6 Steps to Helping Kids Overcome Lying

This week we’re talking about helping kids overcome lying, and today is the day our readers have been waiting for. It is the nuts and bolts of HOW to help your child overcome the habit of lying.

If you are jumping in today, take a moment to go back and read Confessions of Reformed Liar and 7 Myths About Lying. They lay an important mindset foundation that we have to grasp before we can successfully tackle today’s Six Steps to Helping Kids Overcome Lying.

Are you ready? Here we go!

Step #1 — Be VERY careful not to shame the child.

We can’t emphasize this one enough! Children who struggle with telling the truth will avoid shame at all costs, and if you shame a liar, you will eventually create a better liar. They’ll perfect their “skills” so that they they don’t get caught and have to face shame.

When you are confronting someone who may have been untruthful, be gentle. Remind the child that there are some things that come naturally for her (tell her what those are) and some things she has to work at (like telling the truth). Tell her that a lot of people have to work at telling the truth — she is not alone. Emphasis how much you love her and how much you think she is awesome.

Separate the child from her choices. She is a great person who simply made a mistake, and your job is to help her learn how to become a truth teller.

Be VERY aware of your facial expression and your body language.

Search your child’s face to see how she is reacting to you. If she senses shame, she will react, and if you train yourself to look for it, you will be able to shift gears and let her know that you love her and that you are committed to her success.

But that doesn’t mean ignore it. Which leads me to…

Step #2 — Address every instance of untruth

This week I have been talking about how lying can be habit forming. We have to be diligent and willing to gently address every exaggeration, tall tale, omission of the truth and possible lie.

What if you aren’t sure whether or not your child is lying? Kids who have formed a habit of lying learn to get pretty good at it. But often, you will sense that something isn’t quite right. It’s as if you can smell the lie, even though you’re not sure what it is. If you suspect something is off, address it.

Also, don’t overlook storytelling, especially with a kid who struggles with lying. In yesterday’s post, I explained the kind of storytelling I mean. If you catch your child trying to pass imagination off as truth, tell them him he has a great imagination, and then give him the words to try again. “That’s a great story Johnny. You are so creative. Next time you could say, ‘Mom, I thought of a really cool story. Can I share it with you?’ That way you aren’t pretending that it really happened.”

This is work on our part, but we have to be willing to faithfully (and with great love and gentleness) call them out when we suspect something is up.

The word “lie” carries an element of shame with it. So when you’re confronting this, try not to use it. Instead of saying, “Johnny, I think you’re lying.” Say something like, “Johnny, I think it might have happened differently. Try again, and I’ll help you tell the story the way it really happened.”

Step #3 — Separate the child from the behavior, and communicate love and acceptance for the child.

The goal is for your child to fully understand and believe that you are on her team; you are 100% committed to her success, and you do not think any less of her for struggling with this, just as you wouldn’t think any less of a child who struggles with learning how to read or how to ride a bike.

Let’s say something is broken and you suspect your daughter broke it. You ask her, and she denies it. You can say, “I know it’s hard to explain what really happened. It can be scary to think that mom or dad will be angry with you. But I’m going to help you, and together, we will piece together the real, actual truth and then figure out what to do next. You don’t have to be afraid because I love you all the time, and I think you are awesome when you do great things AND when you make mistakes. I love you because of who you are, not because what you do or don’t do.”

Step #4 — Help the child understand her motives.

Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., author of Smart Love: The Compassionate Alternative  to Discipline that Will Make You a Better Parent and Your Child a Better Person, said, “Children distort reality in an effort to ward off an unwanted turn of events or as a way of feeling in control of themselves and the world…Helping them to understand their motivation makes them realize that they can come to parents and share their struggles.”

Helping our kids understand their own motives can also lead them to develop self-compassion. It’s not about letting them off the hook. It’s about helping them to understand what happened so they become more self aware. Once they understand the need they were trying to meet when they chose to lie, we can help them find a better way of meeting that need.

Step #5 — Praise positive effort along the way

Kids sometimes need help going back and piecing together the truth. You can start by asking, “What happened first?”

As she starts to explain the story, praise every effort of honesty. If you sense that she’s veering away from truth, gently point it out and help direct her back. You can say, “You were running through the living to room to get your brother. But then something happened that made the vase fall and break. Can you remember what it was?”

As she starts to tell what really happened, avoid the temptation to feel offended that she lied to you. Let’s face it, it’s very frustrating when someone lies. You feel like you can never trust them. But remember that for a kid who struggles with truth telling, this is super hard. So when she begins to piece together the real story, let her know that you are aware of the courage she’s showing and that you are proud of her. It will give her the courage to keep going.

Step #6 — Speak a new truth

Once the story comes out, praise your child for her hard work, and then say, “ I am so proud of you because every day you are becoming more and more of a girl who always tells the truth.”

Jody and I believe that this step is critical to the long term success of building a truth teller.

No matter how many times a day you have to confront this issue with the same child, end every single session with those words. It will take time, but eventually, she will build a new identity as a girl who always tells the truth.

Earlier this week, I shared a little about the nine month journey that I took with one of my children to help him tell the truth. During that time, I must have said those words hundreds, if not a thousand times (“Every day you are becoming more and more of a boy who always tells the truth.”). It took nine months to see real victory, but the battle was won because he began to see himself as a truth teller.

In that season of our life, there was a big temptation for our little ones to go into our bedroom, climb up on our headboard and jump on our bed. And this was a huge no, no!

One day, my son came to me with tears in his eyes and a deeply repentant look on his face.  He said, “Mommy, I have to tell you what happened because I am a boy who always tells the truth.” No one had seen him do it. He could have easily gotten away with it, but after nine months of hearing the words “you are becoming a boy who always tells the truth” spoken over him, he accepted his new identity as a truth teller. And so he confessed to climbing on my headboard and jumping on my bed.

Whenever I tell that story, I usually get this question: “Did you discipline him for jumping on the bed?” And the answer is yes. Of course I did. I would have done that boy no service by letting it go. He knew it was a major rule in our house, and he knew he broke the rule. Facing the consequence gave him confidence that he could tell the truth, endure the repercussions with bravery and still be okay.

I told him how very proud of him I was for being courageous and being an excellent truth teller. I was tender and full of love, especially as I helped him face the consequence of jumping on the bed, and afterwards, I told him that I forgive him and said that I love him and that I think he’s a brave boy.

As difficult as this process may be for the child, rest assured that they will always feel a tremendous relief when the truth is told, especially when they see that there is no condemnation in your eyes.

It can be very upsetting when someone lies to you. You feel betrayed and manipulated, and it can make you really angry. Your initial reaction might be, “How could you lie to me like that? How can I ever trust you?” But remember, the person who struggles with this needs to feel freedom from condemnation in this process. They need to know that you are on their side and will help them without judgement.

Be Patient

Be patient in this one. Give this process a year. You may be doing it multiple times a day, everyday, for months on end. Don’t lose heart. Go into it know that it is going to take time. Avoid any form of condemnation, and present yourself as a coach and mentor whose only goal is to help empower your child to become a truth teller, and in time, you will succeed!

We know this is a challenging topic for so many parents. Please feel free to contact us with any questions and to leave comments below.


Jenni Stahlmann

Jenni Stahlmann is the mom of seven kids (ages 1 to 20) including one on the autism spectrum. She and her husband Matthew homeschool the whole brood. Jenni has been a journalist for more than 20 years, having covered government, business and family issues for a wide range of magazines and newspapers. Currently, she and Jody co-host a weekly syndicated radio show, write a weekly newspaper column and freelance articles and speak at churches, political groups and homeschool conventions about parenting on purpose.

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Jenni Stahlmann is the mom of seven kids (ages 1 to 20) including one on the autism spectrum. She and her husband Matthew homeschool the whole brood. Jenni has been a journalist for more than 20 years, having covered government, business and family issues for a wide range of magazines and newspapers. Currently, she and Jody co-host a weekly syndicated radio show, write a weekly newspaper column and freelance articles and speak at churches, political groups and homeschool conventions about parenting on purpose.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

2 thoughts on “6 Steps to Helping Kids Overcome Lying

  1. This has to be the wisest 3 articles on the why and how to prevent lying I have come across. Our daughter struggled with this and it broke our heart. I can now see how we handled her conversations completely wrong. It did get completely out of control thankfully at its pinnacle she had made such a drastic mess out of her life she was motivated to master truth telling. I can see where also my behavior and attitude in my own conversations with some “white” lying. Thankful for your post!

    • Thank you for sharing your experience, Susan, and for being so transparent. Your willingness to be authentic, as you were here, will be a huge blessing to your daughter as she walks through this journey.

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