Q. My daughter who is seven and half has been lying. We have always stressed the importance of telling the truth in our family so this is very troubling to me. She recently told a staff member in her school program that my husband and I were going on vacation for a month and she was going to be left all alone. According to this staff member, my daughter tearfully told him that there were no adults who would be able to care for her. In truth my husband and I are going away for 5 days. Our daughter will be staying with her grandmother. We have tried punishing her by taking away privileges when she lies but it doesn’t seem to do any good. We don’t know what to do to stop the lying.
A. Children often lie when they need to express something that they feel cannot be expressed well with the “facts.” For example, if your daughter told her after-school provider that you and your husband were going away for 5 days and she would be staying with her grandmother, the provider may have responded by saying, “Five days isn’t very long,” or “Do you like staying with your grandmother?” These responses would have missed the point. The message it appears your daughter wanted him to understand was that she would feel very, very alone without the two of you for a very long time. Her way of telling the tale very clearly conveyed the sadness and sense of abandonment she felt. It sounds like it must have created a sense of alarm for him if he told you about his concerns. This response was probably much closer to the one your daughter desired. It may have made her feel understood. Children sometimes embellish the facts to make them fit their internal reality and to communicate this experience to other people. In a way, through the stories, they are conveying the “truth” of their feelings. Punishing a child for these tall tales is unlikely to produce any change because the need to express the feelings is still there.
The way to help children stop “lying” in this fashion is to help them find other ways of successfully expressing their ideas and feelings. This may require change from both you and your child. Your child will need to learn new, more direct ways of expressing herself but you will need to be responsive to these more direct methods of communication for it to be successful. For example, it would be nice if your child could say, “Mom, I am really sad and lonely because you and dad are going away and not taking me.” For most children this is impossible without a lot of help from their parent. Usually this information comes out in small pieces even with empathetic, careful inquiry. Most children are likely to say, “I don’t want you and dad to go. Why can’t I go with you?” Most parents will logically answer the question about why the child cannot come and leave it at that.
What is necessary is to ask your child why she does not want you to go. It also requires that if she does tell you she is afraid she will feel lonely, you tell her you understand how hard it is going to be. It may also require that you talk with her about what kinds of things might make her fell less lonely. For example, you might tell her you will write her a note for each day that you are gone that will be left with her grandmother. Each day she will get a note from you. Sometimes it is helpful for children if the two of you make a calendar with only the days you will be gone and your return date on it. This may help her see exactly how long she has to wait until your return. This is just one example of the kind of responsiveness children need in order to communicate their feelings.
For each child there is probably a slightly different reason for feeling they will not be heard and understood. Your job is to watch your responses to her and see what particular things happen in your family that prevent this understanding or clear communication.
There are many other reasons why children lie. The most common reason is to get out of trouble when they have done something wrong. Some children have difficulty telling reality from fantasy. These need to be dealt with differently.
Note: This was a question answered by Dr. Cynthia Divino in her column for the Boulder Parent. They are published here to help the BIPR parenting community.