Should a parent or grandparent be concerned when a 5-year-old makes up a story or a teenager weaves a tall tale about why she or he has returned home late?
Lying is not usually a serious problem in young children. After all, young children still believe in magic and Santa Claus. There is no cause for concern if a child talks to his imaginary friend all day or tells you about his “pet dolphin.” When older children make up stories to avoid responsibility or to rationalize something they did wrong, the problem is more serious and must be addressed.
Honesty and dishonesty are learned in the home. Children observe how parents conduct themselves and are acutely aware of the differences in what parents say and what they do. The same holds for grandparents. When a child sees an adult driving 75 miles per hour in a 65 mile per hour speed zone, the child might question the adult’s behavior.
The response of the adult caught in an irresponsible act is critical to the child’s respect for that adult’s authority. If the adult says, “You are right, I am going too fast and I will slow down,” the child feels validated and has learned a positive lesson. If the adult offers a weak excuse, criticizes the child’s observation (“Mind your own business, I know what I’m doing,”) or even lies (“These signs don’t mean anything”), the child quickly loses respect for the adult.
Adolescents lie for many reasons. When they do, it is important to get at the root motivation of the behavior. They may withhold information to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. Adolescents often lie to avoid revealing problems with substance or alcohol abuse. In any case, it is important to confront the situation, find out why they lied and use the incident as a learning experience.
Parents and grandparents should confront instances of lying, and explain the differences between make believe and reality to younger children, point out the problem to older children, and, no matter the age, emphasize the importance of truthfulness, honesty and trust at home, school and out in the community.
When should a parent or grandparent start worrying about a child lying? If there is a pattern of lying, it needs to be discussed directly with the child and a family effort made to help with the problem. Failing this, the American Academy of Child Psychiatry recommends a professional consultation to find the cause of the problem.
Making up stories to avoid responsibility or to satisfy frustrated needs or dreams can become a habit. If the child is aware of what he or she is doing, talk to a pediatrician about it. If the child lies without insight or judgment into their behavior, professional help is needed.