lying. The one where trust is lost, even if it’s only one lie.

“Lying involves multiple brain processes, such as integrating sources of information and manipulating the data to their advantage. It is linked to the development of brain regions that allow ‘executive functioning’ and use higher order thinking and reasoning…At the age of two, 20% of children will lie. This rises to 50% by three and almost 90% at four. Parents of troublesome youths may not be surprised that the curve peaks at the age of 12 when almost all of them will be deceitful. The tendency starts to fall away by the age of 16, when it is 70%... There is a “Pinocchio peak” about the age of seven after which it is hard to discern whether a boy or girl is lying without evidence… Researchers say there is no link between telling fibs in childhood and any tendency to cheat in exams or to become a fraudster later in life.” Professor Kang Lee, Institute of Child Study at Toronto University

So what can parents do?

  1. MAKE IT CLEAR to children that:

- if the child tells a different version of an incident from an adult the tendency will be to believe the adult. Ask the child why they think this might be.

- you will check on anything you don’t believe.

- your child can have a chance to change his story before you check. Make sure the child knows this would be an act of bravery and you would be very proud of such honesty.

-honesty is something valued in your family. It means you can trust people.

  1. CONSIDER the possible reasons for lying

Remember it is developmentally normal and try not to get too wound up about it. Adopting a highly moralistic approach won’t discourage your child from lying, rather it will give them a reason to lie if they feel terribly disapproved of. Delivering a lecture may provide just the attention they were seeking.

  1. USE Descriptive Praise when your child is honest

When they come clean about a lie, or are honest in a situation where they might have been tempted to lie, such as admitting they’d done something wrong.

  1. RECOGNISE when there is a feeling causing the lying

The reason for any lie needs to be addressed. Reflect back to your child the reasons why they decided to lie. “You thought I would be mad about the scratches on the table, so you said that Henry had done it. You didn’t want me to be cross with you.”


But avoid labelling them as ‘liars’, as labels are never helpful and limit the possibilities for change,and handle the lie just like any other inappropriate way for the child to get what they need/want.


This will really help to decrease the ‘need’ to lie because they’ll learn that they can fix their mistakes without being burdened with blame. Approach the matter when you’re calm. You may need to allow time to achieve this! Tell them you’re taking cool down time in order to avoid rash words or behaviour. When you are calm, deal with what happened without blame, judgement or anger.

ADMIT - what happened: “The table got scratched. George you said that Henry had done it but in fact Henry was upstairs at the time. That wasn’t true. Can you tell me what your mistake was and why it was a mistake?”

AMENDS - how can you put this right? Just admitting that you were wrong, telling the truth and maybe making an apology, may be enough. In the example here, the child may also need to be involved in repairing the scratch on the table.

ALTER - how are you going to behave going forward? What have you learned? – i.e. tell the truth even if people are cross, because they will respect you for your courage.

ACCEPT - when all that is done it is time to forgive and accept oneself and move on.

I do often wonder how much embarrassment, angst and emotional energy could be saved if more adults understood the power of owning their mistake, giving up the blame and excuses, admitting the truth and most importantly make amends.

The MISTAKES process is just one of many parenting techniques delivered within my Harmony at Home | The Parent Practice, and it’s one of the most powerful tools my children have now in adult life. They know that every mistake is a learning opportunity and they have the maturity and emotional intelligence to own it and make a repair.

If you’re interested in filling up your parenting tool box, and teaching your children life skills, drop us a line at admin@theparentpractice.com

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