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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Thursday, May 16, 2013

When Children Lie, Evade, Misrepresent,or Exercise Tact: What's Going On With This "Little Liar"?

Nobody really likes a liar. When an adult lies to us we often have a variety of unpleasant feelings and thoughts: He must think I’m a complete fool! She’s just trying to get her own way dishonestly! They must be crazy to think anybody would believe that story!  Or, more forgivingly, we think: This poor soul is completely mistaken! I should treat him very cautiously, as he must be mentally ill to believe what he’s just said!
On the other hand, we appreciate and approve some forms of lying. A neighbor asks another neighbor how she likes her quite hideous hat, and the second neighbor replies that it’s “interesting” or “really different”. We, who are glad we didn’t get asked this difficult question, may admire the evasive response, which is actually a lie: that hat isn’t interesting, it’s just horrible!

Successful lying requires quite a bit of cognitive skill. The good liar has to think about what the recipient of the lie knows or could know, about how likely the lying statement is to actually be true, and about how people act when telling the truth. He or she also has to be prepared for follow-up questions and be able to answer with verisimilitude. No wonder children are not very good at lying!

When children lie, we are relieved when they are [infrequently] just being tactful. But if it’s not tact, we have the same unpleasant feelings we’d have about an adult, and some extra ones too. In complicated ways, we are deeply disturbed by child lies. We think that children should trust us and be not just candid but transparent in their thoughts when we want to know something about them. When they tell us lies, we think that they don’t trust us, or that in some way they are “not really children”--  not the innocent creatures of our fantasies. Some of us begin to think that if a child lies, there are terrible things in store--  not just lying, but stealing and violence and of course sexual behavior. As a result, people sometimes freak out when they detect a child’s lie.

Here’s an example, sent to me by an acquaintance who is part of a Facebook group that focuses on Reactive Attachment Disorder. The example appears from context to involve an adopted or foster child:

“So the lying in our house is reaching new heights. The last couple weeks have been very interesting. I started using the suggested phrase, ‘You can do X (what we want her to do) or you can choose Y (the consequences of not doing it)’. On Monday she lied to me again and got caught thus she had to walk home from school. I was within 100 yards at all times but she did not know that. We live about 1 km from her school and she was home within 15 minutes.  She was scared poopless!! Both yesterday and today, she tried to lie to me  but I could see it all over her face and I pushed until I got the truth.  It took about 46 mins yesterday and 30 mins plus missed swimming today. She is more afraid of the trouble she will get for doing something wrong than she is of the consequences of lying. Clearly we need to step up the lying consequences!! Tonight’s conclusion got me tho. Remember she is just turning 6. Her response tonight as to why she did what she did was, “Because I wanted to and you weren’t there.” In other words, I did what I wanted regardless of what I knew I should do simply because my mom was not watching me for 2 mins. The action was beyond juvenile and reminded me of when I couldn’t leave a toddler unattended for more than 30 seconds.”

There are so many issues in this statement that I hardly know where to begin. First, when I initially skimmed this, I assumed up until almost the end that the child was 12 or 13. Instead, she is going on six, an age at which most actions are “juvenile” by definition and at which many children have the cognitive breakthroughs to Theory of Mind that let them know  how other people can be confused or distracted by what is said to them--  i.e., how to lie. It’s also an age when children have begun to discriminate between what they want and what their parents want, and to think they should get their own way sometimes. John Bowlby, the developer of attachment theory (not therapy) spoke of this period of family relationships as ideally working toward “goal-corrected partnerships”, in which parent and child negotiate or modify what they each want because they also want to maintain their relationship. It is clear that the mother of the “little liar” was not about to enter into a goal-corrected partnership, however, and my guess is that she believes that her child must submit completely to parental authority in order to “become attached” and develop normally. 

Let’s look at some other problems here. Presumably it was safe for “little liar” to walk a short distance home by herself. It might actually be a good thing for her to develop self-reliance by doing this regularly. But mother has framed this as a “consequence” (read: punishment) and therefore something to be disliked. The child is “scared poopless” as the mother announces dramatically with a couple of exclamation marks that would appear to indicate her own gratification at this. Why is the child so scared, other than the fact that she has been told walking home alone is a bad thing being done to her because she was bad? The obvious answer is that this “consequence” is essentially a threat of abandonment, and thus has terrible implications for an adopted or foster child, who has already experienced at least one abandonment. Mother has chosen something she can envision as a harmless punishment, but it is one that resonates with the child’s deepest concerns and needs--  and mother appears to congratulate herself on having found a perfectly legal way to wreak  serious pain.   
When people rely on punishment to manage children’s behavior--  and let’s not beat around the bush, “consequence” means punishment--  they (the parents) often paint themselves into a corner. If they find that punishment doesn’t do the job, they can only think of one alternative: to escalate the punishment. The “little liar’s” mother says so. If the child is more afraid of being caught doing something wrong than of the consequences of lying--  voila, the answer is to step up the consequences of lying. (She would certainly not want to step down whatever punishment the child is so afraid of, would she?)  Whatever punishment people use, and however effective it may be at times, the problem arises when it does not work, or the results are not as quick and complete as desired. Very few parents who are believers in punishment can think of any answer other than intensifying the ineffective punishment. Like “little liar’s” mother, they seek a level of punishment that will be truly distressing to the child, and regrettably may be satisfied by seeing that the child is miserable (“scared poopless!!”) rather than evaluating whether the desired behavior change was brought about by the parental action.

One other thing, before I yield to the temptation to become sarcastic here—what about the mother’s interpretation of the child’s statement that she wanted to do something and “you weren’t here”? Mother has read this to mean that “you must always spend all your time watching me and never have a relaxed moment.” I would suggest reframing this as meaning something like “I want to control what I do, but when there’s no caring adult here I just can’t manage it yet”. Readers who have been teachers may remember Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development”--  when a child is beginning to master a skill but hasn’t yet got it under control, he or she may be able to do it when an interested, familiar adult is nearby to give support, but not when alone. We often think about this as applying to tying shoes or doing simple arithmetic.but it applies to “behaving well” too.

It seems that “little liar” has told her mother “I need you!” by her fear when walking alone and by her statement that she cannot behave as asked without plenty of support. The mother does not seem to have heard these messages. Instead, she has framed the relationship as a fight to the finish between the child and herself. Unfortunately, whatever the outcome in such a fight, it is the child who loses.
Guiding children to understand rules about lying is an important parental job. But, it can’t be done with the approach used by “little liar’s” mother. 


  1. I love this post.

    I hate that this blog needs to exist, but I am so glad that it does.

    1. Thank you, Anon-- my feelings are like yours!

  2. I found this blog after doing a search for "Attachment Therapy Jean Mercer." I had previously read 1 of your books and had gone over the Advocates for Children in Therapy website. I'm a BSW student and I have the intention of going all the way to my PhD. I'm appalled by the amount of social workers who encourage AT.

    Sorry for that but I wanted to give some background before I ask my next question since this is the first time I've posted here.

    How would you address a liar? My oldest daughter is 10 and lies quite frequently although it has gotten better. When she lies there are consequences (punishment if that's what you want to call it). Generally speaking she lies about playing with something in bed when she should be going to sleep so the consequence is to take whatever it is she's playing with for a few days. Although she lies about other things too, like sneaking candy. For the record, it's not the eating of candy that is bothersome, it's the hiding of wrappers all over her room instead of throwing them away that got us to the point where we limit candy... we simply don't want trash stashed everywhere; might attract bugs or rodents.
    My 3 year old has begun trying to lie but of course her lies are very obvious. They are most harmful, though, if she is trying to get her older sister in trouble and she lies and says she did something she really didn't. For her, since she is so much younger, we sit her down and talk to her about lying and why it's wrong. I'm not sure if that's age appropriate or not, to be honest. My oldest didn't lie at 3. Both of my kids are mine although my husband legally adopted my oldest when her biological father decided he no longer wanted anything to do with her in 2009. We had been married for the 4 years of her life. She has been in therapy to help her deal with the rejection because it wreaked havoc on her behavior for awhile. She's been tested gifted and does very well in school although more than one teacher has suggested she might be ADHD. Her counselor didn't think so but there are times I think she may be. However, I don't believe she needs to be medicated since it's really not effecting her school performance, per se.

    Ok that was a lot of information; any advice?

    1. Hi Ginger-- I'm glad to hear from a SW student who asks questions! Also, I want to congratulate you on approaching your children's untruthfulness as a problem to be worked on, not as meaning that they are spawn of Satan or whatever.

      I don't claim to have all the answers about this-- if I did, my sons and daughters-in-law would no doubt speak up loudly-- but I think there are some ideas you can use to think this through.

      For your older daughter, I would say that the kind of lying you're talking about is typical of older pre-teens. She wants to do some things you don't like, she doesn't share your concerns about them, and she knows that the simplest solution is to try to make sure you don't know what she does. Only, she isn't very good at concealing and doesn't understand that adults notice wrappers where they shouldn't be.

      Oldest is well along into the goal-corrected partnership stage discussed by Bowlby, and since she's doing well in general I would guess that she's developed some of the negotiation skills needed for such a partnership. This makes me think that if you ask her how she thinks these two problems should be solved, the two of you may be able to come to satisfactory terms. For example, one option for the playing with things in bed as that if she wants to do this, she goes to bed 15 minutes earlier. (But if she seems to be getting enough sleep anyway,it might be a non-problem as it is?) If your only real concern about the candy is the wrappers, she could have a special wastebasket for them. I'm not saying that these are THE solutions,just that there probably are some, and if the two of you can learn now to negotiate and work together on problems like these, the teenage years will work much better. Just remember that negotiation has to be mutual and she has to take part of the responsibility for brainstorming some solutions and choosing one to try-- it can't be just you telling her you've found a solution.

      And forget the consequences-- the only consequence of failure is that you have to try together to find a different solution. Quite a long time ago the psychologist William Glasser wrote a lot about using this system in families and in schools, and I personally have found his ideas very useful.

      The problem with your younger daughter, I think, is less about lying than about "getting people in trouble". Do you think she's feeling vulnerable in conflicts with her older sister? Are there ways she can be supported by the family that are not happening now? In addition, you might want to discuss with both girls what are some appropriate rules about "telling on" someone. What things do you really need to tell an adult about? Is just breaking a rule enough, or does it have to be about something dangerous? This is a good conversation to have in general, because kids find themselves in awkward positions like this at school as well as at home. You can use the girls' thoughts to try to set some rules about "telling" in general. Then if the younger one "tells" about something that isn't included in the rules, you just have to do your best to ignore what she says. Now of course I'm saying this not knowing what she "tells" about untruthfully. It's one thing if she says Older is sneaking candy, another if she says Older is setting fire to the drapes,which is a lot harder to ignore. But I'd really start by trying to improve her (Younger's) position in the family and her situation with her sister.

      Good luck,and I'dlove to hear what you work out--

  3. Such a great and important post. I unfortunately see a lot of griping about kids who are "lying," but little understanding of why.

    One question: It must be incredibly confusing for most children. They see adults lying all the time, but then they are punished for doing the same thing. With my non-psych background I tend to categorize lies in generally in two ways: (1) the more benign lie where the benefit to the other person outweighs the harm, ie, the little white lie to spare feelings; and (2) the lie that is wholly self-interested (whether for gain or self-preservation) with no corresponding "good" for another person. It has to be hard for a child to draw that kind of cognitive distinction until a certain age. When are children able to make this kind of distinction, on average?

    1. You just ask the simple questions, don't you-- I don't think!

      I think children probably have the basic cognitive ability, including Theory of Mind, to make your distinction by the time they are 6. The real question at that point is, are they motivated to make the distinction? Have they learned from observation and from direct instruction that it's desirable not to hurt people's feelings, and also that it's honorable, decent, or whatever, to be truthful when only personal advantage will result from lying? Or even that in the long run there is no real personal advantage to lying, because when you're found out the unpleasantness is even greater than if you'd confessed to begin with?

      Depending on the consistency of the experiences children have with adults, and on the adults' dependence on power displays to enforce the behavior they want, we see children at different ages actually applying the distinctions you make. And like many adults they may think the distinction applies to other people's lies, but that all of their own are justifiable.

      In the real world, also, the distinction that seems so simple may not be simple to make. Is it dishonest to download music you haven't paid for? Is it dishonest to plagiarize someone else's publication? Both of these are lies in some sense, but many adults don't see how anyone is hurt by these practices.

      Some parents plainly think that the best motivation for children to discriminate between lies, and to be tactful but not self-serving, is to punish them severely for the latter (self-serving lies). I don't think this is the case, because among many other things anxiety alters motivation and also depresses the relevant basic cognitive abilities.

      So, I'd say the answer to your question is "not before 6", but as for an average age, that depends on the person's experiences.

      I'm glad to see that your dichotomy does not include "crazy lying", or lying in ways that are obviously going to be disbelieved. This behavior is presented as a symptom of Reactive Attachment Disorder by some attachment therapy websites. In my opinion, it's the result of a paralyzing fear on the part of the child.

    2. P.S. By about 4, children are able in experimental situations to decide that an actor is "not nice" if he's seen to conceal something someone else wants. But whether they themselves should be thought "not nice" if they conceal, is another question.

  4. Dr. Mercer,
    It wouldn't let me reply directly to your comment so I was forced to make a new comment. Thank you for offering some suggestions. The problem with my oldest is when she stays awake playing she's a bear in the morning but in addition to taking away the toy (usually her Nintendo DS although once it was a book, which was difficult because obviously we want to encourage her to read)we've put her to bed 15 minutes early the next night which actually works decently because it drives her crazy to go to bed before her younger sister. My younger one will lie to say her older sister hit her or something like that. The problem is sometimes my older child will hit her (not hard, typical sibling rivalry) so the problem is trying to figure out who's telling the truth when I know they are both capable of lying about it. Ahh the joys of motherhood :)
    I certainly don't think my kids are the spawn of the devil and both are securely attached to both me and my husband, although I did review the RADQ and found that, funny enough, there are times when both of my kids would qualify as having attachment disorders according to AT.
    Again, thanks for your advice and I look forward to reading you blogs. I've been checking out your other blog as well. I find them incredibly enlightening.

  5. You do know the RADQ is not a reliable assessment of anything, don't you?

    Sounds as though everybody's on the same page about problem-solving, and the little "spawns" are not doing too badly-- but don't forget about the idea of asking them to help solve the problem. Doesn't mean you have to do what they say, but working together is a step in the right direction.

    Of course whatever solution you arrive at, they will produce a different problem tomorrow and you have to run as fast as you can to keep up!

    And, thanks for the kind words--

  6. Yes I know the RADQ is a piece of crap, which was my point. My kids do not have attachment issues yet according to that stupid thing they both have some and could benefit from AT LOL

    1. Sorry not to "get it"--- but I get anxious when people refer to the RADQ!

  7. My take on the story was this: she hates it when the kid lies, but she hates it more when the kid tells the truth: "I wanted to do it, and you weren't here (to mess with me)!" Some people need to make up their mind!

    1. When someone is very angry, no matter what another person does, it can be cause for increased anger. To my mind,the issue is how this mother could be helped to feel less angry and resentful. Unfortunately, the chat groups seem designed to help each person chew on her anger, increase it, and feel justified rather than worried about her emotional responses to the child.