All kids tell lies or take something that doesn’t belong to them at some point in childhood. But some children lie and steal often! It’s stressful to live with these frustrating behaviors. The impacts of lying, stealing, and similar behaviors on your child can be detrimental. You understandably worry about their future. How do you parent your child through challenging behaviors like lying and stealing?
Why Do Kids Lie and Steal?
Understanding the reasons behind lying and stealing can help you create a plan to address these challenging behaviors appropriately. It’s important to remember that lying and stealing are part of normal child development. Young children don’t yet recognize truth versus fantasy or imagination. They also don’t appreciate the importance of ownership.
As a child grows up, they may still lie or occasionally steal to test the waters and push boundaries. However, if they are following typical development, you should start to see a reduction in the frequency of these challenging behaviors. For instance, kids with a history of trauma or prenatal substance exposure may not follow that typical development that helps them “outgrow” the behaviors.
There are several other reasons kids lie or steal beyond not yet understanding truth vs. fiction or the power of ownership.
- They might be trying to get a reaction or your attention.
- They may test you to see if you will enforce your moral code.
- They may be afraid of what will happen if they tell the truth. How will you react? How have adults in their life responded in the past?
- They may believe they are bad, as if lying and stealing are expected of them.
- They might wonder if you care enough about them to react to their behavior.
The Link Between Prenatal Exposure and Lying and Stealing
Some children seem to lie or steal almost compulsively. These behaviors might continue well past the time you think they should have grown out of them. If this sounds familiar, consider your child’s trauma or prenatal experience.
When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol or takes drugs, it changes the baby’s developing brain. These brain changes can make it more likely that the child will struggle with telling the truth or stealing. The brain changes caused by prenatal substance exposure can contribute to lying and stealing in the following ways. It’s worth noting that many of these impacts are also common to our children who experienced early life trauma.
1. Slow Processing Speed
A child with prenatal substance exposure may need longer to think, form responses, and answer questions. You might experience your child saying anything, whether it’s true or not, to get the questioning to stop. Their “lie” is a protective response allowing their brain time to catch up to the circumstances.
When asked to recount what happened, your child might say the first thing that pops into their head. That first thing they blurt out might not be the truth, but the impulse to say something is more potent than their ability to slow down and think about their answer. The same is true for kids who take things that don’t belong to them. When they see something they like or want, they might reach out to take it without thinking first about who owns it.
3. Memory Deficits
The damage to a developing brain from alcohol or drug exposure can also create memory challenges. Your child may not remember what happened in a situation, especially during a confrontation. They are likely to fill in the blanks with something that makes sense to them.
We all do this occasionally! For example, have you ever sung lyrics to a popular song only to later discover your words were wrong? Maybe you misheard the lyrics, and your mind filled in the blanks with something that made sense. It’s a funny example, but remember that you’ve become convinced that your version is correct over time, even when you have proof that you misremembered the lyrics.
Our minds don’t always accurately remember events. Many factors contribute to how we remember them. As another example, try asking two grown siblings to tell you the same story about their childhood. You’ll likely get two different versions of that experience. Are they lying? Not necessarily.
With these examples in mind, look for ways to offer your child the same grace for their memory deficits that you’d like for yourself.
4. Executive Function
Executive functioning is how our brains organize our thoughts, conduct sequential steps to a task, and learn new skills. Prenatal substance exposure often creates a lack or delay in executive functioning skills. So, your child might still need help understanding cause and effect or the consequences that logically follow their actions. Therefore, they may be unable to grasp the impacts that lying or stealing can create for them or others around them.
The same is true of how your child understands the idea of ownership. For example, unless your child sees their sibling physically holding a favored toy, they may think it’s up for grabs and not understand their sibling’s fury.
5. Confusion Between Reality & Imagination
When a child has been prenatally exposed to drugs or alcohol, they might struggle to tell the difference between reality and their imagination. Your child might be delayed in this skill and tell you what they wish was accurate rather than what is true. This developmental skill takes time and practical experience to develop.
How to Parent Lying, Stealing & Other Challenging Behaviors
1. Connect lovingly and affirm their worth.
Try not to see your child’s lies, untruths, imaginations, or stealing as a moral failure – yours or theirs! Instead, think about how to separate the lying or stealing behavior from your child and affirm their intrinsic worth. It’s much easier to have these difficult conversations when your child senses that you cherish them, so they feel safe to trust you in return.
If this is a challenge for you, consider collaborating with a therapist or counselor to help you think through parental attachment styles to resolve any history that might impact how you support your children.
2. Set boundaries and stay calm.
Consistently and clearly state that lying and stealing is not acceptable. When your child lies or steals, calm your emotions and reactions as you walk them through the hard conversations.
3. Investigate the backstory.
Become a detective to figure out the motive behind your child’s behavior:
- What does your child gain from lying or stealing in this circumstance?
- Is there something they need and don’t know how to ask for?
- What events led up to the lying or stealing?
You are looking for the backstory to help flesh out what was going on in their mind and how it can inform you about their choices. You might uncover a need for self-regulation skills. They might have felt panic or a longing to be included. Use what you learn to inform your next steps.
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4. Give the child advance notice.
A little proactive behavior on your part will go a long way toward helping your child not blurt out what they think happened — or what they think you want to hear. Instead, try not to put the child in a position to lie and tell them you want to talk later about what happened. Assure them that you don’t want an answer immediately, but you will soon speak about what happened. Please encourage them to take their time to think before speaking.
When you talk with your child after they’ve lied or taken something, ask simple, short, open-ended questions. Establishing the timeline by asking, “What happened next?” can help them see their trajectory. But keep your questioning brief. Don’t forget to let them know it’s also okay to say, “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know” at first.
When you can, narrate your observations rather than question the child. For example, “I noticed that the garage door was still open this morning. You probably forgot to shut it last night. We can be forgetful when we are tired.”
5. Offer “do-overs.”
Allow your child a second chance to tell the truth. Model and teach your kids the value of making things right with others. If they’ve stolen something, offer to help them make it right by returning it to its rightful owner. Teach them how to apologize as they are capable verbally. If that’s challenging for their skill levels at the start, teach them how to write a short note. And when they do tell the truth or make amends, praise them!
6. Provide more presence and supervision.
If you know your child struggles with stealing or lying, increase the supervision over them. For example, if stealing is an issue, only let them go shopping with a safe adult present. Lock up or keep valuables out of sight in your home. If they frequently come home from school with other kids’ belongings, work with their teacher to create a plan that prevents or at least limits opportunities to take things.
One practical tip is to label your children’s belongings with their names, initials, or colors. This will help them learn the idea of ownership. For the child that struggles beyond this, go through their backpack together every night and matter-of-factly remove anything without their labels. Have your child return it to the owner – you might need to help with this a few times.
Try to track the patterns of when your child seems to tell lies. If you detect a trend, you can support them by providing more oversight during vulnerable or triggering times. Your presence also allows you to catch them doing the right thing and then praise them for it.
7. Use books to learn lessons.
Kids are significantly impacted by third-party experiences, like talking animals or inanimate objects experiencing real-life events. That’s why Aesop wrote his teaching fables about animals! Telling stories or reading books about lying and stealing can make the issue feel less personal.
Here are a few books we like for these challenging behaviors across several ages & abilities:
- Lying Up a Storm* is a children’s picture book about lying.
- Ricky Sticky Fingers* is a children’s book about stealing.
- What Should Danny Do?* is a book series for elementary-age kids that introduces Danny’s problem, followed by the opportunity for the reader to decide the best solution.
- What Do You Stand For?* is a practical, interactive guide to building character for tweens and teens. It invites the reader to explore and practice honesty and other positive character traits.
Understand the Connections Between Behavior and Development
Experts tell us that issues like lying will often increase when a child enters a new stage of development. These ages are typically around 5-6 years old, again around 9-10 years old, and lastly, during the mid-teen years of ages 14-15. Your understanding of typical childhood development and the underlying causes of challenging behaviors, like lying and stealing, can help you help your child to overcome them and thrive.
We’d love to hear from you: what strategies have been effective for your child’s challenging behaviors?
Image Credits: Monstera; Karolina Grabowska; Ron Lach
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