Behavior & Discipline

The Truth About Your Child’s Lying

Everyone tells a fib now and then. But children with ADHD are actually predisposed to tell habitual lies. Learn about ADHD and lying, and more importantly — what you can do to stop it.

Child with ADHD crossing fingers behind back after lying due to ADD symptoms
Child with ADHD crossing fingers behind back after lying

Few things damage the trust of parents of children with ADHD as quickly or deeply as habitual lying. I don’t mean the little white lies that everyone tells once in a while, but repeated lying that causes conflicts and difficulties.

Some children with ADHD may not be dishonest as much as they are victims of uncontrolled ADHD symptoms. Barry’s mother, for example, tells him to come right home after school, because the family is going out to dinner. Distracted and rushing, he mumbles, “Yeah, OK, Mom.” In the course of a hectic day, he forgets his mother’s reminder and walks in an hour late. When his parents confront him, Barry stubbornly argues that his mom never told him to be home early. Is he lying? No, he forgot. It is an organization and record-keeping issue, not an honesty issue.

Manage Symptoms of ADHD and Lying

After working with many parents and teens, I’ve found that serious lies sometimes spring from an inability to treat and manage ADHD symptoms. A parent should discipline a teen for his untruths, but he should also help him manage the symptoms that may have caused him to lie. For example:

Impulsivity. David asks to borrow the family car to drive to the library to do research. Being impulsive, he detours to the mall to catch the new action movie. When asked later how his research was going, David assures his father that his time was well spent. Unfortunately, for David, his sister spotted the car in the cinema parking lot. Busted! Lies should have consequences-in David’s case, he wasn’t allowed to use the car for two weeks. But David’s parents should also talk with their son and his doctor about possibly adjusting his ADHD medication, or adding behavior therapy to his treatment plan.

Inability to stay on task. Trish is handed a note by her math teacher, warning her that she has a dozen incomplete homework assignments. She is too ashamed and scared to discuss it with her parents. When the progress report is mailed home, she hides it from them, trying to avoid embarrassment and their wrath. Trish’s behavior calls for discipline, but her inability to finish homework requires organization strategies.

Irresponsibility. Doug always washes the dinner dishes on Tuesdays, but on this particular Tuesday, he would rather have a root canal than wash another dirty plate. “I can’t do the dishes tonight, Mom! I have a paper to write!” he announces, sounding regretful. Aversion to boring tasks, combined with impulsivity, is common among teens with ADHD. Lying to escape responsibility is never OK, but Doug’s parents should think about ways to make boring tasks more exciting — maybe by playing a DVD on the kitchen TV while he scrubs away.

Punishing Lies

Parents should figure out why lying occurs and why it persists. If a child is struggling with problems at school or with peers, parents should deal with lying as an academic or social skills problem. If lies are deliberate and malicious — involving alcohol or drug use, shoplifting, or other delinquent behavior — they should be dealt with forcefully and consistently. That is the only way to discourage such negative behavior.

Have a heartfelt talk with your teen about the serious consequences of breaking the trust between the two of you. Equally important, tell him how he can repair it. Follow these rules:

  • Establish consequences for telling lies. Discuss these with your teen early on.
  • Confront lying when it happens, but do so in a calm, respectful manner. The most important goal is to teach responsible behavior, not to criticize or blame.
  • Be consistent and fair in enforcing consequences. Let the punishment fit the crime.
  • Demand accountability. Taking responsibility means owning up to the lie, showing repentance, and offering a sincere apology to you and, in some cases, the family.
  • Reward honesty. When little George Washington told the truth about cutting down the cherry tree, he demonstrated character and, thus, received a lighter punishment.
  • Be honest yourself. Parents are the strongest role models in their teens’ lives.

Even when you’re tempted to blow a gasket, maintain a respectful relationship with your teenager. Mutual respect does not ensure honesty, but it certainly encourages it.

How to Be a Lie Detector

Is a statement consistent? An honest statement is typically clear and consistent. A lie often sounds sketchy and includes contradictory information.

Does a story sound rehearsed? A truthful statement is spontaneous. A lie might sound stiff, like a prepared speech.

What do facial expressions tell you? An honest person looks natural and relaxed. A person telling a lie might have a strained facial expression.

What does the body language say? An honest person looks comfortable and is directly engaged in the conversation. A dishonest person may appear distant, look down at the floor, or avoid eye contact.

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