I Can’t Make My Child Stop Lying

Like most adults I despise lying. And like most parents, I want my children to tell the truth.

Nothing more, nothing less.

You – like me – probably lied in your youth. Yes, I told a zinger or two back in the day. But we eventually learned from our mistakes and desire others to do the same today.

Moreover, society expects “good” parents to react when their children lie. Raise their voices. Demand the truth. Take away possessions and privileges. For my typically-developing siblings and me, that approach did the trick for our parents – because of a well-defined, respectful relationship rooted in high expectations.

The lying disappeared.


But some children lie over and over – especially those with past trauma, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder or other brain disorders. Soon the lying can become chronic – then habitual, in spite of parental efforts to stop the behavior.

In some cases with FASD and cognitive disabilities, lying is complicated with deficits in working memory and language processing. Children might not remember the details in the proper order. They might not use the right words to explain themselves – thus giving the appearance of a lie.

For many traumatized children with attachment challenges, lying comes from feeling unsure or unsafe. They may feel the need to twist the facts as a way to “control” their environment, as a way to maintain a sense of survival. Over time they can become masters of manipulating the adults charged with their care.

One of my sons – adopted after severe emotional and physical abuse – always perceived the absolute worst outcome, whether he told the truth or not. To him, lying made more sense – since he had a 50 percent chance of not being caught. 

He was smart and understood the odds.

Although I can’t offer a silver bullet to stop lying in its tracks, practical ideas DO exist.

They start with mindfulness. 

You must connect before you correct.

These 10 guidelines have worked for me – after I made a conscious decision to shift my thinking from my parents’ thinking. In doing so, I learned to work smarter not harder.

ONE: When your child lies, do not immediately rant and rave. Take a moment to think – perhaps overnight – and respond thoughtfully. Shaming your child won’t improve the outcome. In fact, it can permanently damage your relationship.

TWO: Do you have the facts? If not, can you obtain them? Wrongfully accusing your child – without the facts – is a recipe for lasting disrespect and mistrust.


THREE: Don’t ever take the lying personally. If your child succeeds in upsetting you, he or she wins. You can then expect more of the same behavior. In other words, keep your emotions in check – until you can release frustration privately.

FOUR: If you have the facts, resist the temptation to ask the obvious. Are you lying? You’ll immediately receive a no” nearly every time – and likely instigate a power struggle. The result can be an all-out argument in which no one wins.

FIVE: Pick your battles carefully. Is every lie worth your time? Your effort? From my experience I say probably not. If you feel compelled to speak after confirming the facts, use a positive spin. We both know you didn’t tell the truth. Let’s start from there.

SIX: Whenever possible, prevent the opportunity for your child to lie. Use an action statement instead of asking a question. For example, Let’s look over your homework together. Let’s look at the party invitation together. Let’s check your clean bedroom together. This cooperative approach produces a more appropriate response than simply asking – and putting another lie in motion. It also sets a positive precedent for working together.

SEVEN: Play detective and learn new information about situations involving your child. Does the math teacher allow a single note card with formulas for tests? Does the coach require specific workout gear for practice? Does the friend’s parents host responsible sleepovers? With the right information, you can often stop the lie before it’s uttered or even considered.

Your story The truth

EIGHT: Leave your child an out if you have confirmation of a big lie and need to talk with – not at – him or her. At my house the rule was simple: come clean and avoid additional consequences. No double jeopardy ever. Allow time for your child to ponder without demands or shame.  

NINE: If you catch your child being honest, don’t offer too much praise. It can quickly backfire and set the stage for triangulation. Rather, be sequential. Connect the positive behavior to future privileges. And build additional trust.

TEN: Be patient. Eliminating lying entirely can take months or even years. Time can be a great healer, especially when reducing the opportunity to lie.

Now it’s time to tweak your approach.

You might just find the truth.  DCP


Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE

To follow Craig’s journey in raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love

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3 thoughts on “I Can’t Make My Child Stop Lying

  1. This is a great article. Can you expound upon number nine though? I’m not sure I’m grasping it. I’d really like to, because our son tends to triangulate and also lie. If there’s something I can improve upon, that would be great to better understand. Thanks!

    1. For many children with past trauma, they do something right and receive too much praise in the moment – then worry that they won’t be able to meet the same expectations in the future. So they sabotage future success. But if the parent or caregiver acknowledges the appropriate behavior – and connects it to specific opportunity in the next few days, the child sees his/her ability to succeed and not fail – since the potential for failure can be a huge trigger.

  2. My son was repeatedly called a liar by his peers, even the 3rd grade teacher. He wasn’t…plain and simple. I started paying closer attention to what brought on the tale telling. When my son heard something that would bring a comment, a laugh or escapade he would claim it as his own. He would retell the story and sometimes even get them mixed up as he tried to remember.

    I wanted him to EXPRESS himself. I never suggested to him that he was a liar or that he was telling a lie. I just let him see me be AMAZED at his telling of any story.

    It took several months chipping away at what had become habit. My son wanted to be noticed too, in a positive way….just like most kids do.

    So I started by asking him to identify whether he was going to tell the TRUTH BEFORE he began the story or if he was gonna TELL A WHOPPER. I’d always tell him I wanted to hear his whoppers and truths trying to give them both equal time. As long as he would IDENTIFY to me whopper or truth before he’d begin. He’d forget quite often in the beginning and I didn’t want to frustrate him by always interrupting. So I’d give him an overstated cupping my hand to my ear as a reminder to IDENTIFY what he was going to be saying.

    It was so important that he could differentiate in his own mind between truth and lie.

    Within months the whoppers no longer held the spotlight and he began to speak in truth, no longer being called a liar. At 22 if he gets wound up he’ll still identify a whopper before he starts his spiel.

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