Liar liar: Is your child turning into a Pinocchio?

Find out if your child is a compulsive liar and learn what you can do to help him in time

Child hiding something from his mother

Whether we accept or deny it, lying is a part of our life. It may be harmless deviation from the facts to avoid inconvenience or big scheming lies. But we all, at some time or the other, lie or have lied. This is an irrefutable fact, and it is not restricted to any particular age. However, the seeds for this habit are usually planted in childhood. As parents, you would be doing a great deal of good to your child if you can differentiate her occasional everyday lie from compulsive lying and uproot the weeds of this destructive habit.

How is it different?

Children learn to lie as they learn any other behaviour —from what they observe and from trial and error. They understand what works best to help them stay out of trouble. Sometimes there may be a motive behind the lying and at other times it may just be a play with imagination. You have reason to be alarmed if your child begins to lie about everything and anything. She is just unable to tell the truth. This habit becomes a part of her personality and starts to interfere with her relationships at school/ college, home and in society. As a rule, lying becomes more like a reflex than a well thought over response.

Compulsive lying requires special attention as it may be an indicator of other emotional disturbances that your child may be going through. Generally, children who develop this pattern of lying may be more disturbed than others their age. There are chances that they will develop behavioural disorders or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. In the absence of timely intervention it may also extend to personality disorders like anti-social personality disorders.

Children learn to lie as they learn any other behaviour —from what they observe and from trial and error

How lying becomes a habit

Lying proves to be beneficial to the child in many instances and hence reinforces her behaviour. It brings a certain kind of comfort and the child is able to escape the immediate stress of situations, albeit momentarily, thereby becoming an escape mechanism like an addiction, and similarly, just as difficult to give up. Speaking the truth may invite some discomforting experiences, so the child feels it’s safer to lie. One lie leads to another and thereby starts a series of lies in order to cover up the previous one. If the child is not stopped in the primitive instances, she may find this a convenient option and stick to it. Lying soon extends to manipulating situations and communication. Some of the factors contributing to this are:

Fear

This is the most common cause for lying. Escaping scolding or punishment is the reason behind this. Unfortunately, this also widens the gap in communication between you and your child. Harsh/corporal punishments and ill-treatment may push your child to lying. A lot depends on how sensitive your child is; some children who are over sensitive may resort to lying, even on being mildly rebuked.

Doubt

There are times when your child may want to tell you some thing but is not sure if you will receive it well. It could be because s/he is low on confidence and is not able to voice her/his feelings or opinion. You may have to go that extra mile to show your child that you can be relied upon. Persistent lying causes loss of trust in parents as well as the child’s friends, and this could further reinforce a negative self image in your child.

Harsh/corporal punishments and ill-treatment may push your child to lying

Assumption

Children often assume and believe that parents may always react to things in a negative manner and hence give up on speaking the truth much before the situation actually happens. The child’s fixed ideas may not allow her to share her feelings openly with you.

Habit

Sometimes your child may lie out of the habit of doing so; she may not have an apparent reason to manipulate, yet she may lie. Such children may care less about consequences and even have means to overcome them by clever manipulation. They are more likely to continue lying as adults and even take up anti-social activities.

Here are some indicators that can help you identify whether your child’s lie is compulsive:

Denial

The child refuses to accept the truth when confronted , “I don’t know who did this. I didn’t do it”. He may even falsely name someone else for the mistake in order to escape the situation. In children who lie out of compulsion, denial is seen almost in all situations irrespective of whether it is necessary or not.

Hiding the facts

The child may not share any information regarding certain situations that he is expected to. For instance, he may not tell the dates of exams in the school, “the teacher did not say anything”, “we do not have any home work today”, “they didn’t give us the corrected papers”. Parents may only find it accidentally from another child’s parents or if they happen to inquire at school.

Twist the truth

Here the child may not be very clear in the answers when you ask her. She may speak parts of the story and tweak some aspects as per her convenience and comfort, “I had gone to the laundry to get the clothes but I don’t know why it closed early”. She may not always have a valid explanation but she may seem very confident about what she says.

In children who lie out of compulsion, denial is seen almost in all situations irrespective of whether it is necessary or not

Exaggerate

This may commonly happen when the child is faking some physical distress like—abdominal pain, headache, or some other non specific thing that cannot be easily seen or verified. They may even make vivid stories of small discords in the school or at home to gain attention and special treatment from friends or family members. On verification you may find some truth to the story but the child’s version is definitely exaggerated.

Watchfulness

Children, who lie as a rule, are very alert and vigilant about things and people around them. They can be very intelligent and that is what helps them to manage their way through situations that they perceive as threats. This also makes them stay rather aloof and not make very close friends. The friends they make also have similar habits and interests.

Your role to help

One thing that does not help is punishment. In fact what does help is:

Patience

One has to be able to contain the ‘knee-jerk’ reaction of scolding or punishing the child. The emotions of anger and disappointment that surge within have to be contained before acting. This may be difficult, but is the most important thing as everything that is done or needs to be done, will be nullified if patience is lost. Being patient cultivates the ground to build a trusting and secure relationship.

Know the reason

Once you find out that the child is lying, try to understand the cause behind the child’s behaviour. It immediately prevents the negative feedback that inhibits the child from speaking the truth. He may see that you are ready to understand his reasons and are not as threatening as he assumes.

Empathy

Acknowledge and accept the emotional state of your child. This makes the relationship secure and opens up communication channels. Putting across conditions to acceptance tells children that they will be loved only if they behaved in a certain manner, and pushes them to lie and pretend to be as you wish them to be.

Be a friend

Work on building a relationship that is non-judgmental. Play games that involve sharing secrets; write letters to each other to communicate things that you do not want to discuss openly. In case there are issues that require confrontation, be gentle. Speaking the truth requires courage. By being gentle, you allow courage to build over a period of time. Remember, one only shares secrets with friends—not parents.

Model the right behaviour

It’s unfair to expect our child to not do what we do. We have to act in line with what we teach. Demonstrate to the child that you speak the truth no matter what. Otherwise the child may feel that her elders are only being authoritative and eventually everyone lies.

If, after all your best efforts, your child still continues to lie habitually, seek the help of a competent counsellor.


A version of this article was first published in the November 2012 issue of  Complete Wellbeing.
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