Not telling the truth, lying, is a very common behavioral issue in children and can start as soon as a child learns to talk. When parents come to Dr. Jacob Boney, owner and clinical director of Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services, for help, this is what he generally hears…
“My children and my pre-teens frequently tell lies to get themselves out of trouble. I’m really big on honesty, and I can’t figure out how to get my kids to stop lying and to start being more honest. What should I do to get my kids to tell the truth more frequently?”
The first point that Dr. Boney always tries to make with parents is that they have to make being truthful an important behavior and that they have to model it. Telling the truth and being open must be an emphasis and the parent needs to make clear just how important it is. The reward for honesty must be greater than the reward for getting caught.
The reason most children lie is due to negative reinforcement, meaning that the behavior is meant to escape from something that they don’t want to happen. The benefit to lying is to prevent being in trouble and, all too often, there is no real benefit to being honest. Parents who do the following usually increase the likelihood of their children engaging in lying:
- Overly attend to negative or non-preferred behaviors
- Overly rely on aversive reactions, like screaming, yelling, cursing and removal of privileges or favorite items
- Assume children need to be “caught in the act” doing things they aren’t supposed to do
- Frequently argue and bicker with children
- Frequently engage in aversive interactions and power struggles with their children
- Use minimal amount of positive reinforcement
- Punish the truth
- Provide too many opportunities for a child to lie
Recommendations to Increase Honest and Open Behavior
- As parents, you must model open, honest and transparent behavior. Admit mistakes, faults and when you do things wrong. Children are smarter and more observant than we give them credit for being. They see these things anyway. When parents are honest about their shortcomings with their children, they are more likely to encourage the same behavior.
- Make sure children understand how important is to you, the parent, that there is honesty and openness between you, so that the sense of trust between you can continue to grow and develop.
- As much as possible, reduce opportunities for them to lie. If you know they have done something wrong, don’t ask them about it. Instead, tell them you know what they did. Don’t make it worse by giving them the opportunity to lie about it, which they are likely to do as a reflex to try and get out of being in trouble. Move past the incident as quickly as possible and deal with it, without adding lying to it.
- Do not engage in nagging or repetitive conversations about negative behaviors when your child has done something wrong. Don’t try to “squeeze the truth” out of them. Adjust your tone of voice and try not to be judgmental. Make it easy for them to tell you the truth. Make it obvious to the child that telling the truth is what you want to hear and that you are not going to overreact.
- Be willing to lessen a punishment for telling the truth. If your child admits to doing something or is honest about it when questioned, tell them you are disappointed about what they did but also very proud of them for being honest. Make sure they realize that the assigned punishment is less because of the honesty. Send this message frequently by being willing to reward telling the truth.
- Notice and praise instances when your child tells the truth. The more often you do this the greater it reinforces how important honesty is to you and deepens the trust level between you and your child.
- For parents of children who lie more frequently, Dr. Boney recommends that they require extreme proof from the child. The burden of truth falls on this child and they must prove that they are telling the truth. Believe behaviors more than words. This makes it harder for children to lie, knowing that they will be required to back up what they say. It also conditions them that it’s going to be their job to tell the truth rather than your job to catch them lying.
- Emphasize the concept of transparency. This means initiating openness and being forthcoming without trying to hide behaviors. Transparency lets them openly show you who they are. Promote this by discouraging any type of hiding behaviors, like being uncommunicative. Don’t allow locked doors at home. Make sure they understand that transparency and openness leads to greater trust and more freedom.
- When you know your child is not being honest, call it. Tell them that you know they are lying and that as long as they engage in that kind of behavior, it will be hard to trust them and give them the privileges and freedoms that they want.
- Provide frequent opportunities for your child to tell the truth by having lots of open conversations that have nothing to do with criticizing their behavior, task demands or anything negative about them or their choices.
- Make it easy to talk to you. Do this consistently, daily, so that it becomes easy for your child to tell you the truth.
Utilizing evidence based practices and the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis, the Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services team provides assessment, treatment and consultation for a wide range of behavioral issues. We work with a variety of children, families, schools, hospitals, mental health agencies and local community organizations to provide these services. If you have any questions about how to decrease lying behaviors in your child or would like more information about any of the services offered by our team, please feel free to contact us by phone at 480.410.4040, email us at [email protected], or click here for our convenient online form.