Why children lie, and how to react properly

Everybody tells a lie now and then, right? But when children lie, parents tend to overreact

Why children lie, and how to react properly

Lying is developmentally normal for children between the ages of 3-5. Lying allows children to test boundaries between fantasy and reality, to protect themselves from the consequences of their actions, and to better understand how other people think.

Stages of lying

In order for children to lie, they first have to know and understand what they are saying is false. Young children between 3 and 4 do not have the capability to tell the difference between real and make-believe, and therefore are not capable of lying. Children at this age are simply stating what they want the truth to be at the moment. Lying is a typical preschooler’s automatic response to avoid emotional pain or being in trouble. Lying tends to peak between the ages of 3 to 8. Thereafter, children’s lies become more sophisticated and center on boosting self-esteem and avoiding punishment.

Why do children lie?

Children lie for a variety of developmentally typical reasons such as:

  • Escaping punishment: children who fear punishment may lie to get out of punishment
  • Developing sense of morality: as children’s sense of right and wrong grows sharper, children tend to lie more as they are better able to anticipate which behaviors might get them into trouble
  • Experimentation: As children gain the ability to lie, they may lie to test their new skill
  • They don’t realize the lie: What you may think is a lie might actually just be that your child isn’t remembering something correctly. Young children may not understand the difference between a lie and the truth, or realize that adults don’t want them to lie.

How to handle lying

The best way for parents to discourage lying is to firmly, calmly, and patiently talk to their child about it. Here are some lying tips to remember:

  • Explaining to your child why lying is not acceptable and how lying can be hurtful is the best way to redirect the behavior.
  • It’s very important to reiterate to your child that you love them no matter what. Some children lie to gain your approval or to remain in good graces.
  • When your child is caught in a lie, calmly state the fact, “I see the marker in your hand and the color on the wall. I know you did it. You need to color on paper not walls. Let’s put the marker away.”
  • Research suggests that punishing children for lying is not effective. Severe punishment of lying may only increase lying as children generally try to avoid severe punishments.
  • If you feel the need for a consequence, the consequence should be age-appropriate and not severe. If your 4-year-old lied about scribbling on the floor, an appropriate consequence might be your child helping you scrub the floors.

Most of all parents need to be good role models. If children observe their parents telling lies, even “white lies,” they may become confused about what is or isn’t a lie. Secondly if they see a successful result of lying, they may learn that lying is a good thing despite the consequences.

For specific questions or concerns regarding your child’s development, consult with your child’s health care provider.

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Posted In Children's, Family Medicine, Parenting