Why do boys of otherwise good character take to chronic lying? This is a question asked by many parents I encounter. If your son is lying, there could be a number of reasons. Because some reasons are extreme, you might look for them right away, before looking at more subtle explanations. As you study your situation, first try these questions:
Is my son abusing any substance or being traumatized via sexual abuse, physical abuse, or chronic emotional abuse that is invading his brain development?
Chemicals and trauma can rewire the brain and may be primary reasons for chronic lying behavior that shows up late in childhood and early to mid-adolescence. Lying behavior can also spring from more subtle reasons. See if any of these fit your son.
In this situation, he may lie in order to rebel and gain freedom. The lying behavior may, in this case, be quite functional; it is partly an attempt by the developing independent self of the boy to experience independence from tyrannical or abusive authority.
Is my son being raised in too passive and permissive an environment, so that he has very little respect for authority?
A boy may lie because he disrespects the authority and also because he, unconsciously, hopes to be parented differently by being taught respect and boundaries as a response to his chronic lying. He may want the authority figures in his life to be more engaged, and consequently express this need through lying or other ornery behaviors.
Does my son believe that he is a disappointment because of some disability or developmental experience?
I worked with one boy who revealed, after a number of counseling sessions, that he believed he was the reason for his parents’ divorce. This self-belief seemed to correlate with the onset of his lying to his mother.
Is my son failing in a number of areas of his life, especially the areas he lies about?
The boy in this case lied in areas of interpersonal relationships and homework. He felt socially behind in his brain and interpersonal development; she, awkward, and unable to fully read social cues in comparison to many of his peers. He was traumatized by his parents’ divorce, and he was also doing badly in school.
No matter the source of lying behavior, lying can be part of a larger character problem or set of moral issues. In many situations, the reasons become clear with focused counseling, and then a solution phase can begin. If your son is chronically lying, I hope you will see family counseling. As you seek this help, you can also immediately try to practice one or more of these strategies for turning lying behavior around:
1. Each time you think your son is lying, get all sides of the story and help your son see all sides. Bring both parents in on this as needed; don’t overly rely on one parent. Confirm the truth as best you can, then act—even if, once in a while, you make a mistake, such as siding with his sister when in fact the boy never hit her. Setting a pattern of getting the facts can ultimately work to force accountability on your son.
2. Use whatever the boy likes to do, listen to, play, or enjoy as motivation to help him stop lying. For example, if your son loves video games, use them as leverage. You can say, “The next time you lie, you will lose Wii for one week.” Make sure you follow through with the promised consequence each time!
3. If you view the lie as a significant one, ground your son from going to friends’ houses or another social activity. While his privileges are restricted, make sure he develops a plan for redemption and follows through on the plan.
4. As you ask your son to be accountable, also hold yourself accountable. If you tend to consistently express disappointment in your son, get help to change that behavior. Carry on new conversations with your son. Make sure he knows all the reasons you are proud of him.
You can expect the re-patterning of your son’s lying behavior to take many weeks, even months. If after three months you see no progress in overcoming his chronic lying, you might want to change counselors, increase the consequences, and get more help.
And remember, if your son tells only a few white lies now and then, you probably have little to worry about regarding his development of character. Rare is the parent who did not tell a lie or two as a child! The kind of lying we should worry about is the lying that impedes your son’s ability to develop good character.
Gregory L. Jantz, PhD is the founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and an internationally recognized best selling author of 28 books related to mental wellness and holistic recovery treatment. He is also co-hosting the first-ever Helping Boys Thrive Summit in Edmonds, WA on May 24th. This article features excerpts from Dr. Jantz's book Raising Boys by Design.