Why Do Children Lie? Normal, Compulsive, and Pathological Lying in Kids

Young boy standing on step stool to steal cookies form kitchen cupboardLying is developmentally normal for children of all ages, even when a child lies frequently. Lying allows children to test the boundaries between fantasy and reality, to protect themselves from the consequences of their actions, and to better understand how other people think.

Some parents worry their children may become pathological or compulsive liars. However, lying is rarely cause for concern in children. Parents who worry about their child’s lying should know that lying is developmentally normal and may even be a sign that a child is hitting appropriate developmental milestones.

Nevertheless, some lying may signal a deeper problem, such as a mental health issue or a tendency to manipulate others. Parents concerned about their child’s lying should seek help from a therapist or a pediatrician. An expert who has experience working with children can help parents understand whether lying is age-appropriate or indicative of a potential problem.

Pathological vs. Compulsive Lying

Neither pathological nor compulsive lying are mental health diagnoses. Their existence remains controversial among many mental health clinicians. Some clinicians argue there is no such thing as pathological or compulsive lying. Others assert that these behaviors only arise as part of another diagnosis or as the product of fear, trauma, and other motivations.

Those who do distinguish pathological and compulsive lying from one another argue that the difference is one of intent. Pathological liars may lie for no clear reason, seemingly without planning or motive. For example, a child might claim something happened when it clearly did not, even when there is no reason—such as fear or wishful thinking—for them to do so.

Compulsive liars may use lying to get things they want or need or to escape punishment. This type of lying is much more common among children and is developmentally typical at many ages. For instance, a child might say they didn’t eat a slice of cake, even as their mouth is covered with crumbs. Or they might tell a story about a present they never received because they wish someone had given them that present.

Parents should know that children almost always lie for a reason. Identifying the reason is more important than stigmatizing or punishing the lie. Punishing lies may even encourage children to lie more, in the hopes that they will not be caught next time.

Signs of Compulsive Lying in Children

Parents should know that children almost always lie for a reason. Identifying the reason is more important than stigmatizing or punishing the lie. Punishing lies may even encourage children to lie more, in the hopes that they will not be caught next time.

Some warning signs a child’s lying might be a problem and not just developmentally typical behavior include:

  • Frequently lying for no discernible reason
  • Experiencing other personality issues, such as intense rage, lack of concern for others’ feelings, or extreme mood swings. Sometimes compulsive lying co-occurs with personality disorders.
  • Lying to manipulate or control others
  • Lying much more than peers lie
  • Continuing to lie even when it interferes with relationships
  • A pattern of lying that gets steadily worse

Even when a child shows these symptoms, lying may be developmentally normal. It often goes away on its own without treatment or intervention. Numerous studies have even shown that lying can be a sign of empathy and appropriate social development.

Lying tends to peak between the ages of 3 to 8. Thereafter, children’s lies become more sophisticated and center around bolstering self-esteem and avoiding punishment.

Why Is My Child Lying?

Children lie for a wide variety of developmentally typical reasons. Those include:

  • Developing a theory of mind. Theory of mind is the ability to anticipate what another person thinks or feels and to understand that other people’s beliefs and feelings are different from one’s own. Theory of mind usually begins developing around age 3—a time when children’s lies also become more frequent. One study even found that training a child to develop a theory of mind can cause them to lie.
  • A developing sense of morality. Children begin to lie more as their sense of right and wrong grows sharper. This is because they are better able to anticipate which behaviors might get them into trouble.
  • To escape punishment. Children who fear punishment may lie to get out of punishment. Due to this, extreme punishments, including for lying, may actually promote more lying.
  • Experimentation and creativity. As children gain the ability to lie, they may lie to test their new skill.
  • To boost self-esteem. Children may lie to peers to gain their respect and affection; or, they may lie to parents because they need love and attention.
  • Because they don’t know they’re lying. Sometimes what parents think is a lie is actually a child remembering something incorrectly. Very young children may not understand the difference between a lie and the truth or realize adults don’t want them to lie.

Children may also lie for reasons that point to an underlying mental health issue. Those include:

  • Trauma and abuse. Abused or traumatized children may lie to cover up the abuse, lie about their experiences, or fear telling the truth to adults.
  • Anxiety. Children with anxiety-related diagnoses may lie because they are worried about the consequences of telling the truth.
  • Low self-esteem. Some children lie because they worry people won’t like them if they know the truth.
  • Personality disorders. Very rarely, children with a personality disorders such as borderline personality or antisocial personality may lie as a part of their diagnosis.
  • Other mental health issues. A variety of other mental health diagnoses may cause children to lie. For example, a bipolar child might behave in ways they regret during a manic episode, then lie about the behavior.

Treating Child Compulsive Lying

Lying can be frustrating to parents, even when it is developmentally normal. A therapist can help parents determine whether lying is age-typical or the sign of a more serious problem.

Family therapy can help parents and children communicate better. Parents may learn strategies that reduce their child’s desire and incentive to lie. For example, rather than asking a child if they have broken the rules when the evidence suggests they have, a parent might simply talk about the broken rule. If a child lies because they fear punishment, therapy can help a parent and child move beyond fear and create fair, consistent family rules.

When a child’s lying causes problems for the child or family, individual counseling can support the child and help them lie less. A therapist may work with the child to ease anxiety and depression, boost self-esteem, and develop a strong sense of self. Children with a history of trauma may need help to process and talk about the trauma. Children with personality disorders may benefit from specific therapeutic techniques such as dialectical behavior therapy for borderline personality.

References:

  1. Dike, C. C. (2008, June 1). Pathological lying: Symptom or disease? Psychiatric Times, 7(25). Retrieved from http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/articles/pathological-lying-symptom-or-disease
  2. Ding, X. P., Wellman, H. M., Wang, Y., Fu, G., & Lee, K. (2015). Theory-of-mind training causes honest young children to lie. Psychological Science, 26(11), 1812-1821. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797615604628
  3. Hausman, K. (2003). Does pathological lying warrant inclusion in the DSM? Psychiatric News, 38(1), 24-24. Retrieved from https://psychnews.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/pn.38.1.0024
  4. Miller, C. (2018, March 19). Why kids lie and what parents can do about it. Retrieved from https://childmind.org/article/why-kids-lie
  5. Talwar, V., & Lee, K. (2008). Social and cognitive correlates of children’s lying behavior. Child Development, 79(4), 866-881. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3483871

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