Four Easy Steps to Tell If a Child Is Lying 1

by Chris Simmons

Depending on their age, a child may lie for any number of reasons. Most importantly, children under six are especially vulnerable to having trouble distinguishing reality from fantasy. Several years ago, the media widely covered an incident alleging widespread sexual abuse of preschoolers at a day care center. After exhaustive media coverage and destroyed careers, the police discovered that the children had created the story in response to parental attention to an innocent act of touching.

Older children and adolescents may, like adults, lie for self-serving purposes. However, by combining the tools of Human Chess (i.e., behavior analysis, body language, and discourse construction), you will find it much easier to determine whether your child is lying.

Step 1:  Watch the child’s face.

The face of a truthful child will be relaxed and facial gestures (if any) will match what is being said. However, the face of a child who is lying or withholding information will likely show fear, apprehension, anxiety, or stress. Additionally, a lying child – just like a dishonest adult – will avoid eye contact and tend to slouch their shoulders when lying. They may also cover their mouth with their hand or cup their hands in their lap. “Micro-expressions,” the body’s involuntary response to lying, will also be apparent. One such common micro-expression is a smirk which flashes across the face (literally lasting less than a second).

Step 2:  Listen to what the child says and how he/she says it.

False accounts often have inconsistent, illogical, or incredulous storylines. If you suspect a child is lying, have them repeat their story. The truthful version can be told repeatedly with little or no variation. However, a story based entirely or in part on lies may have radical changes or contain competing sub-plots that cannot all be true.

One of the best ways to detect a false story is to ask the child to tell the tale in its entirety. Then pick a random point and ask the child to go through the story again from that point-forward. Do this repeatedly with different start points. Another technique is to ask them to recount major events in reverse order. Lies are remembered from start-to-finish, so no matter which approach is used, the child will display visible hesitation in their story as they “replay” the tale in their mind. (This works on adults too).

Step 3:  Is the child’s story rehearsed or spontaneous?

A truthful story is presented exactly as it occurred, that is, the narrative is a fresh telling of an actual event. Conversely, a lie may sound rehearsed or stiff. Additionally, the exact same phrases may be repeated when a child retells a rehearsed story. In addition, listen for changes in the level of detail. For example, if they are very specific about events, times, and people and suddenly glance over a segment (or vice versa), the “generalized” segment is always the part of the story they are trying to minimize. The child’s focus on the details occurs because it is true and therefore both easy to tell and remember.  Moresophisticated children (i.e., teenagers) will also tend to focus on details as a distractor and to help support an alibi(s).  (This is true for adults too).

Step 4:  Watch the body language.

The internal discomfort associated with deception will often make a lying child fearful, anxious, or defensive. The shoulders – one of the body’s most accurate indicators – will generally slouch when a lie is told. Additionally, the child’s body or face will tense and he/she may repeatedly touch the nose or mouth, cover their mouth with their hand, and avoid eye contact. Of course, some children are always nervous when speaking to adults and this must be taken into account. However, when a child who regularly speaks comfortably to adults suddenly becomes nervous in telling a certain story, the child may be lying.

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