8-year-old's lies may be related to parents' separation

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  February 10, 2010 06:00 AM

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Barbara, My 8-year-old daughter is lying to her father and I frequently. Most of the lies (that we know of) are minor - things like telling us she's made her bed when she hasn't, or telling her brother there's no more gum when in fact she has more left.

Some have been more serious, like telling us she's already completed and submitted her homework when she hasn't (that last one is made easier for her because she lives with her dad half the week and with me the other half).

Her father and I have a great relationship and talk daily about her and her 6-year-old brother - so she should know that she can't pull anything over on us. But we aren't sure how to handle the lying. Her father points out that she's getting a lot of attention over it, and maybe that's what she wants.

So far repercussions have included canceled play dates and sleepovers, and of course having to do with whatever it was she lied about in the first place (making the bed, etc.). She also had to tell her teacher that she'd lied about the homework and make up the work.

We've talked with her about the importance of trust and how it makes you feel bad inside when you tell a lie. She agrees and says she won't do it again, but then she does, sometimes within minutes.

What should we do?
From:  Michelle, Reading, MA

Hi Michelle,

Lying can be a phase, where kids lie to test their power or their popularity or for a whole slew of other reasons, including, as your daughter's father said, to get attention. That need for attention can come from underlying needs or anxieties that she can't articulate, for instance, feeling inadequate in school, left out by friends, or over-shadowed by a sibling. In her case, I suspect the lying may stem from living in two homes. 

So I contacted Isolina Ricci, one of the nation's leading experts on the impact of divorce on children and author of the best  books ever on the subject, "Mom's House, Dad's House," and "Mom's House, Dad's House for Kids."

Re: LYINGIn an email, she says that an underlying stress for children in two homes can be the need for parents to provide more structure or protection.

Writes Ricci: "Even in co-operative divorced parenting arrangements where parents talk frequently about how the children are doing, a schedule for going between homes may need to be revised to something simpler, with fewer transitions.  Lying can sometimes be a reflection of the stress she feels trying to keep it together. This is true even when the schedule worked well for some time. Children develop, their needs change, they have rough spots in the road and parents can ease their stress by being flexible.  Then, as the child matures, the old schedule can be tried again."

Have a conversation with her in which you let her know that you are flexible and always willing to change schedules and plans, as needed. You and her father could ask her (individually) if there are some changes at each home that she might like to see implemented. (Of course, her ultimate fantasy likely is that you all live in one house again; be clear that that isn't an option.)
In general, when a child lies, a natural consequence is better than a punishment (being late for a playdate because she has to make her bed is a consequence, canceling the playdate is a punishment) but your disappointment is sometimes consequence enough. Meanwhile, continue to talk to her about trust and truthfulness; make sure that the role model you present is one of truthfulness (avoid "white lies"); and praise her for telling the truth, especially when you know she wanted to lie. Read this for other ideas.

Finally, if she continues to lie, seek professional help.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.
 



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4 comments so far...
  1. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's new book Nurtureshock has an excellent chapter on children lying and how to deal with it.

    Posted by ez February 10, 10 03:33 PM
  1. Sounds like she's headed for Congress. Have her repeat that she did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky, and she'll be in like flint.

    Posted by Roger S. February 10, 10 04:56 PM
  1. I think that Roger S's comment equating a child's lying to the sexual misdeeds of President Clinton is inappropriate and also not particularly funny. I may add that the saying is "in like Flynn" -- a reference to the sexually rapacious Errol Flynn -- not "in like flint," which makes no sense. Why Roger S. equates young girls with the voracious sexual appetites of older men is a question best addressed by his therapist and not suitable for a child-rearing blog.

    Posted by ez February 11, 10 11:57 AM
  1. Good lord ez, take it ez!

    Posted by lmc February 12, 10 12:56 PM
 
4 comments so far...
  1. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's new book Nurtureshock has an excellent chapter on children lying and how to deal with it.

    Posted by ez February 10, 10 03:33 PM
  1. Sounds like she's headed for Congress. Have her repeat that she did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky, and she'll be in like flint.

    Posted by Roger S. February 10, 10 04:56 PM
  1. I think that Roger S's comment equating a child's lying to the sexual misdeeds of President Clinton is inappropriate and also not particularly funny. I may add that the saying is "in like Flynn" -- a reference to the sexually rapacious Errol Flynn -- not "in like flint," which makes no sense. Why Roger S. equates young girls with the voracious sexual appetites of older men is a question best addressed by his therapist and not suitable for a child-rearing blog.

    Posted by ez February 11, 10 11:57 AM
  1. Good lord ez, take it ez!

    Posted by lmc February 12, 10 12:56 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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