Updated: Jun 22
I have had some kids tell some doozie stories lately. It never ceases to amaze me the stories kids can come up with. I have heard some very creative stories about what is going on at home, what happened to biological families, and random stories of the child being like a superhero.
Should parents, teachers, and counselors implement some type of discipline for this behavior? Maybe. I don't think there is a one size fits all answer. I believe the behavior is motivated. There is something compelling children to tell their tales. Some might be trauma related while others might be deceptive. Some children are just very creative. So what should the adults do?
While working with children who have experienced trauma, I have found a theme in many of their stories: they portray themselves as superheroes. Instead of stating what really happened, they tell a tale of what they wanted to happen. They discuss the situation as if they had overpowered the bad guy. In a sense, this is healthy rescripting. It is a technique I used to help children overcome nightmares. However, we do want them to be in touch with reality. When I hear these stories, I try to ask as many questions as I can or I try to make statements to normalize their feelings. I may ignore the superhero aspect and make statements like "It must have been scary to have an adult hurt you that way." Making sense of trauma is very difficult for children and they all often use strange ways to cope.
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Some children are brilliantly creative, telling all sorts of stories. They love to daydream and come up with new ideas. I find that these children are often prone to lies, but do not have ill intent. They need direction on how to communicate their thoughts appropriately. For instance, telling kids to say "It would be cool if..." before their story changes it from a lie to a creative idea. Adults often stifle creativity by overreacting to the situation rather than understanding the heart of the child. Simple direction can go a long way in helping these children continue to pursue creativity but avoid deception.
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The lying behavior that needs to be addressed with children is when they are purposefully deceiving others. I could be as innocuous as not admitting to not changing the toilet paper roll to more sinister plots to harm others. The consequences should be scaled based on the offense. Children need to learn the consequences of their poor behavior. They also need adults to model appropriate behavior. Helping the child identify alternative ways to make their statement can help them make better choices in the future. It is much harder to break poor habits when they see role models making poor choices.
Recognizing the diversity of motivations behind lying, I realized that I needed to help children become more aware of the reason they are telling lies. I created a card game called Liar, Liar Pants on Fire which highlights many different motivations for lying. It includes discussion questions to help children process their thoughts and intentions. Since behavior is motivated, they need to find another way to accomplish their goal. Once the motivation is identified, a new plan of action can be formed to help achieve the goal.
Parents are often very concerned about lying behavior - wanting to nip it before it gets out of hand. I hope that these recommendations can help address the behaviors based on the motivations. There is no magic formula to follow in parenting. Some kids just need to be told once to stop and they are done, while others carry on with their behaviors for a long time. Getting to the heart of the problem is the best shortcut available.