What to do when children lie

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Q:  My 9-year-old son lies a lot and I don't know how to deal with it.

For example, he constructs histories in the playground with his friends and makes up stories. He might say his grandmother was crying, or that there was an accident somewhere. We keep telling him that he shouldn't lie, and explain to him why not. When we confront him with the facts, or say that we are going to ask a third person, he just admits it was a lie. I am beginning to worry about this. I don't know if this is normal for a child his age or how I should react.

A:  To determine if this is "normal" or not you first need to determine why and under what circumstances your son makes up stories

It can be normal for a nine-year-old to have a vivid imagination, and at times present that imagination as reality. That can be a sign of creativity and intelligence. However, if he is making up these stories with intent to deceive, whether or not he gains something by the deception, it is a 'lie' and must be addressed.

Children choose not to tell the truth for all kinds of reasons. Some are socially awkward. Perhaps he is telling his friends stories because he doesn't know how to talk to them and feels the need to entertain them with provocative tales to keep their attention. In that case, he might benefit from a safe environment modeling good peer interaction. This could take the form of groups at school or even group therapy with other children in which his interactions could be monitored. There he could be shown appropriate ways to talk to peers.

Perhaps he is depressed and attempting to elicit an emotional reaction and support from his peers, such as by saying that his grandmother is crying. In that case, he might benefit from psychiatric intervention. Perhaps it is just imagination, which you might channel by allowing his to tell or even write down stories for you. In that case, you could explain that it is fine to make up stories for fun but you must make it clear that they are only stories.

Of course an obvious fear is that he is making up stories because he is oppositional and wants to get something out of the stories (e.g. a day out of school because his grandmother is crying about something). Parenting with appropriate structure (and, yes, appropriate discipline when necessary) will help him to ask in a direct way without lies. In summary, story telling in children is not unusual and not necessarily, a sign of pathology but it should be addressed to find the cause.

If in doubt, we suggest you follow up with a psychiatrist or therapist with child training to determine the cause of the stories. Above all, don't panic! This is not necessarily a sign of a deep emotional problem, but should be investigated to rule out that possibility. For more information, call 402-717-HOPE (4673).