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When Your Child Lies and What to Do About It 

There’s a funny trend on TikTok these days called “Who ate my powdered donuts?” The culprit pleads ignorance but has a face covered in powdered sugar.


Some of us are really good at hiding a lie, and others are not. Have you caught your child in a lie and didn’t know how to deal with it? Do they lie a blue streak, and you can’t tell whether they are lying or telling the truth?

As parents, we all want our children to be good, kind human beings. When we catch them in a lie, we wonder where we went wrong or worry that they will become untrustworthy.  

If we look at it from a psychological point of view, we need to understand that lying isn’t a moral failure. Lying is often a universal biological response, a pattern of protection that allows us to gain a reward or avoid pain, according to Lisa Dion, a licensed professional counselor, a registered play therapist supervisor, and creator of Synergetic Play Therapy. Other play therapists and medical professionals agree. 

This pain-pleasure principle is hard-wired into all of us. This means that as humans, we seek pleasure or avoid pain to meet our own psychological and biological needs, and lying helps us do that. And yes, even as grown adults, we need to admit that we also sometimes lie.

To help us correct lying behavior in our children, we need to get curious and try to understand what they are protecting or gaining when they lie. Some motivations for lying include:

  • Denying an action: “I did not hit my sister.” 

  • Gaining a reward: “I ate all my dinner” (half the food is in the trash)

  • Impressing others: “My parents own a ski chalet in Europe.”

  • Getting attention: “I went to the  hospital last week and had surgery on my leg.”

  • Wishful thinking: “We have a horse in our backyard.”

When we do catch our children in lies, most experts warn against punishing them. Instead, look for the reason behind it and be empathetic: “You know that if  you hit your sister, Mom and Dad would get angry with you.”

You can point out the lie in an indirect way. “You said you ate all your dinner. But I’m confused. Whose meatloaf is in the trash?”  

We can also use humor. "I really wish we had a horse AND a unicorn in our backyard!”  

By understanding the motivation behind the lie and responding calmly, we create an atmosphere of safety for our children. We acknowledge their feelings without attacking their protective pattern. If we punish our children for lying, it could lead to their need to continue putting up the protection and feel even more shame. By calling it out in a gentle way, we create safety within the relationship that allows them to identify and acknowledge their underlying motivations and emotions without being shamed for them. Over time, their need to lie will diminish. 

Licensed Resident in Counseling

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