When a parent comes in with a chief complaint being that their child seems to compulsively lie its time to pause and consider how to think about this issue in a different and more constructive way. Any problematic behavior, be it in childhood or adulthood, has what is referred to as a secondary gain. In the case of a child who is lying to the adults in her/his life, the idea is that she/he isnt lying merely for the sake of doing so. Rather, they are engaging in a behavior that is getting a need met, even if negative consequences are encountered along the way. This need could relate to attention seeking from an absent or disengaged parent, it could be distraction technique from another problem, it could even be out of plain old boredom. It could also be an expression of anger, frustration, sadness or some other negative emotional state. My job is to try to translate what a behavior, in this case lying, means and help identify ways to get the needs to be met in less self destructive and socially inappropriate ways.
Sometimes, it is pretty clear from the outset what a behavior is communicating, as in the case of a child whos experienced some acute loss or whose parents are divorcing, for example. Other times, it can be quite subtle and less obvious and take a little more time and patience to identify. But theres always a reason for a behavior, and it can comfort parents to know that once these reasons are uncovered, the behavior usually decreases significantly or disappears altogether as the child starts to find new coping skills and healthier ways to meet their needs. Lying can also be a learned behavior, so engaging the parents and getting as much info about the environment is vital. I’ve found that if I outright challenge the lies with a client, I often don’t get very far and/or it starts to feel like a power struggle which is really counterproductive. I also coach parents to take the same approach at home.
Lastly, a very helpful way to look at lying behavior, in particular, is to reframe it as “storytelling”, when appropriate, and try to find a way into the stories to discover themes and meaning. The use of narrative therapy can be a useful tool here with some children as well as therapeutic play. Ive even helped children develop interests in things like writing or acting as more socially appropriate ways to express and explore needs to tell stories or act out different characters. Ultimately, the more open a parent is to the process of tuning into their childs needs and working in partnership with me, the more effective and creative I can be in finding ways to stop a problematic behavior.
By Samantha Wright Wakach, LCSW