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 then-four-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 as a parent, not only is the circumstance your child is lying about frustrating (the accident), but the very fact that he lied in the first place.
Why kids lie
Telling lies is normal and typically emerges during this age. Some aren’t even outright “lies” as you and I would define them, but innocent stories they tell themselves and others.
Yet other lies are more “serious” and can trigger anger and disappointment in us. What’s the right way to handle these fibs?
I wanted to know 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. My kids would talk about giants writing clouds and the latest antics of their stuffed animals.
I learned that three- to five-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. 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 had done something wrong and wishes so much that she hadn’t done it. She feels remorseful and, in her ideal world, could undo what had just happened.
But instead of explaining all of that and say, “I wish I hadn’t toppled over the plant,” she’ll say, “I didn’t do it.” It’s her way of wishing it didn’t happen.
3. Not understanding
At this young age, kids don’t always understand what they hear, or what we’re trying to ask or explain. So sometimes, they’ll lie when they don’t understand the situation.
For instance, I noticed that my kids would answer questions with lies rather than admit that they don’t know.
4. Getting attention
Any attention—even negative ones—will encourage the behavior you’re seeing. Your child will 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’ll 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’ll sometimes lie to bolster their self esteem, or to feel like a big boy or big girl.
As much as we might assume that kids lie intentionally, 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 they that they’d packed their lunch when it’s still clearly sitting on the counter.
7. Avoiding consequences
Perhaps the most obvious reason why kids lie is to avoid the consequences they expect will happen if they tell the truth. This is their attempt to dodge your anger and disappointment or having their favorite activities cancelled.
You can imagine that telling the truth and getting “punished” for doing so can 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 any adult would as well. Just as we’d lie for attention, to avoid punishment, or to feel important, so too do they.
Other times, kids lie because of their age and development. They’ll forget something they had or hadn’t done a minute ago. They’re more easily confused, or have a wild imagination that spins the truth.
No matter the reason, chronic lying isn’t good for any child. But how can you respond in a way to curbs the 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 kids up to lie or feel guilty for what they had done.
Instead, skip the question and guide them on how to resolve the issue. Let’s say they 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 reprimand 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 she can come to you for anything, even—perhaps especially—if she had done something wrong.
Learn 6 reasons to stop labeling kids.
4. Praise your child for telling the truth
Praise the behavior you value and would like to continue. After all, it’s much easier to encourage the positive behavior you do see than it is to correct the negative ones.
You can still praise your child for owning her mistakes while 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 really wish you hadn’t. But I’m glad you told me the truth.”
You don’t approve of the behavior, but you can still be grateful that she admitted what she had done.
5. Work with your child to fix the mistake
If your child lies about a situation she can resolve, recruit her help in fixing the mistake.
Let’s say she lied about spilling the cereal all over the kitchen floor. Ask her to fetch the broom and help you mop the floor. For one thing, she’s held accountable for her mistakes. And second, this shows her that she can fix her 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, but they especially don’t want to see you upset at them.
Do your best to keep your temper under control to encourage them to tell the truth. If the consequence to 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. That doesn’t mean his actions won’t have consequences, but you can give them calmly.
Get more tips on anger management for moms.
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Hearing your child outright lie is never pleasant, but knowing why kids lie can help you respond in a better way. After all, kids lie for many reasons, like avoiding consequences and not understanding the situation.
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 her for telling the truth, and recruit her help to fix the mistake.
Most importantly, don’t get angry—this only makes her 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 misbehaving around the house.
p.s. Check out The Berenstain Bears and the Truth, a children’s book all about the importance of honesty:
Get more tips:
- How to Stop Your Child from Interrupting and What to Do Instead
- The Benefits of Fostering Gratitude
- Children’s Books about Making the World a Better Place
- How to Respond to Your Child Using Bad Language
- How to Raise a Kind Child
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The forgetting! So much. My daughter doesn’t lie a lot yet, but you can see it coming. “Lying seeds,” I call them. The potential is there. It’s funny at other times when she does something wrong at school and she tells me all about it in the car, even though the teachers hadn’t yet. I always wonder what propels it – is she afraid they already told me and wants to give her side? Does she want to get to me before them? Is she feeling guilty? The world may never know!
When the kids were growing up we focused mostly on why the truth was important. As they got older we also helped them see the difference between different types of lies (omission, white lies, etc.) because sometimes it’s just hard to figure these things on their own.