Strategies for when children lie:
Rebuild the trust.
A child knocks over their sibling’s block tower but insists it wasn’t them. Instead of focusing on the behaviour and turning it into a power struggle, Dr Kennedy advises to set the stage for future truth telling.
“Instead of ‘I know you did it’, say, ‘Oh you didn’t knock it down, well, if someone did and I know it isn’t you, I guess something happened to make that child push their sibling’s tower down, I wonder what that child must have been feeling.
“If you find out who that child is, could you tell them that I won’t be upset, there won’t be a punishment, I just want to know what’s going on so that we can avoid that happening again.”
Listen to the complex feelings underneath the behaviour.
Dr Kennedy explains that children will tell the truth to their parents when they believe their parents are more interested in their internal experience than the external behaviour.
She gives the example of an older child hitting their younger sibling and lying about it.
“If a child gets punished and sent away, he learns his parents don’t care about what’s going on inside of him, they only care about what is on the outside, they don’t see him as a good child,” she says.
“Versus, the parent saying, ‘I will not let you hit, you must be upset about something, let’s figure it out’.
“That child is going to be less likely to lie as they’ve learnt that their parents see them as a good child, and they are willing to hear about the more complex feelings under the behaviour.”
Regulate their disappointment.
When a child struggles with understanding they can’t have something they want, it usually stems from disappointment. For example, when Mum says, “there is no iPad this afternoon” but they tell Dad that Mum said they could watch iPad, Dr Kennedy explains that it’s more about a child’s inability to regulate their disappointment, rather than tricking their parents.
“The lying happens to avoid the distress of wanting and not having,” she says.
“Instead of getting upset that they are trying to fool you, rather discuss with them that you understand they must find it hard to hear no, and that they must have been very disappointed.”
Connection seeking, not attention seeking.
A child who might lie in order to be the victim, for example, saying their sibling pushed them when they didn’t, might be wanting a deeper need met.
“Children might lie for connection seeking: ‘I need something and I’m not getting it, I don’t want to be seen as the bad child anymore and I want my sibling to be seen as the bad child and I’m the victim so I can get help’,” explains Dr Kennedy.