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10 ways to help your toddler when they tell lies

Dealing with toddlers lying is really tricky because it is something that naturally occurs with all children, but it can really push our buttons. Honesty is often a core value most parents have for their families, and one we try hard to teach our children. Until they are school age, it can be a real challenge. Studies show that lying is like a developmental milestone, like getting dressed by yourself, and that children at 2-3 years old can pick up the skill of lying. By the time they are 4 years old, it becomes pretty normal for most children. 

Why lying can occur

  • it’s a great use of their imagination
  • to cover something up so they don’t get into trouble
  • to see how you’ll respond
  • make a story more exciting
  • experiment – for example, by pretending something that happened in a story was real
  • to get attention or make themselves sound better
  • to get something they want – for example, ‘Mum lets me have lollies before dinner’
  • to avoid hurting someone’s feelings – this sort of lie is often called a ‘white lie’

Pretending and imagining are important to your child’s development, and it’s good to encourage this kind of play. ‘Tall tales’ don’t need to be treated as lies, especially for children under four years.

If your child is making up a story about something, you can respond by saying something like, ‘That’s a great story – we could make it into a book’. This encourages your child’s imagination without encouraging lying.

It can help to have family rules about lying

Make a family rule about lying

Whether you refer to it as a rule or not, it often helps young children learn about the expectations if it is something you weave into your daily life together. There’s a few ways you can do this:

  1. Use books to help introduce the subject of telling the truth vs lying in a non-threatening way
  2. Help your toddler learn about honesty from what you practice. If they observe you lying at times, they will start to see it as an acceptable way to communicate. 
  3. Support your toddler in their making mistakes. Let them know they are not in ‘trouble’ for doing wrong things. Remind them that no matter what, you love them. Help them see that they can ‘own up’ to doing the wrong things because you will respond in a calm, compassionate way. Children are more likely to lie when they fear your response. 
  4. If your child refuses to be honest about an incident, avoid an inquisition. Very few people will fess up to a lie when they feel pressed, and that includes kids. Instead, you can say, “I love you, and I want to understand what happened, but some parts of your story aren’t making a lot of sense to me.” Sooner or later, he’ll probably reveal the truth.
  5. Let your child know that he can make amends for his dishonesty with a simple, “I’m sorry.” A lie, after all, is merely a mistake. So when he expresses genuine remorse, it’s your job to display compassion and forgiveness in return. 
  6. Hypothesise about the problem with your toddler, “gee I wonder if other girls ever get so angry that they throw their toy and break it?” or “I wonder why some girls might throw their toys?” It takes the focus off your child and they will often blurt out why they did something (instead of perpetuating the lie).
  7. Help your child avoid situations where they feel the need to lie. For example, if you ask your child if they spilled the milk, your child might feel tempted to lie. To avoid this situation you could just say, ‘I see there’s been an accident with the milk. Let’s clean it up’.
  8. Praise your toddler for telling the truth at times when it could have been easy to lie. For example, when a toy is broken and he admits that he did it. The more often his truth telling is positively reinforced, the more likely he is to continue telling the truth.
  9. Talking to your toddler at times other than in the moment of lying. You are more likely to feel calm and you can talk about how the lying makes you feel. You can talk about how it leaves you feeling confused, you don’t know exactly what happened and sometimes it can make you feel sad or angry. It’s important for kids to hear about how their behaviour makes other people feel. 
  10. Always tell your child when you know that they aren’t telling the truth. It’s okay to say ‘I don’t believe you’. You can further explain this by saying ‘what you are saying doesn’t make sense to me so I don’t believe it to be the truth’. Be mindful of not using labels such as ‘liar’, but focus on the behaviour. 

In my experience of working with families, toddlers tend to lie for two main reasons – when they fear the parent’s response or the punishment, or when they are seeking connection.

Fearing punishment often leads to lying

If you practice attachment parenting which tends to be quite gentle, it doesn’t mean you can’t have boundaries with your child. Children crave boundaries, and it is important to build your values into your parenting. What this means is that you can help support your child through their exploration of lying by providing lots of opportunities for connection. Following some of the points listed above will help build the connection through talking. 

I also acknowledge that there sometimes can be situations where toddlers lie for just no plain reason. Last weekend my 5 year old nephew and 3 year old niece both went to the toilet at my house. They returned with the 5 year old saying that his sister did not wash her hands. They had a full on argument about it, and he was near tears trying to convince us that she did not wash her hands. She was adamant that she had. In the end, their mother and I had absolutely no idea who was telling the truth and who was lying. In cases like these, sometimes gentle reminders about the importance of telling the truth is all you can do. Remember, be consistent with your messages, and your child will eventually learn. 

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