Lying and Stealing

Lying and stealing are common, but inappropriate, behaviors in school-aged children. While some severe forms of these behaviors can indicate a more serious psychological problem, most of the time it is simply a common behavior that will be outgrown. Lying and stealing are more common in boys than girls, and occur most often in children ages 5 to 8 years.

Handling the situation when your child is lying

When confronted with a child who is lying, it is important to first remember the child's age and developmental stage. Children under the age of 3 do not usually lie on purpose. They sometimes have difficulty separating their own thoughts and perceptions from reality.  When they do lie on purpose it is often to avoid punishment.

Children from the ages of 3 to 6 also often have problems separating the real world from fantasy. They might have imaginary playmates at this age and enjoy fairy tales and make-believe play. The lies told by this age group are mostly tales that they have made up, not intentional lies. By the age of 6 or 7, however, children understand what lying is, and may lie in order to test adult rules and limits.

Other factors that may cause a child to lie:

  • Children may lie if their parents' expectations of them are too high or they feel like their parents will be mad at them if they fall short of expectations.
  • Children may lie about their grades to avoid having to do schoolwork.
  • If a child is asked why he did some bad behavior, the child may lie because he or she is unable to explain the actions. There isn’t always a clear reason, but when adults demand a reason children will often make something up.
  • Children may lie for attention.

When does lying become a concern?

There are multiple situations involving lying that may cause concern. If any of these apply to your child, it is important to consult your child's doctor:

  • A child who is lying and at the same time having other behavioral problems, such as setting things on fire, being mean to animals, having sleep problems, or being very hyperactive, may have a more significant problem.
  • Children who lie and do not have many friends or do not want to play in groups may need further assessment.
  • Children who lie in order to get something from someone else and do not show any signs of regret may have a more significant problem.

Handling the situation when your child is stealing

Stealing often causes concern to parents because it may happen outside the home and may affect other people. During the school years, stealing may be a sign of a problem, but it may also be a result of peer pressure and the need to fit in. It is important to look at the whole situation. Children under the age of 3 take things because they do not understand the difference between what is "mine" and what is not. They then may become possessive of the stolen item. They do not steal with bad intentions.

Children between the ages of 3 and 7 begin to understand what belongs to others. However, this age group will trade property without regard to value and may take an item because they want it. By the time the child is 8 or 9, the child should respect the possessions of others and understand that stealing is wrong.

When does stealing become a concern?

There are multiple situations that may cause concern. If any of these apply to your child, it is important to consult your child's doctor:

  • An older child that steals and does not feel bad about it
  • A child who frequently steals despite feedback
  • If other behavioral problems also exist in the child

Children should be talked to about lying or stealing, but it is important to remember that most of these behaviors are part of growing up and do not represent severe problems. Each child is unique, and your child's doctor should be involved with any concerns.