My little girl keeps telling lies

My six-year-old daughter often tells lies and I am wondering whether I should be worried about this. For example, the other day she had clearly helped herself to cake in the kitchen without permission. However, when I challenged her, she kept saying it wasn’t her. She definitely ate the cake as she even had icing around her mouth, yet she continued to deny it and eventually burst into tears and stormed off.

I don’t mind her taking the cake – that is understandable and I should not have left it out to tempt her. It is the fact she won’t admit it and tells lies to my face which bothers me.

This is not an isolated event. Sometimes she says she has done her homework and then when I check she hasn’t done it at all. When I confront her, instead of backing down, she becomes indignant and gives out to me for not believing her. Will she grow out of her habit of lying or should I be worried?

Though it is of course important to teach your children to tell the truth, it is important to recognise it is very common for young children to tell lies from time to time.

While it is very easy to take children lying personally or to worry that it is the sign of long-term problems, it is important to understand the context for the lies and to recognise it can simply be a phase your child is going through.

Young children tell lies or evade telling the truth for lots of reasons such as to avoid getting into trouble (“I didn’t break the glass”), or to get out of something unpleasant (“the teacher did not give us any homework today”) or to gain attention or approval (“I won the star in school”), etc.

To deal with lying and to help children tell the truth in the long term, there are number of principles to bear in mind:

Understand your child’s reasons for not telling the truth
The first step in helping your daughter, is to understand why she has not told the truth in the different situations you describe. Perhaps she is very embarrassed she took the cake and can’t admit it, or perhaps she is very proud and can’t face admitting she was wrong.

While you don’t agree with her lying, you can be understanding about the reasons behind her behaviour. Communicating your sympathy and understanding to her gives her space to back down and tell you what happened.

Then you can help her explore other ways of dealing with the situation without resorting to lying.

Reduce the opportunity for your child to tell lies
Avoid putting your daughter in a position where she might tell a lie. For example, rather than asking, “Did you take the cake?” when it is obvious she has, instead it might be better to say, “I see you took a slice of cake without permission, we have to have a chat about that”.

Also, make sure to warn her if you think she may not answer a question truthfully, for example, “Before you answer, you know I will find out if you had homework on Monday”.

Calmly and gently confront your child if she tells a lie
If she does tell you a lie, gently and calmly confront this, for example, “I know you broke the toys”, but avoid over-reacting emotively with, “How dare you lie to me”.

Instead, talk calmly and take action to deal with the issue. Sometimes, it is appropriate to have a consequence for lying and this can be in addition to any consequence for the original behaviour – “Because you messed up your brother’s jigsaw, you are now going to have to tidy it up. But also because you didn’t tell the truth immediately, you are going to lose some TV time. It is really important that you learn to tell the truth to Mam and Dad.”

Praise your child when she tells the truth
It is also important to praise your daughter any time she tells the truth, particularly when this is hard for her. For example, if she comes to you and says she broke something in the house, you can first say that you are pleased she has come to tell you, before you deal with the issue of something being broken.

Model honesty and trust
Children learn most by what parents do, rather than by what parents tell them to do. So if you model honesty to children this helps them to behave that way. This can mean owning up and apologising when you have made a mistake or let someone down, being straight and honest in how you talk to your children and your partner.

Address underlying issues
Depending on the reason for lying, there are often simple underlying issues that you can address. For example, if a child makes up stories to gain approval (“won a star in school”), you could work hard to ensure she gets approval and attention independent of these achievements or you can explore how she could gain the star legitimately.

For example, you could say, “It sounds like you really want a star. If you do your homework well, you might be able to get one – would you like me to help you?”, or “I know another way you can get a star: I will make a star chart at home and each time you clean up the dishes, I will give you one. Would you like that?”

Teach about the importance and benefits of telling the truth
It might be useful to have a sit-down chat with your daughter about the importance of honesty and telling the truth. There are lots of good stories you can read together about the importance of trust (such as The Little Boy who Cried Wolf ) that can teach these values.

The long-term aim is to help your daughter understand the value of honesty, the importance of talking truthfully to parents and how to resolve difficult situations without resorting to lying.

Prof. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, March 2012. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.
Oct/Nov 2018: John will be giving courses for parents in Dublin, Cork and Galway on topics such as Positive Parenting, Parenting Teenagers, Building Self-esteem and Managing Anxiety.  Details and bookings are at