Why do I lie for no reason?

Why People Lie

March, 2009

Avoiding Punishment

“I thought I was only going 55 miles an hour officer” claims the driver speeding at 70 mph. “My wristwatch stopped so I had no idea that I got home 2 hours after my curfew”, says the teenager. Avoiding punishment is the most frequent reason people tell serious lies, regardless of their age, whether it be to avoid the speeding ticket or being grounded. In serious lies there is a threat of significant damage if the lie is discovered: loss of freedom, money, job, relationship, reputation, or even life itself.

It is only in such serious lies, in which the liar would be punished if detected, that lies are detectable from demeanor – facial expression, body movements, gaze, voice, or words. The threat imposes an emotional load, generating involuntary changes that can betray the lie. The lies of everyday life where it doesn’t matter if they are detected – no punishment or rewards — that lies are easily told flawlessly.

Concealing Reward or Benefit

In serious lies the falsehood is usually told to conceal the reward or benefit the liar obtained by breaking a rule or explicit expectation. The curfew violator was able to stay longer at the party; the speeding driver is rushing because he pushed the snooze button when the alarm went off. The husband who claims the ringer on the telephone in his office must have been turned off when he was ‘working’ late – in a hotel room with his girlfriend – will pay no price if his lie succeeds. In each of these examples, the rule breaker decides before breaking a rule that he or she will if questioned lie to cover the cheating. Sometimes the reward could have been achieved – a high mark on an exam — without cheating but not as easily, it would have taken more effort (hours of study in this example).

Protecting Someone from Harm

Protecting someone else from harm is the next most important reason why people tell serious lies. You don’t want your friend, you fellow worker, your sibling, your spouse – anyone who you care about — to get punished, even if you don’t agree with what the person you are protecting did that put him or her in danger. It is not certain whether society approves of these lies. When policemen refuse to testify against a fellow officer they know has broken the law, we respect their motives but many people believe they should be truthful. Yet the terms we use – rat, fink, snitch – are derogatory. Anonymous call-in lines exist so those who volunteer information can avoid any loss of reputation or danger by informing. Do we have different standards for people who take the initiative to inform as compared to those who inform when directly asked to reveal information? I will reconsider this issue in a later newsletter when I write about children’s lies and why we don’t want them to tattle.


To protect yourself from being harmed even when you have not broken any rule is still another motive. The child home alone who tells the stranger knocking on the door “my father is taking a nap come back later”, has committed no misdeed that he or she is concealing; it is a self-protection lie.

Some lies are told to win admiration from others. Boasting about something untrue is an obvious instance. It is common in children, some adolescents, and even adults. If discovered it harms the reputation of the boaster, but not much more than that. Claiming falsely to have earned money for previous investors moves into the criminal realm.

Maintaining Privacy

To maintain privacy, without asserting that right, is another reason why people may lie. A daughter answering her mother’s question “who were you talking to on the phone just now”, by naming a girlfriend, not the boy who is asking her out on a date, is an example. It is only when there is a strong trusting relationship, that a child would feel brave enough to say “that’s private”, announcing the right to have a secret. Another topic I will return to in my newsletter about trust.

The Thrill of it All!

Some people lie for the sheer thrill of getting away with it, testing their unsuspected power. Many children will at some point lie to their parents simply to see if they can do it. Some people do this all the time enjoying the power they obtain in controlling the information available to the target.

Avoiding Embarrassment

Avoiding embarrassment is still another motive for some serious and many trivial lies. The child who claims the wet seat resulted from spilling a glass of water, not from wetting her pants is an example, if the child did not fear punishment for her failure, just embarrassment.

Avoiding embarrassment is relevant to many less serious lies that come under the rubric of lies-of-everyday-life. Very often people lie to get out of an awkward social situation. They may not know how to do it – “can’t get a babysitter” offered to avoid another dull evening and food. “Sorry I am on my way out the door”, an excuse given by people who do not feel brave enough to be truthful even to a totally unknown telephone solicitor.

Being Polite

Then there are the deceptions that are required by politeness — “thanks so much for the lovely party” or “that color really looks good on you”. I don’t consider these to be lies, anymore than bluffing in poker is a lie, acting in a play is lying, or the asking price not being the selling price. In all of these instances the target does not expect to be told the truth, there is notification. But the impostor is a liar, as is the con man, because they are taking advantage of our expectation that we will be told the truth. More about this will be in my newsletter about the different techniques for lying.

Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.

Is Compulsive Lying a Personality Disorder?

In Mental Health, Treatment Programs March 5th, 2018

It can sometimes be natural for people to feel compelled to lie because they want to hide their true feelings or be secretive about aspects of their life. Most people that lie have certain motivations for doing so and are selective about the things they choose to hide or lie about. A compulsive liar on the other hand will make up false statements and lie uncontrollably for no discernible reason.

Compulsive lying is a complicated issue that has not yet been classified as its own unique disorder. However, compulsive lying behavior is often associated with personality disorders such as narcissistic and borderline disorder. People that compulsively lie often have a myriad of other issues that are related or are causing them to constantly make up facts or hide things from others.

As part of a symptom of a personality disorder, it is possible for people to reduce and minimize their lying behavior if they receive treatment. Addressing the root causes of their lying and receiving therapy and medication for their personality disorder can help manage their need to constantly lie. As long as the person is willing to admit that they need help and can recognize their lying habit, they can take steps to improve their condition.

The Behavior of a Compulsive Liar

The difference between an average person’s lying behavior and a compulsive liar are the reasons for their lies. When a person with no mental health issues lies they usually have a specific purpose in mind for lying. They might be trying to hide an affair and lie to their spouse or try to get ahead at their job by lying to their boss.

Compulsive liars are not necessarily trying to manipulate others or achieve anything by their incessant lying behavior. A compulsive liar seems to lie regardless of what the situation is and for seemingly no reason at all. Their lying becomes a habit and is second nature to them in a way that they can no longer control.

For someone with an issue of compulsive lying, their need to bend and stretch the truth becomes comforting to them. Being honest can feel difficult and uncomfortable and they feel much more at ease making up false information. This feeling of comfort they feel when lying can become addictive because it makes them feel safe and impels them to lie even more.

When a compulsive liar makes up a lie it can often be believable because it has some truthful elements to it. The lies that they tell tend to show them in a positive light or elicit sympathy and attention from others. Their lies are sometimes a way for them to create a different persona or get people to notice them.

Personality Disorders and Compulsive Lying

As part of the underlying personality disorder that causes them to lie, many compulsive liars have serious issues with self-esteem. They make up lies that show them in a positive light because they are uncomfortable with their true selves and feel that they aren’t good enough or worthy. They might lie to appear more interesting or admirable to people who may be completely unaware that their statements are untrue.

People with issues like borderline personality disorder may lie constantly because they want to avoid feelings of shame. They feel incredibly intense emotions and their lying habit may help alleviate some of their feelings of low self-esteem, shame and weakness. They might lie to cover up aspects of their personality or mistakes that they are embarrassed about.

Compulsive liars with personality disorders are also lying because they have impulsive behavior that they can’t control. People with borderline personality disorder tend to do things without thinking about the consequences and their impulsiveness can cause a lot of problems for them. They may lie simply because they are not thinking and they naturally respond with lies instead of speaking honestly.

People with narcissistic personality disorder often lie because they have a highly developed false self. They may lie to make themselves appear smarter or more superior than others so that they can hide any weakness. Narcissists want to make others feel less than them and they may lie as a way to make others believe that they are inferior.

Different disorders may lead to various lying habits but ultimately a compulsive liar chooses to lie because they have a compulsive need to cover up their true self. Their lying behavior always has internal motives rather than an external reason. However, the more often they lie the more their behavior is going to have an impact on their career, their relationships and their family.

Anyone with an issue of compulsive lying can learn to change their behavior if they receive a diagnosis for their underlying personality disorder and professional treatment. If you or someone you know compulsively lies then contact a mental health professional for help.

The Mental Health of a Pathological Liar

Whenever someone lies it can be hurtful and damaging to a relationship, causing problems with trust and accountability. People can lie to hide their behavior or pursue activities that they feel they might be judged for. However, some people may compulsively lie to others as a habitual problem and will do so without any discernible reason or motive.

Compulsive or pathological lying is usually indicative of some type of mental health condition or a symptom of a personality disorder such as borderline or narcissistic disorder. When someone compulsively lies and cannot control their lying habits it is usually not due to a moral failing on their part but a real mental health problem that they may not be aware of. Although pathological lying is somewhat controversial in the field of psychology, it is agreed that the behavior is associated with mental illness.

Lying can be a normal part of our lives but a person who pathologically lies can create all kinds of problems for themselves. As with any kind of mental illness, compulsive lying needs to be treated because it can interfere with a person’s ability to work, maintain relationships and function in normal life. Pathological liars need to minimize their behavior in order to connect well with others and have healthier habits.

What is Pathological Lying?

When an average person lies, they usually have a specific motive for doing so. However, a pathological liar will lie constantly, without reason or any immediate pressure that is causing them to lie. It is also known in the mental health field as intentional dissimulation and it can have a range of diagnoses such as antisocial, narcissistic or borderline personality disorder.

People who compulsively lie seem to have words flowing out of their mouth and they don’t really think about the lies they are constructing. They can easily transition from telling a lie based on the notion that it could have happened and then having a sense of conviction that it did. However, when pressed a compulsive liar may eventually admit that what they are saying isn’t true.

It can be difficult to understand why a pathological liar is creating false stories when they are not attempting to hide something or trying to purposefully manipulate others. Most often their lies tend to present them in a positive light which is why some theorize that the problem has to do with self-esteem. Their deceptions can help create a different sense of self and the liar does so because they are unhappy with themselves.

Their lies can be driven by the need for approval and to seem like someone else because they fear their own true self is unworthy. Essentially, their lies have an internal rather than an external motivation. Their lies can sometimes have truthful elements but they invent them without thinking and can get carried away by their own stories.

Causes and Treatment for Compulsive Lying

Aside from issues of self esteem there can be other underlying causes that lead someone to engage in compulsive lying behavior. Often they are people who have experienced early childhood trauma that has affected their mental health as they developed into adults. Issues of abuse and parent modeling may also be at the root of a person’s need to constantly lie.

Past trauma can contribute to a person’s development of a mental illness like borderline personality disorder and they may use lying as one of their coping mechanisms. The lies can help them escape from negative feelings or a lack of self worth stemming from an abusive childhood. However, their lying behavior often leads to more pressure, stress and relationship problems that can ultimately make life harder for them.

In order to receive treatment for compulsive lying it is important for an individual to get a diagnosis from a professional psychiatrist. They can determine what type of mental illness is at the root of their lying behavior. Once they are diagnosed, they can be given a treatment plan that will focus on minimizing the symptoms of their condition including their tendency to lie compulsively.

It is important for treatment that the patient is able to recognize their condition and have a desire to stop their habit of lying. If an individual is forced into therapy and they don’t recognize that they have a problem it can be difficult to treat them. If the patient understands that they need to change their behavior then they are likely to have more success in recovery.

If you or someone you know is a pathological liar, then there may be an underlying mental illness that needs to be treated by a therapist. Find a psychiatrist who can offer an accurate diagnosis and suggest a treatment plan to help minimize the habit of compulsive lying.

Tags: borderline, mental health, narcissistic disorder, personality disorders

The Different Types of Liars and How to Deal with Them

Regardless of who you are, it is impossible to not come across a person who lies. There are many different types of liars. Lies can be insignificant “white lies” or serious, hurtful, bold-faced lies. Regardless of the different types of liars, lying is one of the most common things that injure relationships.
Determining if someone has lied is as simple as checking facts, but there are other ways. For example, reading a person’s body language, sentence structure, or paying close attention to the difference between intonations of a statement will tell you if a person is lying.

So, this begs the question… Why do people lie? Some people dwell in self-preservation whereas others are habitual liars. Regardless of the reason, there are different psychological reasons for why people tell lies.

What is Lying?

It may be a bit of an understatement to say that lying is the art of deception; however, sometimes there are ways of telling the truth that might be untruthful at the end of the interaction. When a person lies, there is a level of self-protection they are working towards. These are often the moments when a person’s true character becomes apparent.

For example, a person who tells the truth even though it “protects” them to lie is a person with high character. Lying often comes with an embedded paradox: If you tell the truth, you may be guaranteed a worse outcome than if you lie. But, if you lie and are caught, then the outcome may be worse than the truth.

But, what if you can get away with it?

Lie Definition

The definition of a lie is “an intentionally false statement.” There’s a lot to unpack there. Of course, there are different degrees of lying or types of lies people tell. For example, claiming to have the ability to play a twelve-string guitar is much more benign of a lie than claiming to be a messenger of Allah delivering peace and blessings.

Sadly, for the person claiming to be a holy prophet, that particular lie can cause distress to more people than claiming to play a speciality guitar. There are also many studies in classical logic and non-classical logics on lying. Ultimately, lying comes back to the initial definition: an intentionally false statement.

Embellish Definition

Embellishment is a bit different than lying. There is still intentional falsification, but embellishment often comes with an element of truth.

For example, if someone likes to fish but they are in the company of people who are against fishing, then he or she may claim to be a “capture and release” fisherman—or woman. If he or she sometimes releases the catch, then there is truth to it; however, there are shades to the truth. If someone only releases fish that they are not allowed to catch, then yes, they do “capture and release” but haven’t told the whole story.

Embellishments can be a bit difficult to follow and pose a bit of an ethical conundrum. A big giveaway of whether someone is an avid embellisher is often in their stories. Their stories usually contain self-referential sentences.

Another method in which the embellisher works their art is by using the liar paradox. By saying that nothing they say is true, everything they say is true. That said, if you notice someone embellishes, the simple way to get at the truth is to understand that it’s usually the least impressive part of the tale.

Different Types of Liars

Not all liars are the same, there are different types of lying personalities or disorders. For some, compulsive lying could be symptomatic of a personality disorder. For example, those who speak in self-referential sentences may not be embellishers, but rather might be suffering from narcissistic personality disorder.

There are pathetic liars, which involve people using lies to elicit a pathos response. However, the different types of liars include pathological liars, compulsive liars, and the sociopath. There are also occasional liars. These people who lie on occasion usually tell “white lies” that are essentially meaningless.

Pathological Liars

Pathological liars are people who lie as their response to any stimuli. These people are “good liars” because they practice constant lying and making up stories so often that it becomes difficult to detect their falsehoods.

The proper name for a pathological liar is pseudologia fantastica. Most pathological liars will avoid eye contact; instead, they will fix their gaze upon you. For these types of liars, pathological lying is a defense mechanism. Lying is a way to avoid something severe in their lives, such as abuse. It is a way to extricate themselves from a bad situation. Of course, these aren’t excuses for lying but it can be helpful to understand why some people lie.

Furthermore, if you catch a pathological liar spinning his or her web, it’s important to call them on it but do so in a non-aggressive fashion.

Compulsive Liars

Compulsive liars lie for many different reasons. Unlike the pathological liar, compulsive liars are easier to figure out. Their stories don’t usually have a ring of truth to them. They also display obvious lying behaviors, such as breaking out into a sweat, avoiding eye contact, rambling or tripping over their words.

Some types of compulsive liar personality disorder are the habitual liar and the narcissistic liar. Habitual liars are people who lie all the time. In fact, lying has become a habit.

Narcissistic liars are people usually dealing with a narcissistic personality disorder. These are people who usually make up grand stories about themselves, are prone to embellishment, and generally, make themselves out to be the conquering hero in all situations. Most of their stories are unbelievable or seem a bit far-fetched.

Sociopath Definition

Sociopathic liars can be difficult to deal with. Sociopaths lack empathy and do not care if their lies negatively impact or harm others. Sociopathic liars can be narcissistic, but this isn’t always the case. Sociopathic liars are master manipulators. They will tell you a story to get you to do what they want. Being the “target” for a sociopath likely feels awkward because it conflicts with a person’s sense of right and wrong. However, a sociopathic liar will continue to get you to see things their way until you given in to doing what they want.

Again, sociopaths do not feel empathy. So, if you tell a sociopath that you aren’t comfortable with something, the sociopath likely won’t care but will act as if they do.

How to Deal with Liars

There are several ways to deal with liars. Although it can be incredibly difficult, the best approach is to avoid reacting with anger or aggressively. In most cases, the liar is expecting this reaction and will use it as a diversion. Avoid going along with their version of events that is likely false. The key to dealing with liars is to politely but firmly confront them with the truth.

If you discover that someone has told a “white lie”, and the lie itself is so minuscule that it doesn’t merit confrontation, then it’s probably best to let it go.

Lying is admittedly a complex issue. The key to addressing liars is to understand the different types of liars. All in all, the best thing you can do is to remain confident in the truth. Sticking to the facts is the best way to deal with liars.


9 Things You Should Know About Liars

You are lied to dozens of times every day. They range from little white lies, such as people telling you they are doing great when in fact they are having a terrible day, to serious lies from loved ones and employers that have the potential to change your life. Being able to understand when, why and how people lie helps you establish more honest relationships and prevent disasters from happening due to falsely informed.

In his TED talk, psychologist Jeff Hancock explains some of the science of lying:

Here are nine things you should know about liars:

#1 We’re All Liars

While you might like to think you’re an honest person, statistically speaking you too are a liar. Researchers estimate the average person lies a minimum of once to twice per day. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you ever give people compliments that aren’t completely genuine?
  • Have you told someone you were doing well when, in reality, you were exhausted and having a terrible week?
  • Do you ever tell people you are busy to avoid having to talk to them for an extended period of time or do something with them?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, then you’ve lied. Those are just a couple of the common scenarios that trigger the most lying.

#2 ‘Normal’ Liars vs. ‘Prolific’ Liars

The good news? Most people are honest. Recent research shows that the majority of lies are told by the same, small group of people known as ‘prolific’ liars. In the study Variance in the Prevalence of Lying, researchers created a statistical model for distinguishing prolific liars from the everyday or ‘normal’ liar.

Here’s how you can try spotting a prolific liar:

  • Prolific liars are those who report that they tell five or more lies per day.
  • Prolific liars tend to be younger, male and have higher occupational statuses.
  • They are likely to lie the most to their partners and children.
  • They are more likely than the average person to believe that lying is acceptable in some circumstances.
  • They are less likely to lie because of concern for others and more likely to lie for their own self-interest, such as to protect a secret.
  • Prolific liars tell five and a half lies for every one white lie told by an average person.
  • They tell 19.1 lies for every one big lie told by an average person.

#3 Police Have an Eye For Thieves

One would hope that police officers, because they spend much of their time trying to separate the guilty from the innocent, would be good at lie detection. Unfortunately, studies have found that most officers are no better at identifying lies than the average person. However, they do excel at one aspect of lie detection: spotting dishonest people in public settings.

When shown videos of thieves interacting with innocent people while preparing to steal, police officers were able to spot the criminals at a significantly higher rate than both police in training and students. This is significant because it reveals a common problem with lie detection: people often mistake stress as lying signals.

The reason police are able to identify criminals in a public setting is because, as the thieves are preparing to steal, they are more stressed than the circumstances of being in public would demand. On the other hand, during police interviews even innocent people are stressed because they are trying to prove their innocence. It is how people behave differently, versus what would be expected for the circumstances, that reveals lies, not certain behaviors in general.

#4 Familiarity Effects on Lie Detection

Can you spot lies better in situations in which you’re more familiar? The research says yes.

In this study, a team of psychologists conducted four experiments revealing that situational familiarity leads to more accurate judgments regarding truth and deception.

People who weren’t as familiar with their situations couldn’t distinguish lies from truths any higher than fifty percent. Whereas people who were highly familiar with their situations were able to detect deception with eight to twenty-three percent more accuracy.

Part of this is because when people are more familiar with the situations and/or people they are talking with, they have more baseline information and contextual cues to refer to.

#5 People Prefer to Lie for Their Teams

Studies have found that people are more willing to lie to receive incentives that benefit their entire team rather than incentives that are just for themselves. For example, employees are more likely to lie to their boss about the progress of a project when doing so prevents their entire team from getting in trouble rather than just themselves.

Researchers suspect the willingness to lie in team environments isn’t entirely selfless, though. In group environments people tend to feel less guilty for lying because they are helping others. They are less afraid to lie because there is less of a chance of them being caught and suffering the entire blame because everyone on their team is implicated.

#6 Lying in Email vs Pen and Paper

The frequency of lying does change based on the medium, but can it change within the same one? Researchers have found that people are more likely to lie when using email versus pen and paper. This is wild!

Both are the same in terms of ‘media richness,’ meaning both forms are text only. Yet, people lie more, reveal less information and feel more justified when using email than when sending a message via pen and paper. According to the study, “The findings were consistent, whether the task assured participants that their lie either would or would not be discovered by their counterparts.”

#7 Memories of Liars

For the majority of people, lying about an event increased their certainty that the event in question did not happen when asked about it later.

However, ten to sixteen percent of the participants appeared to have had their memories altered by their lies because they reported believing their lies were actually true. Researchers believe that in those cases telling lies wields the same power as the imagination to alter memories.

Very clearly imagining events can trick the brain into labeling them as memories.

#8 Bilingual Lying

If you think it’s hard lying in your native tongue, try lying in a second language.

Researchers have found that people show a greater stress response when lying in a second language because it is already more challenging to speak the second language and lying increases the cognitive stress. In one specific study, results suggest that two main factors affect the physiological nature of an individual when they lie in another language: 1) arousal due to emotions associated with lying, and 2) anxiety about managing speech production in the non-native language.

#9 Liars Struggle to Answer Why Questions

If you suspect someone might be lying to you but aren’t sure, an easy way to find out is to ask them ‘Why?’ questions. It is much more difficult for people to lie about why they did something or why something happened than it is for them to lie about basic facts. If someone struggles to explain their intentions, it’s a major red flag that they are lying.

Why Kids Lie and What Parents Can Do About It

Call them fibs, whoppers or straight-up untruths: However you label them, kids are likely to lie somewhere along the way. While a younger child may conjure up an elaborate tale about how she couldn’t possibly have kicked a younger sibling, older kids may flat-out lie about doing their homework.

Sometimes the onset of lying is sudden and intense, reports Matthew Rouse, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “It’s a new thing where they were pretty truthful most of the time before and then suddenly they’re lying about a lot of stuff,” he says. This, of course, is concerning to parents. But if caregivers can understand why kids lie and be prepared to deal with the issue, the truth can come out.

Why kids lie

Most parents think children lie to get something they want, avoid a consequence or get out of something they don’t want to do. These are common motivations, but there are also some less obvious reasons why kids might not tell the truth — or at least the whole truth.

To test out a new behavior

Dr. Rouse says one reason children lie is because they’ve discovered this novel idea and are trying it out, just as they do with most kinds of behaviors, to see what happens. “They’ll wonder, what happens if I lie about this situation?” he says. “What will it do for me? What does it get me out of? What does it get me?’”

To enhance self-esteem and gain approval

Children who lack confidence may tell grandiose lies to make themselves seem more impressive, special or talented to inflate their self-esteem and make themselves look good in the eyes of others. Dr. Rouse recalls treating an eighth-grader who was exaggerating wildly about 80 percent of the time: “They were kind of incredible experiences that weren’t within the bounds of plausible at all.” For instance, the boy would say he’d gone to a party and everyone had started to chant for him when he came in the door.

To get the focus off themselves

Children with anxiety or depression might lie about their symptoms to get the spotlight off them, Dr. Rouse notes. Or they might minimize their issues, saying something like “No, no I slept fine last night” because they don’t want people worrying about them.

Speaking before they think

Dr. Carol Brady, PhD, a clinical psychologist and regular columnist for ADDitude magazine who works with a lot of kids with ADHD, says they may lie out of impulsivity. “One of the hallmarks of the impulsive type of ADHD is to talk before they think,” she says, “so a lot of times you’re going to get this lying issue.”

Sometimes kids can really believe they’ve done something and tell what sounds like a lie, Dr. Brady adds. “Sometimes they’ll really just forget. I have kids who say, ‘To tell you the truth, Dr. Brady, I thought I did my homework. I really thought I did. I didn’t remember I had that extra work.’” When this happens, she says, they need help supplementing their memory by using techniques such as checklists, time limits and organizers.

And then there are white lies

Just to make things even trickier, in certain situations parents might actually encourage children to tell a white lie in order to spare someone’s feelings. In this case, the white lie and when to use it fall under the umbrella of social skills.

Related: How Can We Help Kids With Self-Regulation?

What parents can do about lying

Both Dr. Rouse and Dr. Brady say it’s first important to think about the function of the lie. “When I’m doing an evaluation, there are questions on our intake forms where parents can check off whether the child lies,” Dr. Rouse says. “It’s something I might spend 20 minutes delving into. What kinds of lies, what are the circumstances of the lies?” He says behavioral treatments depend on the function of the lies and the severity of the problem. “There are no hard and fast guidelines,” he says. “Different levels mean different repercussions.”

Level 1 lie

When it comes to attention-seeking lying, Dr. Rouse says that, generally speaking, it’s best to ignore it. Rather than saying harshly, “That’s a lie. I know that didn’t happen to you,” he suggests a gentle approach where parents don’t necessarily have a consequence but they’re also not trying to feed it a lot of attention.

This is especially true if the lying is coming from place of low self-esteem. “So if they’re saying, ‘I scored 10 goals today at recess in soccer and everybody put me on their shoulders and it was amazing’ and you think it’s not true, then I would say don’t ask a bunch of follow-up questions.” For these kind of low-level lies that aren’t really hurting anyone but aren’t good behavior, ignoring and redirecting to something that you know is more factual is the way to go.

Level 2 lie

If that doesn’t work, Dr. Rouse says, parents can be more transparent about it by offering a mild reprimand. “I’ve had situations where it’s an inflated kind of fantastical type of lie,” he says. “I’ll have parents label it and call it a tall tale. If the child is telling one of these stories, a parent will gently say, ‘Hey, this sounds like a tall tale, why don’t you try again and tell me what really happened?’ ” It’s about pointing out the behavior and encouraging kids to try again.

Level 3 lie

If something is more serious, like older kids lying about where they’ve been or whether they’ve done their homework, parents can think about having a consequence. Kids should be clear that there will be repercussions for this kind of lie, so it’s not coming out of the blue. Like all consequences, Dr. Rouse recommends it should be something short-lived, not overblown, which gives the child a chance to get back to practicing better behaviors. Some examples: losing her phone for an hour or having to do a chore

Also, depending on the severity, there also has to be a component of addressing what they were lying about. If a child has said he didn’t have any homework all week and then the parent finds out he had homework every day, there needs to be some kind of consequence for the lying and he also has to sit down and do all the work. If he’s hit another child and lied about it, there’s a consequence for the lying and also for hitting. In this case, Dr. Rouse says, you would also have him write an apology letter to the other child.

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Ways to help your kids avoid lying in the first place

Let them know that truth reduces consequences

For instance, if teens have been drinking at a party, the parent will want them to call to be picked up. But kids know there also has to be a consequence for the drinking. “There’s a hard balance to strike between having the open dialogue but also setting appropriate limits when necessary,” Dr. Rouse says.

In this situation, where lying would have been easier, when parents are doling out the consequence they can also praise the child for telling the truth and tell them it makes them more trustworthy. They might also reduce the consequence, such as letting kids know they’re taking their phone away for a day instead of a week.

Dr. Rouse adds one caveat: Children and teens should not think consequences are negotiable. “Sometimes the kid will say, ‘But I told you the truth,’” he says. “They’ll get manipulative, saying, ‘This is just making me want to never tell the truth again.’” Parents shouldn’t give in at that point.

Use truth checks

Let’s say parents have been told by a teacher their child didn’t do her homework. Dr. Brady suggests that they give their kid a chance to tell the truth. If she doesn’t at first, the parents could say, “I’m going to walk away and give you 10 minutes and then I’m going to come back and ask you again. If you change your mind and want to give me a different answer, it’s just a truth check and you won’t get in trouble.”

This way, if a child gives an off-the-cuff answer because she’s scared of consequences or she doesn’t want to disappoint a parent, she has the chance to really think about whether she wants to lie or fess up without the consequences. Dr. Brady notes that this technique isn’t for a child who chronically lies.

Use the preamble method

Parents can also set up kids to tell the truth by reminding them that they don’t expect perfection, Dr. Brady notes. Parents could say, “I’m going to ask you a question and maybe you’re going to tell me something I don’t really want to hear. But remember, your behavior is not who you are. I love you know matter what, and sometimes people make mistakes. So I want you to think about giving me an honest answer.” Giving kids a chance to reflect on this may lead to them telling the truth.

Give kids with ADHD more time to think

Dr. Brady says kids with ADHD, who are prone to giving impulsive answers that come out as lies, need some extra time to think things through before speaking. Impulsivity can be a problem both at home and in school, when a teacher asks if a child has finished an assignment and the child answers yes without even looking at his paper. That’s when he needs to be taught to slow down and check his work.

What parents shouldn’t do

Don’t corner your child

Putting a child on the spot can set him up to lie. If parents know the true story, Dr. Brady recommends, they should go right to the issue and discuss it. Instead of asking a child if he didn’t do his homework a parent could just say, “I know you didn’t do it. Let’s talk about why that’s not a good idea.”

Don’t label your child a liar

It’s a big mistake to call a child a liar, Dr Brady argues. The wound it creates is bigger than dealing with what he lied about in the first place. He thinks, “Mom won’t believe me.” It makes him feel bad about himself and may set up a pattern of lying.

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