As humans, we appreciate the truth and seek it from the people we interact with in our lives. However, in reality, most people are inauthentic and frequently lie for a multitude of reasons. They’re overly worried about what people think about them, how society will perceive them, and the impression they make with people they meet.
People lie consciously and unconsciously, and it’s common behavior across all genders, ethnicities, and ages. Even children lie. We start lying around age three and get better at it fast. By age four, were telling better lies, and if this behavior is undiscovered and benefits our life, we keep with the practice as we age.
What causes children to lie? There are many reasons why children develop lying behavior when they’re young, carrying it through to adolescence and adulthood. One of the biggest reasons why children lie is to cover up trauma that happens to them in their life experiences.
This post discusses whether childhood trauma is responsible for developing lying behavior as we age and progress to adulthood.
The Behavioral Effects of Childhood Trauma
Research shows children experiencing childhood trauma develop regression behavior or learning problems. However, that doesn’t mean that every child who has a learning issue undergoes trauma resulting in the situation.
One of the early signs of childhood trauma involves issues with the development of speech delays. Other signs include delays in gross and fine motor skills, but it’s challenging for adults and teachers to define if these delays come from trauma experienced by the child.
Children who undergo instances of trauma at an early age may develop poor impulse control and experience delays in their cause-and-effect thinking processes. While the child might know that a specific action is dangerous, they may impulsively do it anyway.
For instance, children with impulse issues may decide to run across a busy street to a car without considering the traffic flowing by. They don’t connect the dots in that moment of decision, even though they admit it’s a bad idea when questioned about their behavior afterward.
Some kids who experience trauma might develop physiological issues like stomach problems, sleeping disorders, or headaches due to the anxiety they feel around the situation. Trauma also leads to the development of anxiety disorders due to the stress of the experience.
Are Children with Childhood Trauma More Likely to Become Liars?
Children who experience trauma are also more likely to develop the habit of lying to others. While all children lie occasionally, those with trauma in their background may lie more than those without any history of it. They might stick with a lie, even if an adult or friend calls them out on it, even though the child knows it doesn’t make sense.
For instance, a child might eat the last cupcake on the tray, even though they were told to leave it for their father when he gets home. When questioned about their actions, the child says it wasn’t them, and they blame it on their brother, even though he isn’t home at the moment.
When told that it’s no big deal if they ate the cupcake, the child might continue with the lie, insisting it wasn’t them that did it. The child might look the parent straight in the eye as they say it, without faltering in their words.
Kids with trauma in their background have the ability to lie about significant or trivial incidents. They’re convincing, and it’s challenging for the parent to discern between honesty and deception. As the kids get older, they may even make false accusations against their parents or guardian without understanding the consequences of what they say.
They don’t connect the possible outcomes of their actions with the results because they have limited cause-and-effect thinking skills. For instance, a child that wanted pizza for dinner but got a casserole instead may feel so angry at the incident they go to school and tell the teacher their parents didn’t feed them any dinner last night and they had to go to bed hungry.
They hope the teacher hears their complaint and offers to buy them a pizza for lunch. However, the teacher inquires into the parent’s behavior, making child services aware of the incident. The child may also embellish details surrounding their claim. For instance, they might tell the teacher their parents shouted at them or spanked them before putting them to bed.
The child doesn’t realize the severity of their claims or what might happen to their parents or themselves if child services become involved.
Why Do Children Develop Lying Behavior?
Children lie for several reasons. They may develop and reinforce the behavior depending on the response they receive from others when telling the lies. Here are some common reasons for children telling lies.
As children age, they start to understand right and wrong, anticipating behavior that lands them in trouble.
Theory of Mind
Children start lying at age three when they understand what other people think and feel. They begin to realize that they have different feelings and beliefs from others.
Children may lie to avoid punishment. If their parents and caregivers punish them harshly for lying, it may encourage more lying behavior.
Children lie to their friends and adults to make themselves feel more important and gain attention.
Creativity and Experimentation
As they gain more experience with lying and more success with it, they start experimenting with their new skill.
How Does Trauma Develop Children into Liars?
Contradictory Role Models
Most parents and caregivers tell kids that lying is unacceptable behavior. However, they may hold the child to contradictory standards.
They might experience their mother crying after a fight with their father, and when they ask what’s wrong, their mother tells them nothing.
While she’s trying to protect the child from trauma, the kid knows she’s lying and sees it as acceptable behavior to prevent hurting others.
Disbelief or Invalidation
Children may find adults don’t take them seriously when they make outlandish claims. For instance, a child abused by a family member might tell their parents, only to have them scoff at the child’s claims.
This behavior severely damages the child’s psyche because they don’t receive any validation or comfort after making a claim. Instead, they’re told they’re a liar.
As a result, the child finds it next to impossible to recover emotionally and mentally from the abuse they suffer. They may continue to experience abuse, damaging them mentally and physically, until someone finally discovers they aren’t lying about it.
Some parents might forbid their child to feel or discuss certain emotions. For instance, feeling angry towards their babysitter might seem unacceptable to the parent. They might discourage them from feeling sad if others ridicule or blame them.
Worse still, the adult might tell them that the reason for those feelings is their own fault. Since the child learns these emotions are prohibited, they develop the habit of self-erasing.
Lying Behavior and Mental Health Issues in Children
Children that develop lying behavior might do so because they have underlying health issues causing the problem.
Poor Self-Image & Self-Esteem
They worry people might not like them if they tell the truth.
They’re worried about the consequences of being truthful.
They lie to avoid people focusing on them.
Abuse & Trauma
They lie to cover up abuse or their experiences and fear telling them to adults.
What are the Signs of Compulsive Lying in Children?
Children always lie for a reason, and parents should understand the motives behind their choice to adopt this behavior. Identifying the reason for lying is far more important than punishing or stigmatizing the lie itself.
Punishing a child for telling lies may encourage children to lie more often, hoping they won’t be caught when they lie next. If they receive reinforcement from lying, the child might continue this behavior, developing a compulsive lying disorder.
Here are some signs that the child is developing into a compulsive liar.
- Lying Often for No Apparent Reason
- Lying More than Other Children
- Lying to Control or Manipulate Others
- Continuing Lying Behavior Even When It Affects Relationships
Compulsive Lying Patterns Worsen as Children Age
Typically, children learn from their behavior during their experiences in interactions with others. If they discover they can lie and get away with it, they’re more inclined to adopt this behavior as they age. They become better at telling lies and find they receive a thrill from pulling the wool over other people’s eyes.
All children lie; it’s a part of their development. In most cases, their experience with lying starts to diminish as they get older and become more aware of how lying behavior affects others.
Most kids experience an increase in lying behavior between the ages of three and eight, with lying tapering off each year as they progress to adolescence.
However, the habit of lying doesn’t disappear completely. The child’s lies become more sophisticated and harder for adults to spot. Instead of lying for empathy, the child lies more to avoid punishment and boost their self-esteem.
Is It Possible to Treat Compulsive Lying in Children?
Parents find their children lying to them incredibly frustrating, even though it’s a normal part of the development cycle in kids. If parents find lying behavior is worsening in their children, they should take action to stop it before it becomes entrenched in their life experience.
If a parent can’t get their child to respond to their lessons on why lying is bad, they should consult a family therapist. A therapist can determine whether the child’s lying behavior is age-typical or perhaps a sign of a serious problem.
Family therapy can help parents understand why their children lie. It also helps improve family communications, allowing open conversation between parents and children and reducing the child’s incentive to lie.
The family therapist can work with the child to uncover and ease any feelings of depression and anxiety caused by childhood trauma. The child can develop and reinforce a strong sense of self with the right treatment.
Children with trauma in their background need someone to help them process the feelings caused by these life events.
How Childhood Trauma and Lying Behavior Follows People to Adulthood
Children who experience childhood trauma will carry the emotions from it throughout their early years and adulthood. Some kids learn to suppress the traumatic endeavors of their lives, and they may or may not have these experiences develop into behavioral problems as they age.
However, many kids who experience problems with abuse when they’re young and don’t work through these issues with a therapist may develop difficulties with compulsive lying and other issues like addiction.
One problem may reinforce the other’s behavior. For instance, the child who develops a compulsive lying habit may also end up with drug addictions due to their past trauma. They use their lying behavior to cover up their addiction problems, making it challenging for others to spot.
Children with trauma in their history may develop into compulsive liars as they age. They also have the risk of turning into a pathological liar. Both disorders are incredibly damaging to the child’s psyche and personality as they progress through adolescence and adulthood.
The Risk of Childhood Trauma Turning a Child into a Pathological Liar
Children with traumatic backgrounds may develop into pathological liars if left undetected and untreated. There’s no clear science as to why this happens, but pathological lying can become a huge problem for individuals as they age.
Pathological liars don’t have the same relationship between empathy, guilt, and shame as psychologically stable people. They often believe their lies and will never admit they’re lying if confronted.
Pathological liars are difficult to spot, even in polygraph exams. Since they believe their lies, they don’t experience any feeling of guilt that would otherwise lead to anxiety in others. Pathological liars find it difficult to build relationships because the people they get involved with figure out their behavior eventually and have issues trusting them.