Why do children lie?

A frequent issue which is presented in my coaching and therapy work surrounds lying. Parents and carers will frequently ask why their child is lying and want to stop it from happening.

However, whilst lying is often labelled as a behaviour issue, it most frequently has other causes lying beneath it. So, why do children (and adults lie?)

Causes of lying:
  1. Avoiding consequences – Many children lie to avoid a consequence. The fear of a punishment or consequence means that they withhold the truth, believing that the lie will keep them safe. They may have previously experienced being told that if they tell the truth adults will not be cross, and still found themselves in trouble, or be concerned about the way that the adult will react if they are honest and think lying is the best option.
  2. To test a new behaviour – Some children will lie to test out what the outcome will be if they do. The focus is to explore what will happen, if they can partake in behaviours or if there may be a positive outcome for them.
  3. Changing the outcome – Some children will lie in order to seek to change the situation to something that they prefer. They believe that by lying they will have their desired outcome or move the chain of events e.g. lying that they are ill so that they can stay home from school and avoid a test.
  4. To increase their confidence – Many children lie because their self-esteem is low and they wish to feel better about themselves in front of others, perhaps lying about where they are going on holiday, their parents jobs or items they own to earn themselves status points with their peers. The aim is to make themselves look better in front of others.
  5. To gain attention – Some children will use lies in order to gain attention. They may feel that they are not valued, noticed or seen and will find that lying gains them attention. It should be noted that this attention may not be positive, but will still mean that they gain input from parents, carers or education staff so it is perceived as having value.
  6. For excitement – Sometimes, children will lie as this will make the story, situation or experience more exciting. Especially if they feel that what they are saying is not being received with the attention that they desire or hoped for.
  7. To be polite – Without realising, we teach children to lie from an early age in order to be polite, in reality, the majority of people lie in order to be polite. Whether it is saying how much you love a gift that someone gave you, telling someone you love their new haircut or that a day out was wonderful when you did not believe this to be true, we need to be aware that there are blurred lines when we encourage an element of lying to be kind to others.
  8. To prevent hurting someone – Sometimes, children will lie to protect someone else’s feelings, perhaps a friend, a sibling or another parent or carer. This can include lying about their mental health, feelings or experiences as they do not want to cause upset or hurt.
  9. The child has ADHD – The impulsive element of ADHD can often lead to children and young people talking without thinking, and as such they may tell lies inadvertently. Further, if you give instructions quickly and without time to process children may tell you that you didn’t tell them things, and you believe they are lying, when in reality our speed of delivery prevented absorption of the message.
  10. There is also a conduct disorder – For a selection of children who have a conduct disorder, the presence of lying for no reason. However, this is not a standalone behaviour, and is present with traits such as; not caring about social norms of good behaviour, ignoring the rights and feelings of other people, enjoying causing harm, lying or manipulating people, cheating, stealing….

Understanding the ‘why’ of lying can help us identify the best routes to supporting children. We can also consider:

  • Keep calm, overreacting to lying can shut down communication. Instead, we want to look at being calm and curious
  • Avoid setting up a lie, when talking with children, we want to avoid creating situations for lies. For instance, if we know their homework is not done, asking ‘have you done your homework?’ is creating a scenario where children are more likely to avoid the truth. Reframe it, ‘do you need some help with your homework?’ or ‘how can I help you?’
  • Talking about the difference between the truth and lying so that children understand, this can include sharing stories and exploring characters
  • Check in with ourselves and role model the expected behaviours. We need to ensure that we are not demonstrating the same behaviours that we do not want our children to be using
  • Be consistent in your responses. If you tell a child that telling the truth will not have consequences, then we need to thank them for their honesty and ensure that we do not follow through with punishments or consequences
  • Offer a ‘do-over’ – discuss ‘what would you do differently if you could have a do-over?’ to encourage children to review and explore a new response. Encourage them to think through new alternatives and consider the potential outcomes


Want to learn more? 

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