Years ago, I talked with a friend about her daughter with ADHD. She was very concerned because her daughter was lying frequently at school. The teacher had now come to her mother wanting to address the problem, but they were both overwhelmed and unsure of how to address lying.
After talking with many families over the years, the concern about lying is a common one for our kids with ADHD. When children lie, we as parents (understandably!) tend to overreact and assume this type of behavior will only lead to other concerns, such as stealing or total lack of concern for others. The truth is, lying can be a reflection of a child’s ADHD brain and differences in executive functioning skills.
Why Kids with ADHD Lie
First, it’s important to note that lying is a normal part of cognitive development as young children (around 4-6 years of age) learn that others can’t read their mind and that their thoughts are private. It’s an exciting development for kids, albeit a frustrating one for parents. Once you get past the excitement (haha!) of your child meeting this important cognitive milestone, you want to know how to encourage honestly and discourage lying.
Lying is a bit more complicated and common in our kids with ADHD, though. This is not because they are bad kids or “naughty”. It’s a product of how their brain is developing.
So, why exactly are kids with ADHD more prone to lying? For starters, these kids tend to live in the moment (inattention to the future, as Dr. Russell Barkley would say). A lie to get out of an undesirable task or some kind of punitive consequence can be an impulsive reaction and may seem like the perfect solution in the moment, without consideration of how they may be caught in the lie sometime in the near future. This can lead to even more lies as they try to “cover their tracks” to, again, avoid some kind of punitive consequence.
Lying is also often rooted in true struggle. Kids with ADHD may lie to get out of tasks that are truly quite challenging for them. They may also lie to preserve their self-esteem or to be seen by adults or peers in a certain light as they seek social validation.
What to do When Your Child Lies
1) Identify the real issue
When my friend came to me about her daughter, I offered a few strategies to help her problem-solve and support her daughter at school. Here a few simple strategies you can try, too.
What you can try
As we discussed before, lying serves a purpose for our children, and it may be to get out of things that they find too hard or undesirable.
With my friend’s daughter, I asked her to talk with her teacher and her daughter. The goal was to find out when lying was happening and what the lies were about. Her teacher indicated that the lies were usually related to homework. Her daughter would often say that she completed her writing or spelling homework and left it at home, when she had not. She would tell her mother she did not have homework that day. After talking with her daughter in a very non-judgmental and calm way, this parent identified a few things. Her daughter was having a lot of trouble with spelling and writing homework, and she felt it was too hard. She was doing poorly on her spelling tests and was avoiding the work. As a result, she was lying to get out of work that was challenging and hard to initiate.
2) Make a plan with your child that addresses the real issue
Talk to your child in a non-judgmental manner. Listen and remain calm, even if you are feeling frustrated or concerned. Ask questions to determine why your child is struggling and just try to understand your child’s perspective. For example, you could say, “I want to talk with you about something your teacher shared with me. You’re not in trouble, and will not get in trouble for telling me the truth. I want to understand what you’ve been thinking and feeling, so we can make a plan to help you.”
For my friend, she and her daughter talked with her teacher to address the concerns. Her teacher reduced the girl’s spelling homework. She allowed her to turn it in late if it took too long to do in the evening. Writing assignments were broken into smaller chunks of work for her to make it more manageable. She checked her agenda at the end of each day to make sure her homework was written down. This helped make sure there was not a lapse in school-home communication.
What you can try
Talk to your child and problem solve a plan so they can feel supported. Discuss that you will work on changing things to help support them more at home/school. At the same time, they can work on being open and honest if they are struggling. For example, you could say, “I would love to hear your ideas about how we can make this easier for you. Your teacher and I want to make sure that you’re getting the help and support you need.”
3) Create a system to teach honesty
My friend’s daughter loved balloons. They searched the internet and found a little reward chart with 5 empty balloons. She took this to school, and her teacher let her color in balloons at 4 different periods of the day if she had been honest during those periods (or didn’t lie). At the end of the week, she could earn a reward with her family if she had colored 4 of the balloons each day. After a couple of weeks of addressing her writing challenges and celebrating her honesty, she and her teacher were very excited with her progress. In fact, her teacher started using the plan to support other students in the class.
What you can try
Create a reward system at home or school to praise/reward your child for their honesty in situations. Focus on increasing what you want (honesty) rather than punishing what you don’t want (lying). Reward them for any times during the day when they are honest.
4) Make sure consequences aren’t overly punitive
In short, if your child is lying to avoid punishment, make sure that the consequences you are using are consistent and fair. I am not saying that kids should “get away with” lying, but it’s important for the consequence to fit the crime. Otherwise, there may be even more motivation on your child’s part to avoid an overly punitive consequence.
What you can try
In this case with my friend and her daughter, an overly punitive consequence would be requiring her daughter to then do 100 extra spelling words. Or be grounded for two weeks. These types of consequences may actually increase the desire to lie! Better are consequences that are logical and fair. So, things like requiring her daughter to complete homework that evening before screens were available.
5) Don’t invite a lie
Avoid “testing” your child to see if they will tell the truth. If you already know the answer, calmly let your child know what you know or what you observed, and move forward from there.
What you can try
Let’s say you’re wondering who ate the rest of the brownies and you see your child chocolate smeared across their face and chocolate-y fingers. Rather than asking, “Did you eat the brownies?!”, calmly state your observation, “I see that you ate the remaining brownies without permission,” and proceed from there.
6) Stay calm if you catch them in a lie, and offer a “redo” when appropriate
It’s incredibly frustrating when you do catch your child in a lie, especially if it’s a frequent occurrence. Do your best to stay cool, calm, and collected – again, overreactions can have the opposite effect of what you desire and actually increase lying as your child tries to avoid your emotional response.
What you can try
When appropriate, offer your child a “re-do” or “do-over”. For example, your child has indicated that they don’t have homework. You open their backpack, only to find an unfinished math packet. Try this: “Hmmm. You said you don’t have homework, but I just found an unfinished math packet in your backpack that has a due date of tomorrow at the top. Want to give that another shot? Let’s try again… Do you have any homework tonight?” This gives your child the opportunity to tell the truth without being overly punitive. It helps them accomplish the ultimate goal (getting their homework done!).
If you want to learn more about strategies to address specific behaviors like this, check out our online course, Creating Calm, for parenting children with ADHD. We provide you with an entire step-by-step system to help you problem-solve and create a plan for your child’s challenging behaviors.
Have a wonderful week!
Lori, Katie, & Mallory