Lying is a normal part of childhood. Young children often can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality and may talk about things they imagined, such as a toy coming to life, as if it were true. By the time children reach the age of five or six years old, they have learned the difference but have also learned that certain behaviors will disappoint their parents or cause them to get into trouble. Once they understand the difference, a lie becomes a way of avoiding punishment or because they want their parents to continue to believe in them. By the time a child reaches adolescence, lies can become more outright and more manipulative, with teens lying not only to avoid punishment but to protect their privacy, show independence, as a result of peer pressure or tell a white lie to make someone feel better.
According to Russell Barkley, almost one-half of children with ADHD lie, as compared to only 5% of "typical" children."  Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein, in an article, "Liking the Child You Love," believes that while some children with ADHD can be "untruthful, manipulative and intentionally misleading," processing issues and communication problems may also be to blame. Dr. Bernstein offers a number of examples of how someone with ADHD can be thought to be lying, but there is actually a processing or communication problem:
- Being distracted and "zoning out" and then trying to fill in the blanks of what was said.
- Not remembering what they said before and then saying something different.
- Thinking what they are saying is the truth when it is not.
- Having a hard time expressing themselves and being perceived as being deceitful.
Some people believe that children with ADHD may lie more often because they tend to get into trouble more often. Most children don’t like getting into trouble or doing something wrong. They don’t want to admit they once again "failed" or "forgot." So instead, they make up something to cover up their perceived shortcomings.
Dr. Peter Jaska, in an article appearing in ADDitude Magazine, believes that lying may be a result of unmanaged ADHD symptoms. He explains that a child who comes home late and says, "but you didn’t tell me to be home at 5:00" may have forgotten about the request to be home at 5:00 or because of communication problems, may not have heard the request. Although lies need to be addressed, it may be more helpful to look at what symptoms of ADHD may be causing the problem and work on strategies to manage symptoms.
Tips for Parents
- Talk to your child/teen about the consequences of lying, including how difficult it is to regain trust once it has been broken.
- Establish clear rules about lying, including consequences so your child knows exactly what to expect if he does lie.
- Confront lying behavior immediately and be consistent and fair in enforcing consequences.
- Reward honesty. If your child/teen tells the truth, even when he thinks he will get into trouble for what he did, you may want to lighten the punishment to show you appreciate him telling the truth.
- Pay attention to ADHD symptoms and, if lying or other misbehaviors continue, work on strategies to control the symptoms. If necessary, talk with your child’s doctor about medication or adjusting your child’s current medication to help control symptoms.
- Help your child/teen strengthen communication skills. Practice active listening, using electronic devices to keep track of time, set reminders or write down important information.
"ADHD and ‘Honest Lies,’" 2010, Feb 21, Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D., Psychology Today
"Lying and Dishonesty," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, NotMyKid.org
"The Adolescent Outcome: An 8-year Prospective Follow Up," 1990, Barkley, Russell et al, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 29, 546-557
"The Truth About Your ADHD Child’s Lying," 2009, Peter Jaska Ph.D., ADDitude Magazine
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.