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Liar Liar

Written by: Hadas Schroeder Rahamim, Clinical Director at the Merchav L'Noar Clinic

There are few things parents find more infuriating than catching their child in a lie. They may react by severely and disproportionately punishing their child while they themselves are filled with feelings of anger and self doubt. Children lying can be perceived as disrespectful towards their parents (how dare she lie to me after everything I do for her! Does he think I'm stupid?). It can raise a parent's doubts about their parenting skills (am I any good at this job of instilling values if she can stand there and lie to my face? Is he so afraid of me he needs to lie?), or can raise the parent's concern as to their child's developing personality (am I raising a pathological liar?). In extreme cases parents may wonder if their child can even tell the difference between reality and fantasy (I'm not sure she even knows what the truth is / could he be psychotic?)

Ironically, lying is actually an important healthy cognitive development milestone in children's lives. A central ability called Theory of Mind is a child's understanding that what goes on inside other people is different, that others don't necessarily know everything they know, or feel how they feel, but rather that others have their own separate internal world. There was a famous experiment in the 80's called the Sally-Anne test, or the cookie jar test. Kids were shown a clip of someone putting a cookie into a jar (or a marble into a basket in other settings) and then leaving the room. Then they saw that while that person was absent, someone else moved the cookie secretly into a different container. In the next scene the absent person comes back into the room, then the clip is paused, and the kids are asked “where will the person look for their cookie?”. Young kids tend to say that the person will look in the second correct container, because they lack the Theory of Mind development, and assume that the character must know, as they themselves know, about the changed cookie location. Older kids who have normative development are aware that the person does not know what they do, and will say the person will mistakenly look in the cookie jar. 

Lying indicates an understanding that others don’t know everything I know. This awareness is the base for healthy communication and relationship building. Lying also is not a clear cut, black or white, good or bad behavior. We use it in mild variations in adaptable ways of coping with others, being kind, forming intimacy by choosing who to share with and who to keep an emotional distance from and so on.  

In a sense, if we are more concerned about a child who never ever lies. 

Of course every social skill can be used in adaptive, helpful ways, or harmful ways. Telling the truth is an important part of building trust and connections. When people feel they cannot believe what they are being told, they distance themselves from that person, to preserve their sense of safety and reality. We do expect healthy individuals to primarily tell the truth and only use their ability to lie on rare occasions. 

In middle Childhood, if we see kids who are often lying, we may be concerned that they are misusing and over-relying on one skill in a way that ends up ruining their relationships. If we catch a child at this stage lying we first remember it is not an indicator of something “bad”.

We want to ask ourselves what is this lie meant to serve? Does he need help in  building conflict resolution skills that are more adaptive?  Are they feeling anxious about the outcome and trying to protect themselves? Is she worried about losing our love and grasping for a quick avoidance strategy?  How can I increase this child's sense of safety so she doesn’t need to use lying?     

In adolescence we see teens renegotiating their need for separateness, and they may use lying as a means to re-create and test their “borders”. Keeping some forms of information to themselves can strengthen their sense of self. They may also want to test their abilities in the world on their own, which is one of the central developmental tasks of this stage, and lying is meant to preserve their freedom of action without the parents' involvement.  When a teen lies we may want to ask ourselves are they seeking privacy, and we are crossing a boundary they need to set up for themselves?

However, It is also important to be aware that kids can be intimidated into keeping harmful secrets by others, and they may be afraid to tell the truth for fear of retaliation. In such cases we will most certainly want to support the kids, and help them return to a sense of safety.


So, what should we do? At every age we will want to first notice what we ourselves are feeling- is my child’s separateness and individuality making me sad? Am I angry that they can choose what to share and choose to keep a distance? Am I anxious about my child’s social skills development?     

We can validate the child's feelings that brought them to lie, while still stressing the importance of telling the truth- I understand you were afraid that if you told the truth I would get angry/sad, and that made you afraid/anxious/avoidant.  I have felt that way at different times in my life too. But even when you might not like the immediate outcome it’s almost always a better choice to tell the truth. How can I help you feel better about telling me the truth?

When the child does tell us the truth, even if we don’t like it, we would want to encourage that behavior and to react in a way that acknowledges the courage it took.

If you do however feel your child is relying on lying too much, it may be a good idea to ask for professional help.

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