Frustrated because your child keeps lying and you don’t know how to stop the behavior? Learn why kids lie — and how to handle it.
“I got some water on my pants when I washed my hands,” my 4 year old said.
Never mind that the tell-tale signs of a peeing accident suggested that he was lying. He had been having accidents and likely didn’t want to fess up that he had yet another one.
But not only is what your child is lying about frustrating (the accident), but the very fact that he lied in the first place.
Telling lies is a normal part of childhood and typically emerges during the preschool years. According to Raising Children:
“Children can learn to tell lies from an early age, usually around 3 years of age. This is when children start to realize that you aren’t a mind reader, so they can say things that aren’t true without you always knowing.”
This is when they begin to understand that other people have different beliefs than they do. They may be testing their new skills to form stories different from what they know to be true.
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Why kids lie
What’s the right way to handle these fibs? I wanted answers to these questions, so I dug in and read all I could about kids and lying. Let’s talk about why kids lie in the first place, followed by the best ways to respond:
1. Testing reality and fantasy
Let’s start with the most innocent of lying—the kind that borders on storytelling, not deception. They’re not outright “lies” as you and I would define them, but innocent stories kids tell themselves and others. For instance, my kids would talk about giants on clouds and the latest antics of their stuffed animals.
I learned that 3-5 year olds grapple between reality and fantasy and sometimes lie to test those boundaries. In these harmless cases, the best thing to do is to go with it and encourage your child’s imagination. He’s creating stories on the fly while keeping the truth in the back of his mind.
2. Wishful thinking
Your child knows she did something wrong and regrets that she had done it. She feels remorse and anxiety and, in her ideal world, wishes she could undo what had just happened.
But instead of explaining all of that and saying, “I wish I hadn’t toppled over the plant,” she might say, “I didn’t do it.” It’s her way of wishing it didn’t happen and easing the difficult emotions she feels.
3. Not understanding
At this young age, kids don’t always understand what they hear or what we’re trying to ask or explain. Sometimes, they lie when they don’t understand the situation.
For instance, I noticed that my kids would answer questions with lies (“I didn’t break the toy!”) rather than admit that they didn’t know.
4. Getting attention
Any attention—even negative ones—can encourage the behavior you’re seeing. Your child might continue the actions that garner her the most attention, even if you’re angry or frustrated. The more attention she gets when she lies, the more likely she might keep spinning tales.
5. Feeling important
How many of us have fidgeted the truth or exaggerated a claim to feel important? The same is true with kids. They sometimes lie to bolster their self-esteem or to feel like a big kid.
We assume that kids lie intentionally to create false beliefs in others. But sometimes they lie simply because they forgot what they did. They really did think they ate all their dinner when they only took a few bites or that they had packed their lunch when it’s still sitting on the counter.
7. Avoiding consequences
Perhaps the most obvious reason why kids lie is to avoid the consequences they expect might happen if they tell the truth. This is their attempt to dodge your anger and disappointment or have their privileges removed.
You can imagine that telling the truth and getting “punished” for doing so might nudge them to tell a lie rather than fess up.
What to do when kids lie
As you can see, many of the reasons why kids lie are the same as any adult would as well. Just as we’d lie for attention, to avoid punishment, or to feel important, so too do our kids.
No matter the reason, chronic lying isn’t good for any child. But how can you respond in a way that curbs lying and prevents you from getting angry? Take a look at these tips:
1. Don’t ask, “Did you [fill in the blank]?”
I’ve asked my kids—knowing full well whether they did or not—”Did you [fill in the blank]?” It’s a useless question, especially when you already know the answer. This only sets your child up to lie or feel guilty for what he has done.
Instead, skip the question and guide him on how to resolve the issue. Let’s say he spilled water all over the table. Simply say, “Here’s a rag to clean up the spill.”
2. Show empathy
My son has a stuffed animal named Ricky, which he turned into his alter ego responsible for his every misdeed. If we reprimanded him for yelling when he wasn’t supposed to, he’d respond with, “Remember when Ricky yelled really loud and he got in trouble?”
I could see why he would pass the blame onto someone (or something) else. He didn’t want to assume the consequences, or perhaps felt guilty or embarrassed.
So, instead of being too quick to judge, show empathy toward your child. Dig deep into why she might be lying in the first place. For instance, you might say, “I can see why you said that—you didn’t want me to get mad at you. But in this family, it’s more important that we tell the truth.”
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3. Keep your words positive
Note the difference between saying “It’s bad to lie” and “It’s important to tell the truth.”
We don’t shame kids when we keep our words positive, nor sacrifice our authority and the importance of the message. Negativity can also lead them to label themselves as bad or encourage them to hide their misdeeds.
Aim for open communication where you base your relationship on safety and trust. Your child should feel like he can come to you for anything, even—perhaps especially—if he has done something wrong.
4. Praise your child for telling the truth
“The basketball knocked over the candy cane when we were playing,” my son told me about our broken Christmas decoration. After I heaved a sigh of frustration and had him help me fix it, I said, “Even though you made a mistake, I’m glad you told me the truth right away.”
Praise the behavior you value and would like to continue, including when your child is being honest. After all, it’s much easier to encourage the positive behavior you see than it is to correct the negative ones.
If you were to only reprimand her for her mistake, she might be inclined to lie in the future to avoid being scolded. After all, she would learn that telling the truth only gets her in trouble than if she had not said anything at all.
You can praise her for being honest while still making it clear that the behavior was wrong. For instance, you can say, “You weren’t supposed to play with the remote control, and I wish you hadn’t. But thank you for telling me the truth.”
5. Work with your child to fix the mistake
If your child lies about a situation he can resolve, recruit his help in fixing the mistake.
Let’s say he lied about spilling the cereal all over the kitchen floor. Ask him to fetch the broom or help you mop the floor so that he’s held accountable for his mistakes. This also shows him that he can fix those mistakes instead of lying about them.
6. Don’t get angry
Easier said than done, right? But one of the main reasons kids lie is to avoid The Wrath of Mom. Sure, they don’t want to get in trouble for not doing homework, but they especially don’t want to see you upset at them.
Keep your temper under control to encourage them to tell the truth. If the consequence of telling the truth is you getting mad, how likely will they tell the truth the next time?
Instead, reassure them that you won’t get mad when they admit the truth—and stick to it. This doesn’t mean his actions won’t have age-appropriate consequences—you just need to give them calmly.
7. Model the behavior
Kids aren’t the only ones prone to lying.
We might say things like, “I’m going to call in sick from work tomorrow,” (when we feel just fine). Others are more elaborate, like when we keep secrets or outright tell another person a different story than the truth.
The best way to teach kids not to lie is to model the behavior. Try to catch the times you find yourself lying or about to lie. Don’t lie about your child’s age at the restaurant so that he can get the free kids’ meal. Focus on the truth and he learns that this is what your family values more.
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Hearing your kids outright lie is never pleasant, but knowing why they do can help you respond in a better way.
Don’t bother asking whether they did the deed or not, as this sets them up to lie or feel ashamed. Instead, show empathy and keep your words positive. Praise them for telling the truth, and recruit their help to fix the mistake. Most importantly, don’t get angry—this only makes them want to lie more to avoid your reaction.
While lying is inevitable, you can still confront the behavior in a positive, healthy way. Yup, even if “Ricky” the stuffed animal is the one who actually yelled and misbehaved.
p.s. Check out The Berenstain Bears and the Truth, all about the importance of honesty:
Get more tips:
- Children’s Books About Making the World a Better Place
- How to Respond to Your Child Using Bad Language
- Anger Management for Moms
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