“We have five dogs at home.” Daniel overheard his 4-year-old daughter tell her friend at the park.

That was not true. What was Lea talking about?

Later that week, Daniel overheard Lea tell her brother, “Daddy said I get to have another cookie since I’m older than you.”

Daniel never told Lea she could have another cookie. Why would she say that?

Over the next few days, Daniel noticed Lea lying about other things, like brushing her teeth before bed. 

He was so confused. His daughter was usually well-behaved. Why was she suddenly lying?

When your toddler or preschooler begins to lie, it means they have reached an important developmental milestone! Even so, lying can be very frustrating for parents, and we often struggle with how to respond. 

This blog will help you understand why your child lies and gives five parenting strategies you can use to foster honesty.

Lying Is a Normal Part of Child Development

When children suddenly start lying, it can be confusing, frustrating and triggering for parents. Our impulses might be to shut down this behaviour. While wanting your children to be honest makes sense, young children aren’t lying to be “bad” or “manipulative.” When young children start to lie, it can reflect growth and development. 

Lying is a sign that a child is developing their theory of mind. Theory of mind is the ability to understand that others have thoughts, beliefs, and perspectives that may differ from yours. Lying often involves understanding this concept, as a child may lie to keep their own thoughts or actions from others. As children develop their theory of mind, they become more capable of engaging in deceptive behaviours.

Lying is also a sign of social development. When kids start to lie to protect themselves from embarrassment, unwanted attention, or disapproval, it indicates that they’re becoming aware of and understanding social dynamics, norms, and expectations. 

Lying involves higher-level functioning in the brain – like planning, problem-solving, impulse control (suppressing the truth), and working memory (remembering the lie they told). If your child is lying, it’s a sign that their cognitive skills are expanding and developing. 

Most children make these developmental leaps between the ages of 3 and 4. 

Why Toddler’s Lie: It Serves a Purpose

Whenever we look at a child’s behaviour, we want to get curious about what the behaviour is trying to communicate. Lying serves many purposes for children.

1. Children Lie to Feel a Sense of Belonging

Every child wants to feel a sense of belonging. Being accepted, being seen, and getting attention from caregivers are common reasons kids tell white lies or create false stories. The fear of rejection can make lying a protective mechanism. Lying can prevent them from experiencing the pain of rejection. Lying can also be a child’s way of fitting in with their peers. 

Instead of viewing lying as attention-seeking behaviour, it can help to shift your perspective – lying can be a child’s way of seeking connection. Whether it’s with family, friends or their world. Lying might be one of the only tools a child has to get their need for connection met.

Related Post: 3 Strategies for Supporting Attention-Seeking Behaviour

2. Children Lie to Feel In Charge

Every child needs a sense of autonomy and agency in their world. Children are given instructions for most of the day, so lying can allow them to feel in control. For example,  if a child feels powerless at home, they might lie at school to get their need for autonomy met. Or, they might not get to control when they have to sit in the classroom, but they can control the narrative they create when they enter into play. Their imagination opens up a world of possibilities where they get to be in charge.

Lying can be especially common behaviour when a child is undergoing a big life transition – the chaos and unpredictability that comes with change can make kids feel overwhelmed or powerless. Their words, or stories, might be the only sense of control they have, so it makes sense that children in these situations lie.

3. Children Lie to Make Sense of Their World

Kids are naturally curious. Their curiosity drives them to do all sorts of behaviours. Lying is one way they can test the limits and make sense of their environment.

  • What will happen if I lie to my friends and tell them my dad has a sports car? Will they believe me? Will they think my dad’s super cool?
  • I wonder what my brother would do if I told him that Mom and Dad gave me permission to have more cake. Will he believe me? 

When children learn that they can lie and that people will believe them, it can unravel new possibilities for them. It also helps them determine the limits of the new possibilities. Each lie they tell is an opportunity to discover more about themselves, others, and the world. 

This is why shifting our mindset around lying in young children is so important. Instead of “bad” or “manipulative,” we should see it as an opportunity to teach our children constructive and healthy ways to get their needs met in different environments. 

Lying behaviours serves a purpose – all behaviour is intended to meet a need. To understand the deeper reason behind behaviour, check out our blog, “The Ultimate Guide to Aggressive, Lying, Whining and Defiant Behaviour in Children.”

In the blog, we cover why a child’s behaviour happens. When parents notice behaviours, like lying, it can trigger fears about our children… We sometimes get stuck thinking their behaviour is a reflection of who they are.

However, getting curious about a behaviour can quickly reveal that this is not the case.

When Is Toddler Lying Is Acceptable?

Teaching kids the difference between harmless pretend play and problematic lying is important. It can help to teach kids to ask themselves this question to help them determine if a lie is okay to tell: Does this lie hurt or harm someone?

There are two scenarios where teaching kids to protect the truth is okay. If your child is too young to understand these concepts, you can try role-playing them to clarify the difference or read our blog, “Secrets vs. Surprises: Why Parents Need to Teach Kids the Difference.”

Lying to Keep a Surprise 

Lying can be acceptable when planning a surprise for someone, like a surprise outing, party or gift, because, in these cases, the lie is meant to create a positive and enjoyable experience. 

Role-playing this example to your child might sound like: “When Bears asks Bunny if she got him anything for his birthday, she tells him yes so he’s not sad, but she doesn’t tell him what the gift is, so he’s surprised on his birthday!”

Lying to Escape

Sometimes, people may withhold the truth to escape an uncomfortable citation – whether it’s lying to avoid a question, maintain their privacy or protect sensitive personal information. In emergencies, a lie might be used to prevent harm or protect someone’s safety. 

For example, you might tell your child: “If an unsafe person asks you for your private information, like your home address, you can tell them you don’t know.”

While there may be instances where lying is justifiable or understandable, it’s still generally better to prioritize honesty and open communication whenever possible.

When your child lies, it’s an amazing opportunity to foster honesty. To do this, it’s important to connect with their feelings, focus on the facts, and use the behaviour as a learning opportunity.

How to Foster Your Toddler’s Honesty 

When your child lies, it’s an amazing opportunity to foster honesty. To do this, it’s important to connect with their feelings, focus on the facts, and use the behaviour as a learning opportunity.

Focus on Connection

Instead of blaming or shaming a child for lying, try connecting with their feelings. “You were nervous to tell me that you broke the lamp; you thought it would upset me. That makes sense. I’m not mad at you, I promise!”

You can also use stories to help connect with your child’s feelings. “I used to lie when I broke something. I was afraid Grandpa would get upset.” Connecting with them using your own experience and normalizing this behaviour can also promote more honesty in the future; your child will be less fearful of telling you the truth when they know you understand.  

If you are experiencing a lot of lying, tune back into the relationship. Was there a time when your child told you the truth, and you got very upset with them? Was there a time when they felt worried or ashamed of the truth?  Focus back in on the relationship and helping your child feel safe coming to you with all the truths.

Focus on the Facts

When a child lies, focus on the facts rather than getting caught up in their story or behaviour. Instead of saying: “I know you broke the lamp! Why won’t you admit it?” Narrate back to them what you know is true: “That’s interesting…I’m hearing you say you didn’t break the lamp, but no one else was in the living room when this happened.” 

Be mindful to address lying when you’re calm so you can stay focused on the facts rather than getting caught up in your feelings. You might need to take a break and come back to address the situation when you’re calm.

Focus on Truth-Telling 

Instead of focusing on lying behaviour, focus on truth-telling. Instead of saying, “It’s not nice to lie!” You can say, “In this family, we tell the truth.”

Another way to focus on truth-telling, instead of getting caught up on the behaviour, is to offer your child opportunities to tell the truth. For example, if you catch your child in a lie, offer them an opportunity to try again. “Hmmm, I’m going to go to the bathroom, and when I come back, I will ask you about this again. If you have a different answer, that’s okay.”

Lies Are a Clue Into Your Child’s World 

Having a deeper understanding of child development and why children lie can help shift how we see our children’s behaviour. Instead of responding with confusion, frustration and anger, which could cause shame and more lying, we can respond in a way that fosters honesty. 

Every lie your child tells is a clue into their world; lies can give you the opportunity to deepen your relationship with them and teach them how the world works. 

Check out our online Parenting Little Kids course for more tools and strategies to end lying, whining, tantrums, and other challenging behaviour!

Explore Parenting Little Kids

WRITTEN BY

Shannon Wassenaar

Registered Psychotherapist & Mom of 1

Learn More About Shannon

WRITTEN BY

Jess VanderWier

Registered Psychotherapist & Mom of 3

Learn More About Jess
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