Rewards & Consequences

Stretching the Truth

Use rewards and gentle encouragement to discourage fibbing from your child with ADHD.

Hyperactive boy with ADHD frowning and staring ahead worrying about bullying
Hyperactive boy with ADHD frowning and staring ahead worrying about bullying

All children lie occasionally. But because of impulsivity and low self-esteem — and their tendency to make mistakes that they think need covering up — kids with ADHD are especially prone to stretching the truth. That worries parents. Lying can cause kids to lose friends and get into trouble with teachers and other authority figures.

How should parents react when they catch their child in a lie? What can be done to help a child recognize the importance of telling the truth?

First, realize that the impulse to tell fibs does not make your youngster a bad person, nor is it evidence of a character flaw. It’s just a byproduct of ADHD — almost a symptom. And like other symptoms of the disorder, it can often be helped by medication.

Even with drug therapy, your child may need extra coaching to understand the importance of truth telling. Here are the strategies I suggest to the parents I work with:

Explain the Downside of Deceit.

Some kids tell lies out of insecurity, concocting fanciful stories in an effort to boost their popularity. One girl I work with, Susan, told her schoolmates that she was friends with a pop star, and that this star was going to pick her up from school in a limousine. When her mom got wind of this tale, she confronted Susan, who tearfully admitted she had made the whole thing up to seem “more interesting.”

[Self-Test: Symptoms of Inattentive ADHD in Children]

Punishing an insecure child like Susan is likely to do more harm than good. Instead, make sure your child understands what will happen if she gets caught in a lie. Ask, “What if your friends discover your lie?” The downside of telling a lie — even a relatively benign one like the one Susan told — may be obvious to grownups. But kids need to be reminded that lying usually causes more problems than it eliminates — and that if they stretch the truth today, there may be fallout tomorrow.

Encourage Your Child to Pause Before Speaking.

Instead of taking time to respond appropriately (and truthfully) to tough questions, impulsive kids blurt out an answer — even if the answer is an exaggeration or a blatant falsehood. Teach your child to silently count to three before speaking, and to use that time to formulate a truthful answer.

If your child says something you know to be untrue, stay calm. Reacting angrily, or with obvious dismay, will only make your child feel the need to tell additional lies to defuse the situation — and end up digging herself into an even deeper hole.

Give Your Child the Opportunity to Reconsider Her Answer.

Say, “Did you really finish your homework? I don’t think you did. I’ll give you another chance to answer, with no consequences for lying.” Whether this “truth check” is done immediately or a few hours later, it teaches kids to second-guess an untruthful answer.

[Self-Test: Symptoms of Hyperactive & Impulsive ADHD in Children]

Giving your child another chance does not mean that she can escape responsibility for the underlying matter. For example, even though the child will not be punished for lying about having completed his homework, he should still be required to complete it.

Reward Honesty.

When a child lies to cover up mistakes or misbehavior, it can be tempting to pile on the “consequences.” But in encouraging honesty, rewards are often better than punishment.

After one of my clients caught her son, Joe, lying about an incident at school, she decided to try something new: She told Joe that, if she “caught” him being truthful, he would earn a token redeemable for a trip to the movies. Joe has gotten a lot better at owning up to his misadventures.