Lying toddlers are adorable—remember that video of Emma denying she ate the chocolate cake? But when they grow into kids, then pre-teens, and eventually, deceptive teenagers, it’s less cute. So what telltale signs can parents look for to know their kid is lying?
Every child at least attempts to lie, says Phil Houston, a former CIA polygraph examiner, co-author of “Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Teach You How to Detect Deception,” and a father of three. “Children lie, it’s part of the developmental process,” he says. “Even if they know lying is wrong, they’re still going to try it, as it’s the obvious way to stay out of trouble.”
And mom and dad may be contributing to the problem. “Parents may say, ‘Look at me when I’m talking to you,’” Houston says. “They just taught their child that they should lean forward and stare into their eyes when they lie next time.”
So how do we outsmart our own Emmas? Children give us clues, Houston says, both verbal and non. “A verbal clue your child might give is an inappropriate pause. They have to gain a little time to formulate their story.” Children under five might respond to a question with another question, like the old nursery game. This is called evasion behavior:
“Did you take a cookie?”
By the age of six or seven, children’s deceptions become more sophisticated, and they learn to lie by omission. When asked where she went after school, a child might tell a parent: “I went to A, B, and C.” And leave out D. “To counter this, a parents needs to understand the importance of the follow-up,” Houston says. “Ask, ‘Where else did you go after school?’”
Older kids who clam up have different tells. “It all comes down to fight or flight,” says Houston. “If you ask your child, ‘Did you take my car without asking?’ he will immediately know the jig is up,” Houston says. “His body will look to dissipate the anxiety, resulting in some form of physical activity. He’ll move ‘anchor points’—shuffling feet or scooting around in his chair. He might do some ‘grooming,’ which could include playing with his shirt, tugging on his sleeve, or running his hands through his hair.”
And if a parent should see both the pause and the grooming behaviors? “Don’t immediately rush in and say ‘I know you’re lying to me!’” Houston says. “This sets up immediate conflict, when what you want from your child is cooperation.”
Instead, try these three easy steps:
1) Address your child directly. “Saying his name is a stimuli,” Houston says. It’s a call to order.
2) Use a control phrase, like ‘Hang on for just a second.’ “This stops the lie from unraveling,” says Houston.
3) Hold up your hand in a non-threatening way, close to your body. “This is the universal non-verbal stop sign,” says Houston.
Collectively, those three steps haven proven very effective at stopping a lie in its tracks, Houston says. But once the lie is out there, “your job just got twice as hard.”
To end the conversation, give context. Try, “It’s really important for mom and dad to know where you are when you’re not in school.” Follow this with a reinforcement statement: “You’re going to be starting high school in a few years. We’re not trying to invade your privacy, but in this day and age it’s important we know where you are when you’re not at home.”
If a child knows why the truth matters, she may be more likely to stick to it.