The Truth About Lying

Part one of a series on understanding why kids don't always tell the truth
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Photo courtesy of Fabrik Bilder/

This is part one of a two-part series on understanding why children (and adults) lie, and how to determine if your child is lying habitually as part of a developing personality disorder. Part two focuses on when habitual lying may indicate a personality disorder.


Lying is an innate talent. It is a developmental milestone, the sign of a maturing intellect, and a natural means of self-protection. People lie all the time: Sometimes to cover a crime (even if it’s just drinking your husband’s coffee), sometimes to feel better (about your weight or age) and sometimes to make someone else feel better (telling your aunt her pot roast is delicious). 

As a parent, how do you ensure your child does not misuse this very human “skill”? How do you help your child understand the difference between lies that might be considered socially appropriate, and lies that definitely are not? And if these lies are not “acceptable,” what help can you provide your child? 


The Psychology of Lying

“Lying is an example of conflict resolution at a high level,” says Henry Yin, a research neuroscientist for the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences at Duke University. “First you have to know the truth. Then you have to understand the alternatives. Then you have to make a choice and take action.” 

Yin is interested in the mechanisms of the brain’s underlying behavior, and is making breakthroughs in his lab using neurotechnology to map neurons associated with simple behaviors in rodents. He says that in psychology, purpose and intention are the most important concepts. “Unless we trust that someone is telling us the truth, then behavior is highly ambiguous,” Yin says. “The question is, how to get beyond ambiguity?” 

Lying is related to what you actually want, Yin says. This can be hard to read sometimes, especially in young children, who are not expert communicators; and in teens, who are just figuring out who they are and what they want. 

So, Yin says, in order to study lying, you have to take advantage of the fact that when you lie, there is always a conflict in the brain. Telling the truth is natural, he says.

“When I ask you how much money you make, the truth pops up in your head along with a distinct set of neurological signals,” he says. “However, you might feel like you have to lie to impress me, and you might activate a second representation in your brain. In order to be a good liar, you have to resolve these conflicting images and suppress the truth.” 

It is a skill like any other, he says, and the more you practice the better you will be. 

Professor Yin is most excited about his success in identifying brain cells associated with a specific rodent behavior — making a left turn, for example. So far, his research has been limited to physical action, but he believes he’ll find neurological connections for cognitive behavior as well. And then? Well, it’s only a matter of time before Yin will be able to pop an electrode on your child’s temple and tell you if she’s telling the truth. 


The Social Rules of Lying

Janet Schwartz, an experimental psychologist at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University, describes lying as an “important ability” with certain benefits. 

“You can use lying to motivate yourself on a tough morning, like telling yourself you look great when you know you’ve looked better,” she says. “You can use it to smooth out social situations, like breaking a dinner date by claiming a headache when really something better has come up. It allows you to get what you want without hurting feelings.” 

Lying is entrenched in our society. It is not a question of “whether” but of “how much” to lie. “Research shows that there are not just a few people who lie a lot,” Schwartz says. “The key is that everybody lies, but typically only a little bit.” 

She cites a study in which subjects were given a math test of 10 very simple problems, but not given enough time to finish them. At the end, they were told to write down the number of problems they got right, and that for every correct answer they would receive a dollar. Since study administrators supposedly did not look at the papers and shredded them after the test, the subjects had the opportunity to secretly lie about the number of problems they got right and get more money. 

“Almost everyone cheated,” Schwartz says. “Only a few claimed to get all 10 correct, but most people bumped up their scores by two. Just enough so that they got the benefits of lying without feeling bad about themselves.” 

Outside of psychological studies, Schwartz notes that the prevalence of fake news or politicians caught lying is nothing new. 

“With today’s technology, it is just harder to hide,” she says. Conversely, technology may also make lying easier — especially for teens since they communicate so much through their phones. Schwartz notes that it is certainly easier to shoot off a quick lie in a text than it is to formulate a lie while staring at someone fac to face. 


Children and Lying: When and Why They Do It

It’s one thing to become jaded to prevaricating politicians in Washington D.C., but quite another to face down your guilty 4-year-old. If lying is perfectly natural and everybody does it, how do we convince our children to tell the truth? The key is to be ready, as the best time to deal with lying is the first time it happens. 

“It’s great if you can catch them in the first moments and help them recognize the dangers of lying early,” Schwartz says. 

A precocious child might start telling lies as young as age 2, says Kristen Wynns, a Cary psychologist specializing in children and families. She says it’s just as common to start lying at age 3 or 4, and that while lying is a sign of developing cognitive flexibility, early lying is not necessarily a sign of greater intellectual ability. 

“It’s the moment they start to realize that parents can’t read their minds,” Wynns says. “It becomes an experiment: If I say this, what is going to happen?” 

At this age, Wynns says, behavior is shaped by reward and punishment. The main motivation for lying is to get an extra reward, to get out of trouble or to get attention. “I hear a lot of parents who say their child is ‘manipulative’ and will do anything to get what they want,” Wynns says. “Kids at this age are simply outcome-driven.” 

These kids may understand the practical consequences of their lies, and they will remember if they come away with an extra cookie or a timeout, but, says Nadia Charguia, a psychiatrist at UNC School of Medicine, they won’t philosophically understand the difference between right and wrong until age 7 or 8 at the earliest — sometimes not until age 9 or 10. 

As kids move through elementary to middle school, parents sometimes see an increase in lying, Wynns says. “There’s just a lot more going on academically and socially, from turning in homework, to following rules — not only in the classroom but in their social lives, and online as well.” 

Motivation for lying may also shift as kids get older. In addition to looking for a certain outcome, such as avoiding punishment, they might experience a dopamine surge at successfully duping an authority figure. “This may start to happen with teens, or even in the tween years,” Charguia says. “They start to feel good about exercising power.” 


Strategies for Dealing With Lies 

The simplest method for instilling truth-telling habits in your child is to set a good example. “It’s hard to teach children not to lie if you lie a lot,” Wynns says. 

What if your child catches you in a lie? If it is a white lie, then it is an excellent opportunity to teach your child how you feel about socially acceptable, “kind” lies. If you decide to discuss white lies, Wynns suggests emphasizing that white lies are only used for the sake of politeness in order to spare someone else’s feelings. She warns that “it can be a real challenge” to make this distinction while you’re trying to instill a moral compass in a child at the same time. 

If your child catches you in a real lie, let it be a conversation-starter. Take full responsibility for the lie and show your child that you are trying to mitigate any damage caused by it. 

Just as Yin emphasizes the centrality of motivation to the study of psychology, Wynns suggests parents figure out the motive behind their child’s lie. 

“There are some basic reasons kids lie, and correspondingly different ways to address the behavior,” she says. This is called a behavioral approach, in which parents look at the function of their child’s behavior and, once they determine the function, focus on an appropriate intervention. 

“If the child is just seeking attention, then you should ignore it or redirect the child. Help them find ways of getting attention in a pro-social way,” Wynns says. “If they are lying to get out of trouble, help them develop skills to deal with their own misbehavior. They need to know how to take responsibility for their mistakes. Finally, talk about the consequences of lying and the impact it has on relationships.”

When a child lies to hide misbehavior, Wynns recommends treating it as a separate issue with its own additional consequence. For example, if a child lies about hitting her brother, punish her once for hitting and once for lying. On the other hand, if the child is forthcoming with the truth of her misdeed, you might consider making the punishment less severe. 

While Charguia also emphasizes the importance of discovering a child’s motive for lying, she takes a slightly different approach. 

“I like to focus on positive parenting,” she says. Rather than concentrate on punishing an action, Charguia suggests rewarding positive behavior and creating an open atmosphere for identifying feelings and talking through situations to identify motivation. “There is usually a reason your child has acted,” she says. “Different lies have different meaning and consequences, so you don’t want to generalize.” 

Charguia says it’s important for parents to take a step back before reacting to a child’s lie. 

“Don’t let yourself get upset. If you shout, “Never lie to Mommy!” then you will just trigger avoidance.” 

If you do get upset, she suggests that you look carefully at your emotional response. “Ask yourself why you’re so upset. Often, parents interpret a child’s lying as proof of their own inadequacy as a parent. They feel shame, maybe for choices they’ve made, like working full-time or permitting a lot of screen time. Instead, maybe the child was just hungry. Figure out what they are trying to get with this behavior or action. Consider what needs are not being met.” 

Otherwise, she says, parents often fall into a pattern of punishing for each individual lie and never addressing the underlying problem. 

With teens, safety may be a primary concern. Again, it is vital to be open to conversation. Make it clear to your teen that safety is your top priority, and that there are times where you want her to be able to tell the truth without worrying about getting punished for her behavior. 

“When I was a teen, it was always very clear that if I was in trouble I could call and my parents would come and pick me up and take me home, and there would be no consequences,” Schwartz says. 

Often, if you bring up lying with teens, they will ask: “Don’t you trust me?” “It’s a delicate balance, but it has nothing to do with trust,” Charguia says. “You can trust your child and still have concerns about their well-being. Make it a positive rather than a negative. Shift the weight of your message. Elicit conversation and understanding.” 

Another example of putting safety ahead of lying is when you suspect a teen might be hurting himself and lying to cover it up. “What do you care about the lie in this case?” Charguia says. “You care about the safety of the child. Let the child know that you’re available, that you’ll listen without accusing. Hopefully, this will lead to an ability to share.” 


When to Seek Professional Help

While lying is very common among children and teens, you might want to seek professional help if your child suddenly starts lying more frequently, or if her lies cause distress amongst her friends — in the classroom at school, or within the family. “Once you’ve tried to address the problem at home and you feel you’re not getting anywhere, then get outside help,” Wynns says. A therapist will work with the child alone and will also help parents develop a strategy for dealing with the behavior at home. 

Charguia notes that a red flag should pop up if you notice your child struggling with distinguishing lies from reality (though no need to worry about a young child with a healthy imagination), or if a child’s lying opens himself or herself up to other problems like anxiety and depression. 

“Certainly, if they seem cloudy on what constitutes the truth, you should seek help,” she says. 

Charguia points out that pathological lying is “definitely a separate issue” from the typical lying children do. 

“Compulsive or habitual lying is when a child lies all the time and the lies are very extreme,” she explains, noting that extreme lying can be symptomatic of a more serious personality disorder. “Lying is a defense mechanism,” she says. “If a child doesn’t have the defenses to cope with a situation, their defenses run higher and you may see an increase in lying.” 

She adds that pathological lying is not considered a unique disorder, but has been associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and personality disorders such as antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and other disorders characterized by a lack of empathy and a disregard for other people’s feelings. 

The significance of disregarding other people’s feelings is key as you figure out how to parent around the issue of lying, Schwartz says. 

“You have to set up your own rules for what is okay, and then you have to help your child navigate the social world in a way that helps them and doesn’t hurt other people,” she says. 

In part two of this series, which will appear in our June issue, we’ll delve deeper into pathological lying and explore how it may be connected to a developing personality disorder in children and teens, and what parents should do if it is. Read part two.


Caitlin Wheeler is a Parenting Media Association award-winning freelance writer who lives in Durham.


Categories: Family, Mental Health