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One of the most frequent questions I get from parents about their child is “why are they lying to me?! They KNOW they’re not supposed to do…whatever it is they did.., they also KNOW I KNOW that they did it! So why lie?! Am I raising a dishonest little shit?!”
Let’s review some things we know about children under age 6:
Children under the age of 6 are egocentric. They have real difficulty taking on the perspective of others. Their limbic system is way more developed than their neocortex which means they default to being emotional and irrational. In addition, their executive functions are still relatively new. They’ve only recently begun to develop things like impulse control and planning and prioritizing and working memory, as well as ALL the other mental tools we use to keep ourselves functioning, which by the way, they don’t finish developing until age 28. In the grand scheme of things, especially if you haven’t been actively supporting their development, these are all still brand new skills.
Why the behaviour?
When your child is stressed they have less gas in their metaphorical tank than whatever it is you need to do requires and they lose access to those mental tools. So when you child fails to do something they KNOW THAT THEY OUGHT DO, it is possible that at the moment they were in a low energy state. The skills they need to not do the thing was requiring more energy than they had to use it in that moment. Their brian essentially denied requests related to controlling their impulses, their emotions, and remembering what they need to do. They don’t have the mental capacity to act in accordance to their priorities, think of alternatives, organize their thought or access any of the skills that make good behaviour possible.
Don’t stand like a deer in the headlights next time your child misbehaves. Grab the Scripts for Managing Crazy-Making Behaviour and know exactly what to say next time your toddler or preschooler isn’t listening.
Why Are They Lying?
There is a reason that most courts in the world have protections against self-incrimination. In the United States it’s called Pleading the Fifth. In Canada section 13 of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms does the same thing. It is human nature to protect yourself. Your amygdala, the security system of the brain, isn’t going to let you incriminate yourself. It’s what detects danger and does everything in its power to help us avoid it.
Being honest when you’re entrapped demonstrates a certain maturity of your executive skills because you’re able to override that natural impulse to protect yourself. That’s not a reasonable expectation to put on a child whose skills are brand spanking new. They aren’t mature! So, of course, they are going to lie.
How to respond to lying?
When young children lie, treat it like a wish. They wish they’d had the energy to do what it is that they’re lying to you about. They wish they didn’t break the vase. They wish they hadn’t bitten their sister. They wish they didn’t eat all the cookies out of the cookie jar. And when you phrase it like that- as a wish- you do two things:
- You turn their internal danger alarm off. You’re not entrapping them, you’re not asking them to self-incriminate. You’re communicating that you already know that they’re to blame and that they didn’t have the ability to use the skills they needed to use.
- You open the empathy door that will get them talking and allow you to figure out what got in their way. That will help narrow down what skill it was that they needed to use that they weren’t able to use. Usually they’ll tell you. “You really wish you hadn’t hit your brother, huh?” “Yeah but he was too close to me!” And now you know that he didn’t know what else to do to get his personal space back. And you can begin building those skills.
Your young child giving you a knee-jerk answer to a threatening question is not an indication of their moral compass. However, if you continue to rake them over the coals without solving the problem that is causing the behaviour, you can warp that moral compass. You can create a cycle of manipulation and distrust. Problem solving and skill building are the keys to the kingdom.