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All kids lie: How to handle it, and when you should worry

(Fabio Consoli for The Washington Post)

When my daughter’s teacher asked to speak with me this past school year, I didn’t bat an eye. I figured she wanted to discuss some aspect of my 10-year-old’s distance learning. Instead, I was surprised to learn that my daughter had missed several quizzes. When I confronted her, she blithely claimed that her teacher must have been mistaken.

Over the next several days, I caught my daughter in more lies, from the inconsequential (“I didn’t take the last cookie”) to the serious (“I kept my mask on the entire time I was out with friends”). Like all kids, my daughter has never been above telling a lie or two, but this latest output seemed particularly egregious.

Jacqueline Shaulis, a writer and motivational speaker in New York, noticed a similar uptick in dishonesty in her 12-year-old. She caught her son watching Minecraft videos when he claimed he was reading an online textbook. “His school is pretty open and lenient,” she told me, laughing, “but Minecraft has nothing to do with the Ming Dynasty.”

We’re not alone. These days, it may seem as if kids are telling more lies. But experts say this isn’t necessarily a cause for concern.

Good kids sometimes lie to their parents. Shame and harsh punishments will only push them away.

Although the pandemic may have influenced the types of lies kids are telling, it didn’t increase their frequency, says Amie Bettencourt, a child psychologist at Johns Hopkins. “It’s developmentally normal to see this kind of stepwise increase in lying [among tweens and teens], and virtual learning just provides this new environment for it,” she says. Kids become disengaged, fall behind on assignments and lie to cover it up. Soon, the situation snowballs.

Parental anxiety may also play a role. “Parents are stressed right now, and there’s so much more conflict that kids are trying to fly under the radar by glossing over things,” says Carolyn Ievers-Landis, a clinical psychologist at University Hospitals in Ohio. Like everyone, they’re trying to cope and survive, or avoid disappointing or worrying people.

How lying develops

Although dishonesty is understandably worrisome, scientists emphasize that lying is a necessary part of normal development. By preschool, most kids learn to lie as the parts of their brain that govern executive function, empathy and the ability to regard others as separate from themselves come online.

In research on 7- to 12-year-olds, Kang Lee, a developmental psychologist at the University of Toronto, found that lying disturbs the connections between different regions of the brain. He compares the cognitive demands of lying to the electrical system of a house: “If you turn on the lights in the entire house and put a load of laundry in, then one of the areas will start to break down.” As kids age, however, and their brains become better at handling cognitive tasks, this disruption decreases. An exception: “Kids who have poor executive function [such as those with ADHD] find it particularly difficult to tell good lies, because the lie itself disrupts the whole process in the brain,” Lee says.

Two factors in early adolescence make it an especially fertile time for dishonesty, says Tori Cordiano, a clinical psychologist and director of research at Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls in Ohio. First, “it’s a developmentally messy period. A lot of brain growth is happening,” which affects kids’ impulsivity and inhibition. At the same time, the natural desire for more independence among this age group “can also lead to situations where kids are not telling the truth,” Cordiano says.

The good news? “Lying reaches its peak at around 10 or 11 years of age,” Lee says. As kids mature, Lee suspects that they’re increasingly aware of the morality of lying, even as they become more adept at it. “After 12 or 13 years of age, teenagers are more honest about their transgressions,” he says. But for early adolescents, how much lying is typical, and when does it cross over into worrisome territory?

When to worry

Barring developmental issues, such as autism, all kids lie, Lee says. Reasons vary from avoiding punishment (“I didn’t break the vase”) to sparing someone’s feelings (“I love the sweater, Aunt May”). Kids also lie when they feel as if their privacy or autonomy is being infringed upon or when the rules at home are overly restrictive. For example, they may say they went to bed at 10 p.m., when, in reality, it was midnight. And sometimes, kids simply blurt out a lie before their conscious mind can react. (“Yes, I finished my homework!”)

Although there are no hard-and-fast rules, Cordiano describes three patterns that could indicate a more serious problem with lying:

●When lying is frequent and happens in various scenarios, such as about whether they completed their schoolwork or where they’re going.

●When kids find themselves in risky or dangerous situations because of their lying. “If they say they’re going to one place but are actually going to another,” Cordiano says, “or they’re engaging in a pattern of unsafe behavior, then it tends to be more concerning.”

●When lying damages the relationship between parent and child, making it hard to enjoy each other’s company or have conversations beyond: “Are you telling the truth?” “If parents notice that deterioration, that breakdown of communication, then it can be really helpful to bring in some outside support,” Cordiano says.

What parents can do

Avoid cornering kids. Even parents who strive to be calm, intentional and warm may find it difficult to stay in that mind-set when their child is lying to their face. “It incites in many parents an understandable reflex to corner their kids into admitting they were lying,” Cordiano says, but these power struggles are often counterproductive. Instead, “be really clear about expectations” and emphasize the natural consequences of dishonesty.

So a parent might say: “We need to be on the same page about where you’re going. I want you to have freedoms, but I have to know that I can trust you.”

Bettencourt gives this example: “Let’s figure out why it’s uncomfortable for you to talk about what happened and see if there’s something I can do to put you at ease.”

Our 5-year-old is lying. How can we steer him away from this habit?

Get to the root of the problem. In kids, lying is often a symptom of an underlying problem, such as feeling overwhelmed, stressed or anxious. Rather than berating them, Ievers-Landis suggests helping them find ways to cope. A kid who’s lying about attending remote class, for example, may be bored or finding it difficult to focus. Think about how to “set up a system to support kids positively,” Ievers-Landis says. Perhaps they can play with a fidget spinner or take a three-minute break to get the wiggles out.

Don’t use the l-word. Ievers-Landis also discourages parents from characterizing dishonesty as “lying,” because the label is potentially damaging. When kids hear themselves described as “liars” by their parents or teachers, it becomes part of their self-talk and inner dialogue. Instead, try couching it as: “It’s important to tell the truth. It’s important for people to be able to believe that what you say is true.”

Reward truth-telling. Building trust happens over time, which offers plenty of opportunities to encourage kids to be truthful. “Catch your kids being honest,” Cordiano says, even if it’s as simple as noticing when they’ve completed their homework and acknowledging that out loud.

“Flip the script, so that as much as possible, we’re giving more attention to the behaviors that we want to see more of,” Bettencourt adds. Sometimes, this can be supplemented with a reward system, such as earning YouTube time if children clean their rooms.

Build and maintain connection

Early adolescence and conflicts over dishonesty can be fraught. Investing in your relationship can help, Bettencourt says. “We encourage parents to spend one-on-one time, like 10 to 15 minutes a day, in an activity the child chooses,” she says. Stow away the cellphones and set aside any conflicts. Even if your child just wants to show you something on YouTube for 15 minutes, that time is theirs. “It’s a way to show them that their interests are important and that you’re not just having conversations when there’s a problem.”

As kids mature, the strength of that connection is even more critical. “If that trust and openness is there, they’re still going to tell their parents — most of the time — what’s going on in their lives,” Bettencourt says, “even after they’ve developmentally pulled away.”

Connie Chang writes about the second-generation immigrant experience, including the challenges of raising children at the intersection of multiple cultures and traditions. Find her on Twitter @changcon.

More from On Parenting:

Will a little girl’s lies become a lifelong bad habit?

A child with ADHD and a habit of lying doesn’t need punishment. She needs compassion.

Eight ways parents can teach teens to be honest

What I’ve learned: When teens lie