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Author: Dr Dennis OugrinConsultant Child Psychiatrist

When stealing and lying become a regular occurrence, or when these behaviours are accompanied by other worrying signs, it may be time to seek the advice of an expert in child behaviour. We can help.

Child and adolescent lying

The ability to successfully tell a lie is one ability that sets humans apart from other animals. The average adult admits to telling a lie 13 times a week, and lying is considered by many experts to be an important milestone in a child’s emotional development.

The process of lying is complex and involves a child understanding they are a separate entity to their parents – this ability normally happens at around the age of 2 or 3.

Whilst young children may lie because they are not able to separate fantasy from truth, by the age of 6 most children understand the moral implications of lying.

Persistent lying can be a sign that:

  1. A parent’s expectations are too high
  2. The child fears the consequences of the truth
  3. The child can’t explain their actions any other way
  4. The child is craving attention

Whilst many lies can be small and insignificant, if your child frequently lies or the lies are getting them or other people into trouble, it could be a sign there is an underlying problem that would benefit from some expert input.

If lying is accompanied by any of the following, you may want to speak to an expert:

  • Depression / low mood
  • Lack of empathy for others
  • Low self-esteem
  • Hurting other people or animals intentionally
  • Hyperactivity
  • Fire setting / risky behaviours

By the age of 9, a child should know the moral implications of stealing.

Child and adolescent stealing

Finding out your child or teenager is stealing can be deeply concerning – parents are understandably worried about not only the impact on the other party but may also feel guilt or shame about their role as parents.

If your child or teenager is stealing, it can be a sign of emotional problems that may benefit from expert help.

What causes a child to steal?

  • Emotional problems
  • Peer pressure
  • Low self-esteem
  • Friendship difficulties
  • Wanting to ‘buy’ popularity
  • As a way of feeling good about themselves
  • Neglect (needing certain items because they are not being provided for)
  • Being bullied

If stealing is accompanied by any of the following, you may want to speak to an expert:

  • Depression / low mood
  • Showing no remorse
  • Frequent stealing
  • Stealing expensive items
  • Low self-esteem
  • Hurting other people or animals intentionally
  • Hyperactivity
  • Fire setting / risky behaviours

Couldn’t have been better. Our daughter was completely put at ease by the doctor and we felt listened to and supported.

Imran, Lewisham

Why is my child stealing or lying?

Some stealing or lying behaviour is part and parcel of growing up – we have all made mistakes in our adolescence and they are how we learn about the world.

Lying can be a way of testing out boundaries, a key developmental need for adolescents. Others may lie or steal as a way of managing difficult emotions. Our arousal states are increased by the process of lying and stealing, and these behaviours can make a child feel more powerful, in control and even give them a bit of a ‘high’.

of children have a significant issue with lying

Help available for stealing and lying

One of the first steps that many parents find helpful is for their child or teenager to meet with a child and adolescent psychiatrist to assess if there are any underlying reasons behind the stealing and lying behaviour.

Research shows that children who lie and steal may have an underlying condition, such as a conduct disorder, ODD or an emerging personality disorder, all of which can be helped by therapy and in some cases, medication.

Working with a psychologist or psychotherapist can help your child manage their emotions in a healthier way and teach them lifelong skills. For some children, medication can be effective in helping address underlying issues that may be causing the behaviour.

Read more about treating behavioural issues

Stealing and lying are very common, and often are part of normal development. However, they may also indicate a serious problem, such as conduct disorder. If stealing and lying are accompanied by a significant distress or a serious impact on the young person’s life, my advice to parents would be to seek a comprehensive mental health assessment.
MBBS, MRCPsych, PGDip (Oxon), CCT, PhD

Consultant Child Psychiatrist

Dr Ougrin is a psychiatrist with nearly 10 years of clinical and academic experience specialising in child and adolescent psychiatry. He also has undertaken much research in the area of self-harm and has developed an effective intervention for...

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