Show me a parent who has not dealt with a child that lies, cheats, or steals, and I’ll show you a parent who is either too busy to notice these behaviors or too proud to admit it. All kids at some point tell a lie, and most have on more than one occasion taken something that didn’t belong to them or moved eight spaces on the game board when the die clearly showed six. I know that I did as a kid and I know my own children have done the same.
One of our guests on this week’s Creating a Family Radio Show, Kim John Payne, a family counselor for 30 years and author of The Soul of Discipline: The Simplicity Parenting Approach to Warm, Firm, and Calm Guidance- From Toddlers to Teens, pointed out the annoying behaviors of lying, stealing and cheating tend to peak on what he called “cusp years”—ages where children are at developmental thresholds approaching the next level.
- ages 6-7-on the cusp of childhood
- ages 9-10- on the cusp of adolescence
- ages 14-15-on the cusp of adulthood
Just because it’s common and even developmentally appropriate, doesn’t mean that we should ignore these behaviors. It is, in fact, our job as parents to help our kiddos develop a moral compass. Fortunately, both of our guests on this week’s Creating a Family show (Kim Payne and Rebecca Rozema, an adoption social worker with Bethany Christian Services and their National ADOPTS Program Director, were full of great suggestions.
8 Tips for Disciplining Lying, Cheating and Stealing
- Clearly state that the behavior is not acceptable. “We do not steal in our family!”
- Affirm your child’s worth. Distinguish between the act and the person—she told a lie, but she is not a liar. “I know that you usually tell the truth.”
- Discover what motivated the behavior. Usually the lie or the stealing is not the whole story. Did she lie about her homework because she is overwhelmed by the Core Knowledge Math? Did she steal her brothers phone because he ignored her?
- Give a do-over or way to make it up to the person harmed.
- Don’t give your child the opportunity to lie. This is not always an option, but if you know that your child usually has math homework on Monday’s, don’t ask him when he gets home if he has homework. Rather, ask him to show you his assignment. If you know that she broke the cookie jar, ask her to get the broom to clean it up rather than asking if she was the one who broke it.
- Give your child time to tell the truth. Many children need time to process their options and think through the consequences of telling a lie vs. telling the truth. Some kids if rushed, will automatically take the path of least resistance and tell a lie. Tell your child to take their time before answering, and if they need to say something while they are thinking to say “I’m not sure.”
- Reward good behavior. When our kids are going through a lying phase, it is easy for this behavior to become our focus. Look for opportunities where your child told the truth and specifically acknowledge that he made the hard choice to be honest.
- Read book and tell stories that include character facing hard decisions about lying, stealing, or cheating. Tell stories from you own life when you made a mistake. Include bedtime books such as:
- Ricky Sticky Fingers by Julia Cook-ages 5-10
- Lying up a Storm by Julia Cook- ages 5-10
- Healing Stories for Challenging Behaviour by Susan Perow – ages 4-10 (helps parents become story tellers)
- A Spoonful Of Stories: An A – Z Collection of Behavior Tales for Children (Book 1 & 2) by Susan Perow-ages 4-10 (tales already written)
Listen to this terrific discussion with Kim Payne and Rebecca Rozema for ever more practical suggestions.
What has worked for you when teaching your children to not lie, steal, or cheat?Image credit: Marco Nedermeijer, Giorgia Pallaro, Poppy
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My 12 years old daughter has stolen from someone’s locker at school (not locked) what she liked including ipod and some money. We parents felt very shocking and shameful. She has tendency of eating junk food without permission at home as we parents restrict the quantity. I took her to shopping in the same month when this incidence happened, and she opened the bottle in the store and took few candy. When she started coughing, i realized what she did which I asked her to put it back in the store. We both parents explained her this is not acceptable and you are repeating the mistakes. She had tears and she said she does not know how to stop her impulses. The same day at home she took one more candy cane from her sibling’s return gift bag (without permission) and it was hided under sofa. Next day I found out and asked her, she said she did it yesterday after coming home from school.
I don’t know what is going on and how we can help. Earlier I used to get mad at her and couple of times slap her too for this behavior. But yesterday I was very calm and explained her for little time and told her to write in her diary and make sure to count 10 before she feels like taking anything. But again late evening she took candy from her sibling’s gift bag.
Please keep confidential my name and contact email.
Hello and thank you for reaching out.
It’s VERY challenging when a child lies and steals — most of us were raised to believe that lying and stealing are moral issues. Your “count to ten” and use a diary are excellent starts toward helping her pause to think before she acts!
When we can better understand the impacts of trauma and prenatal substance exposure, we can support our kids to manage those impulses differently. If you check the links I highlighted, you can start to understand the underlying causes. In the meantime, here are a few practical things you can try to help your daughter.
Best wishes as you keep trying to support her and help her learn new ways to respond!
This article really helped reiterate how important it is to discipline the behavior without it changing my behavior towards my son. I also like the idea of not giving him an opportunity to lie. 99% of the time we know that he did it. He is medicated ADHD and this is his 3rd or 4th medication. It has greatly improved focus and academic performance, however, lying and stealing are impulses that none of the meds, talk therapy, social skills courses, and CBT have helped.
He is 13 and has stolen food since he could walk. He has always had 3-4 full meals a day and snacks, but has stolen from the home, classmates’ lunches, former teachers, etc. This week he was caught stealing from a teachers desk. Though the behavior itself is problematic I am so worried about the damage to his reputation. In the past 48 hours since being put on punishment, he stole another 3 or 4 times. In the last 6 months he has graduated to taking my credit card to order from a game site…I had to file a “friendly fraud” claim. It was heartbreaking. I take photos of items when I leave the room because theft has become a reflex. He takes just about everything.
He is now past the slap-on-the-wrist age of discipline and I fear the outcome if this behavior continues. we’re at a loss. We got him therapy EARLY, we edify and affirm him, we celebrate small victories and reward good decisions. Why won’t he stop? As an AuDHD parent I understand the burden of impulses, but can’t understand why none of our proactive and reactive interventions have helped.
It is very difficult not to take the behavior personally…my overanalyzing ADHD brain is to blame. I love him but have already lost a job because of his behavior. Please help me. I am legitimately weeping and hoping for a reply that can restore hope.
Please help me help my baby.
Thank you for reading and reaching out. I’m so sorry for the struggles you and your child are experiencing. It’s so difficult and I understand your frustration and pain. First, I’d love for you to consider our online community – there are tons of experienced parents, adult adoptees, and former foster youth who can share their stories and at the minimum help you realize you are not alone. Second, I wonder if you have your son working with a therapist who is adoption-competent? Or are you working with a team that has TBRI training? Both of those paths might yield the support and tools you need to help him succeed and the tools he can implement to cope with the impulsivity. There is a directory on the linked page to find support for both of those resources. I wonder also if you’ve had a chance to listen to this podcast on ADHD?
Finally, I highly recommend that you seek therapy or counseling for yourself! Find a safe space to offload the hard stuff you are experiencing – someone who will give you the tools to help you cope with the challenging behaviors and not take them personally. It’s been a critical part of my journey and I cannot tell you how it’s helped me improve my parenting!
I hope to see you over in our community – we’d be happy to share more and encourage you there to keep trying!
Thanks again for reading!
Here is my situation. My 15 year old took my phone to school and brought it back broken. He admitted to it. He took 20 bucks from his younger brother but gave it back and told him it was a prank. Now his younger is missing 11 bucks we asked him if he took it and he said no. His father told him that he doesn’t believe him because he is a liar. His dad wants to take everything out of his room and ground him for a month . Which means sitting Indian style hands on your knees looking at the wall . Only getting up to get something to eat drink and use the bathroom. What should I do??
I’m sorry – these behaviors are so frustrating, aren’t they? Especially if their behavior triggers you because of some unfinished business within your own childhood experiences.
What we’ve tried is to incorporate the tips listed here in the article, and move forward from previous methods of handling the lies and stealing, as consistently as we can manage. After all, we are learning too. Your husband might need some education on the WHY of these challenging behaviors — this podcast and this article might help.
It might also help to consider alternate ways of handling correction. Tme “grounding” method you describe sounds quite punitive and not connected to the actions that concern you. This article might help, as well as this one.
None of these suggestions are easy to implement, nor do they change challenging behaviors overnight. What MIGHT help quickly is to think, “my child is not challenging me, he’s having a challenging time.” This can help you look for the WHY under the behaviors, investigating what might be triggering these behaviors rather than writing him off as a troubled kid.
Hopefully you and your husband can get on the same page and find a few things that work to build relationships and trust so that you can get to the root of the struggle within your child.
Thanks for reading and reaching out!
My my 7 year old son, Lying and cheat , steal. he also does know when to stop, he doesn’t know how to control. we have taken Almost all his favorite stuff away from him every-time he does steal.and lately he doesn’t since to care anymore.he will fine things and hint from us.he also have a Roblox and mind craft games addiction that he would stay up for hours to watch and play that game. i am beyond upset that some morning I found my husband laptop in his bedroom and check the history, he was watching the game of Roblox and YouTube in12 pm until 5 am in the morning. His behavior is getting worse and worst we are very concerning about him. Anyone advice would appreciate. We don’t know what to do. right now my gaul to not allow any some kind of internet access in my house whole. And only have limited time for TV. Not sure if that will Change his behavior.
It’s so hard when trust is broken, isn’t it? We highly recommend that you consider these 8 tips for managing the deceit. But also try to work WITH him on a solution so that you all have some ownership and voice in the process. This podcast and article can both help you try some new conversations to find a solution.
You might also appreciate the online community we run to support each other through all sorts of parenting issues.
Thanks for reading and reaching out.