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.


  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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  • Leave a Comment
  • Ms.R.

    November 11th, 2019 at 9:09 AM

    Good info ,I wish more people would learn about these types of things in life. Some people believe their kids lies n act on them by bullying the poor child’s parents.

  • Logan

    June 7th, 2020 at 2:39 AM

    My son called the police on me and said i had abandoned him in a mc donalds parking lott while with a babysitter, 7 min later i was taken into custody in same said parking lott. I was arested and charged with a felony based on my sons statement that i had sex with a prostitute in front of him bought drugs in his presence and got high while he watched… None of this is true, not a single word yet i am fighting to get my son out of foster care and eventually will have to go in front of a judge to fight a felony charge… Its crazy… Thank god i have so many well documented cases where similiar behavior was noted by teachers principles and therapists or i would be in serious trouble…

  • Maximus N.

    June 20th, 2020 at 11:55 PM

    When I was a kid (probably 5-7 years old) I used to lie a lot about my parents,
    about their careers and exaggerating my accomplishments like I was a prodigy child
    in front of my teachers and teenagers I meet.
    Few days ago, I reading notes about the character I was created about myself as a child,
    and honestly I have to say that my arguments were quite impressive, like +90% was a credible story, and I didn’t planned it at all, it was all improvised at the moment I was telling the lie, I was adding info accordingly to the previous memories without making any mistakes at the coherency of the story at that speed in the same moment, I think it’s kinda impressive for a 6 year old at my point of view.
    Hopefully my case is not pathological, I think more like a low self-esteem and need for attention.

    But anyway, I would like to learn more about how this works and how this could being affecting me in the present.

  • sandra

    December 12th, 2020 at 2:35 PM

    My grandson dealing with similar situation as Logan/ I would like to know where he found documentation for this. He may have charges filed against him as well and is perfectly innocent

  • Lauritza

    January 29th, 2021 at 9:04 AM

    I am just trying to figure out why my grandson lies about things that can easily be checked out. I.e., did you complete your homework or did you brush your teeth?

  • Christina

    February 19th, 2021 at 4:32 PM

    Dealing with this exact same thing with my 13 year old. At my wits end.

  • Fcpya

    April 13th, 2021 at 4:31 PM

    This post is bull the only reason people believe stuff like this is because people are too sensitive like how manhunt got banned for having extreme gore and violence but the newer mortal combat games are more violent than manhunt and manhunt 2 and do you see any of the newer mortal combat games banned no the only reason people believe this is because today’s society is easy to manipulate

  • Jenna

    August 29th, 2021 at 9:53 AM

    I cant believe theres a person here, clearly still a toddler, or adult stuck in toddler mode, whining and complaining about video games, and comparing them to real life, child psychology topics. Society would probably be better if all of your video games were banned. Go outside, and dont have kids until you gain insight, education, and maturity. You sound really dumb.

  • beverley

    September 18th, 2021 at 12:52 AM

    i have a granchild who lies constantly shes 13 it drives me bonkers , silly little lies but she will argue its the truth even though you know its a lie

  • Mike

    October 6th, 2021 at 3:37 AM

    I have a 12 yr old granddaughter living with us that is the same. Lies for no good reason and won’t admit the truth no matter what. I am at my wits end.

  • Frances

    November 1st, 2021 at 2:32 PM

    I’d really recommend Sarah Naish’s book The A-Z of therapeutic parenting as she covers lying and why it might happen beautifully. It’s often a result of feeling overwhelming and toxic levels of shame or due to the fear of a negative response. Direct challenge is unlikely to yield the results you are hoping for as this will put them further into shame. All the best!

  • Eskedar

    July 23rd, 2023 at 9:31 PM

    Thank you so much for sharing this!

  • Mark

    November 7th, 2021 at 2:21 PM

    My 14 year old grand daughter very convincingly lies about the actions of various family members and has done so for a number of years. Even when she was young she lied that our extremely large German Shepherd had bitten her, a total impossibility as not even a scratch was to be seen. She had a bad start in life in that her mother died of an overdose when my grand daughter was aged about two and her biological father departed the scene shortly after. She was adopted by an aunt and uncle who themselves have since split up. What do you make of this?


    September 7th, 2022 at 3:12 PM

    I found out years later when my daughter was in her early 30’s now late 30’s that she was saying some really bad pants on fire things about her father and myself. Now, she is feeling the effects of happens to someone that is so dishonest about the most smallest of things. It’s very sad but, she has really no good friends and even her husband has total me that she is the most dishonest person he knows. He says, he loves her but he questions almost every word that comes out of her lips. I have custody of my grandson that is her son and he is now showing signs of being a little pants on fire but he has other things going on that he sees counselor’s for so there is much hope and prayers to maybe break the chain.

  • Wendy

    January 23rd, 2023 at 10:18 AM

    I read this article and found it insightful. I had never considered lying as a possible symptom of my child’s mental illness. He’s a master at lying and manipulation. It’s a daily struggle but know at least I have a better understanding of it.

  • Anonymous

    February 13th, 2023 at 7:21 PM

    I have an 11 year old step daughter that I have been convinced for years is lying for attention seeking. Making up stories about abuse that never happened and don’t add up when you look at the timeline. It was not physically possible. Saying she started her period at 9 1/2, when there has been no physical evidence of such in the last year +. She even packs pads to carry with her and show my 10 year old daughter like “oh look I have my pads because I have my period now”. She even recently lied about self harm and suicidal thoughts, the school took it extremely seriously and now she’s in a behavioral care facility. I am worried that she will continue to do this upon release and make up lies about my children doing things. Not saying my kids are angels, but just a concern I have going forward. Drives me absolutely nuts.

  • Edna

    February 19th, 2023 at 12:18 PM

    He is hopeful you won’t check. Perhaps at times you don’t check so the lie is successful at least some of the time, so he keeps lying knowing that he will get out of doing homework and brushing teeth at least some of the time. Maybe he can bring you the completed homework for you to sign daily. You might have to supervise toothbrushing. Perhaps a reward system could work, or a visual schedule and daily reward i.e. 20 minutes of something fun is he finishes homework and brushes his teeth.

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