How to Get Your Child to Stop Lying

“Did you brush your teeth?” I asked my daughter.

“Yes,” she said in a flash. But she didn’t look me in the eyes, and I knew.

I asked her to open her mouth, and I could practically see her dinner crawling all across her teeth.

“Why did you lie to me?” I accused.

“I didn’t!” she insisted, with fear in her eyes.

“Yes, you did. I can see you didn’t brush your teeth. I can smell that you didn’t brush your teeth. I’m going to take away your favorite stuffed animal, and you’re going to brush your teeth in front of me.”

And I stomped down to her bedroom to steal her stuffed bunny and really teach her a lesson, goshdarnit. Lying would not be tolerated in this house.

She wailed. Oh, she wailed.

She fell to the floor.

She fabricated more lies to try and make her original lie disappear. I confiscated more favorite stuffed animals.

She sobbed.

She was nowhere closer to brushing her teeth, and I was nowhere near calm.

We were in a bad place.

And this scene repeated itself dozens of times for dozens of reasons.

She just kept lying.

She snipped off a lock of hair and blamed it on her friend. She ripped out the tassels of her sister’s bike’s handlebars, and blamed it on a friend. A roll of coins disappeared from my counter, and she… you guessed it—blamed it on a friend. She continued to tell me she brushed her teeth when she hadn’t—only there was no friend to blame in that situation.

My punishments became more severe: Weed the whole yard. No friends for a week. No stuffed animals for a week. No TV for a week.

And with every punishment, I explained, “All you have to do is tell the truth!”

But it just wasn’t sinking in.

During the months that this was happening, I was learning more and more about ADHD, and was beginning to suspect she had it for various reasons.

Then I came across an article on ADHD and lying.

Oftentimes, children with ADHD make impulsive or distracted decisions (cutting hair, reading a book instead of brushing teeth, grabbing coins off the counter). Once they realize what they’ve done, they immediately regret their decision, but they don’t know what to do to make it right. 

Maybe they wish it hadn’t happened, and the lie they then tell is their wish. Maybe the lie is a second impulsive decision. Maybe they truly believe they can make everything go away by telling a different version of the truth. Maybe they were distracted when they made their mistake and honestly don’t remember how they got where they are.

But the lie comes from shame and fear. It’s not malicious. It’s a coping mechanism.

This knowledge changed everything for me. I immediately flipped my strategies on their heads and tried a different approach. A loving approach. A forgiving approach. A connecting approach.

And this is what I turn to with each of my children when they lie, ADHD or not.

I’ve been using this approach for five years now, and it hasn’t failed me once. Does that mean it’s foolproof? Probably not. But it’s definitely a better place to start than the consequences I was dishing out.

How to Get Your Child to Stop Lying

When we found a chunk of hair missing from our daughter’s head, we asked what had happened.

She first told us her friend did it.

But we knew she was lying.

Instead of accusing and punishing, we stopped her and said, “Sweetie, we know your friend didn’t do it. We know you did. We want you to tell us the truth, even if you didn’t at first. This is your chance to tell the truth.”

She thought for a split second, and told us that she had been holding the scissors and her hair got too close. We knew this was closer to the truth, but not the full truth.

So we stopped her again, and said, “Thank you for telling us you are the one who was holding the scissors. But remember, you need to tell us the whole truth. You aren’t in trouble, even if you already weren’t truthful.”

To help her along, we said, “It looks like you cut your own hair. Take a second and think about what happened.”

She let out a breath, her shoulders relaxed, and she nodded. “I cut my own hair.”

With the truth finally out in the open, she was relieved.

We told her we were proud of her for telling us the truth when it was hard. And we were! She had been lying as a defense mechanism for quite a long time. To break away from that—even if it took a while—was monumental.

We hugged her and asked her to tell us what we can do to make sure she wouldn’t cut her hair again. She had some ideas, and we agreed to them.

And that was that. We didn’t punish her, and we didn’t shame her. She never cut her own hair again.

She did, however, lie again. But we were ready. We followed the same approach each time, and soon, the lying diminished until it all but disappeared.

When her siblings tell a lie, we follow the same steps. So far, this has worked every time.

The Approach We Use to Help Our Children Tell the Truth

1. Stop the Lie

For the most part, parents come equipped with excellent lie detectors. You know your child’s tells—they avoid your eyes, they stammer when they explain their version, they get angry. Whenever your lie detector dings and you sense your child is telling a fib, stop them. Don’t stop them with anger. Just gently stop them. The goal is not to catch them in a lie; the goal is to help them feel confident and trustworthy. So gently stop them from digging themselves deeper into a hole.

2. Hug

Hug them if they’ll let you. Making a connection at this point will calm both of you, and will communicate to both of you that your goal here is to solve this issue with love. If you can’t hug, make eye contact, get down on their level, or gently touch their arm. Don’t make them uncomfortable; just show love through touch if they want it.

3. Help, Don’t Accuse

Tell them you know what they did. Again, there’s no aim to catch them in a lie. Don’t ask them, “Did you feed the dog?” when you know they didn’t. Say, “It looks like you forgot to feed the dog.” This eliminates their fear because they know they don’t have to keep up a charade. The truth is already out in the open.

4. Give a Second (or Third or Fourth) Chance

If they don’t ‘fess up, encourage them to pause and try again. Give them a chance to tell the truth. Your goal is not to teach them a harsh lesson; it’s to help them be successful at telling the truth.

5. No Shame

Remember—no shame. No gotchas! Listen to their response. If they still lie to you, repeat #1, #2, #3, and #4. The goal is to foster a connection and to help your child succeed. Give them second chances. And third, and more—if they need them.

6. Connect

Stay close. Show love. Help them be successful in telling the truth.

7. Thank

When they do tell you the truth, thank them and tell them you’re happy they chose to be honest.

Of course, this won’t work for every single child. You may find you need to make your own variations, but when you approach the lie from a place of wanting to help your child be successful at telling the truth (NOT from a place of trying to catch them in a lie), you’ll find the right process and solution for your situation.

QUESTION: Do you have a child who struggles with lying?

CHALLENGE: Try out the seven steps in this article next time you know one of your children is lying. Share this article with your spouse right now so you can be on the same page.

This article originally appeared on Rebecca’s blog here.

Edited by Kimberly Price