Food for Thought: Compulsive lying starts young

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Lying often starts in childhood and may be part of the normal developmental process or lying could be an indicator of a more serious problem.

Why do children lie?

Many young children (ages 4-5) often lie because of their inability to distinguish fact from fantasy. An older child or adolescent may lie to avoid doing something, or deny responsibility for their actions to avoid disapproval and punishment.

Others may lie to prevent hurting people’s feelings or to protect their privacy. For some children, lying is a common place behavior they experience all the time. For instance, parents tell white lies, break promises or distort the truth (“I had to lie because--”).

Lying can also become a habit formed through constant practice. It is possible that a child can “lie by reflex” and when confronted insist that it is the truth.

One of the most effective ways of dealing with habitual lying is to give the child the opportunity to retract the lie without fear of consequences.

What to do if a child or adolescent lies? One of the main motivations for lying is fear. Lying is punishment avoidance behavior. By punishing the child for lying you run the risk of reinforcing the fear.

Therefore, this could increase the likelihood of lying in the future, rather than decreasing it. However, remember parents are the most important role models for their children. When a child or adolescent lies, parents should take time to have a serious talk and discuss the difference between make believe and reality, lying and telling the truth. Emphasize the importance of honesty at home and in the community. Give them alternatives to lying.

When does lying become compulsive?

Lying becomes compulsive when a child or individual lies frequently for no reason. Often the child believes the lies, at least at the time s/he is telling them. The lies seem to serve no purpose.

Frequently, the lies are unplanned and impulsive and the behavior is repeated over a long period of time. Behavior may not always be an unconscious act.

If caught, the liar may deny or admit, change and/or adapt if a false story is challenged.

Compulsive lying has often been indicative in children with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder or Conduct Disorder. Current research indicates a possible abnormality in the brain, although this has not been proven.

Compulsive lying usually accompanies other problem behaviors such as stealing, cheating, aggression, violent temper tantrums, constantly losing items and poor behavior in groups, social settings or with authority figures.

Problems such as impulsivity, an apparent inability to link consequences with behavior, and discomfort with social situations seem to be at the heart of the problem. If these children are not helped they grow up to be adults who demonstrate much of the same behaviors.

To help these children, intervention of a qualified counselor is necessary.

Such counselors should be able to provide parents with specific parenting styles and a deeper understanding of the problems they face.

In addition, the child should receive age appropriate psychotherapy and be connected with medical specialists providing the necessary services.

- Dr. Leta A. Livoti Ph.D, LCSW, LCPC is a psychotherapist in Thompson Falls.

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