Like adults, kids often lie for many reasons or for no reason at all. Problematic, habitual lying -- in which a child lies by reflex -- is known as pathological lying or compulsive lying. If this behavior continues into adulthood, it can cause significant problems for your child's personal and social life. Compulsive lying may indicate an underlying disorder or it may be a learned habit. Consult your doctor for specific medical advice about your child's development and behavior.
Fear of Punishment
People of all ages often lie due to a fear of punishment, according to board-certified psychiatric and mental health nurse Derek Wood. Kids may lie to cover up a specific incident of wrongdoing, hoping to avoid punishment for this incident; such individual instances of lying do not constitute compulsive lying. However, if a child lives in an environment where she feels there is a constant threat of punishment -- for example, if a parent or caregiver is physically abusive or quick to lose his temper -- she may lie compulsively to avoid harsh punishment.
Reasons for Compulsive Lying
There are as many reasons for compulsive lying as there are compulsive liars. However, certain general trends are common among kids and adults who lie out of habit. Your child may develop the lying habit as a form of seeking attention; this often starts with exaggeration and white lies, which can become part of the child's personality. Low self-esteem also can contribute to habitual lying, as a child may make up stories to make him feel more interesting, appreciated or worthy.
Compulsive lying is associated with certain psychiatric diagnoses. In children, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) frequently is associated with impulsiveness and often this includes compulsive lying. Habitual lying also is often associated with bipolar disorder, antisocial personality disorder and conduct disorder. The latter two conditions typically manifest for the first time during adolescence. In each instance, compulsive lying can become a vicious cycle in which your child lies more in response to being caught in a specific lie.
Reality and Imagination
Children under the age of five or six years may have an inconsistent understanding of the distinction between reality and fantasy or imagination. In young children, what appears to be compulsive lying may in fact be a vivid imagination. Toddlers, for example, may not understand the difference between a fantasy scenario they have imagined and reality. Parents also can misinterpret preschool-aged children’s lack of memory development as lying. For example, if a child says she did not do something that her teacher said she did, the child simply may not remember doing it.