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Top 7 Things to Know About Lying in Toddlers and Young Children

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Updated April 16, 2014

Just beyond those "terrible two's," your child will learn the word "no" can be useful for more than refusal. The day will come when you ask her if she ate some of the chocolate cake you were saving for dinner. Though covered in icing, she will politely smile and say, "No." Is she lying? Maybe, and maybe not. It depends on her approximate age and level of language development. Learn when lying behavior can appear, why it happens, and what you can do about it.

1. Lying Behavior - Don't Worry Mom and Dad, Lying is Normal in Early Childhood

While some children do not go through a lying stage, most do. When it happens, parents may naturally feel a range of emotions. Anger, frustration, sadness, and other feelings may emerge. These too, are normal. Realizing why lying occurs and that it is normal can help you cope with it more effectively.

2. Lying Behavior Before Age Three - Children May Not Be Aware They Are Lying

Before age three, your child is still acquiring very basic speech. She can understand much more than she can accurately express. She is only beginning to learn how to use her speech to cause events and to describe her thoughts and behaviors. Consequently, she may not fully understand that she is lying by answering, "No!" to the chocolate cake question. Instead of answering your question, she may be responding to the tone of your voice and body language that is communicating that something is wrong.

3. Lying Behavior Begins Early - Children May Lie as Early as Age Three

Around age three and a half, your child may begin to understand that he can purposely use language to tell you something that isn't true. Children with speech, communication, and learning disabilities may begin this behavior much later. Children with severe learning disabilities can demonstrate this behavior as many as two or more years later than children without disabilities.

4. Why Do Children Lie? What Causes Lying Behavior?

When children begin to lie purposely, there may be several reasons:
  • To play with you;
  • Because he thinks it is funny;
  • To gain control of you or a situation;
  • To avoid punishment;
  • To cast blame on someone else;
  • Because of fear or anxiety;
  • To avoid doing something they do not want to do; or
  • Because of jealousy.

    5. How Can I Tell if My Child is Lying?

    My child came with a built-in lie detector. She blushes. Not all models come with that feature. Typically, the best way to determine if your child is lying is to investigate the situation. Look for evidence of what happened. Does the child's story seem believable? Does what he is telling you make sense based on your knowledge of him, the situation, and others involved?

    6. What Should I Do When My Child Lies?

    If you're angry, take some calming breaths before responding. Calmly, briefly, and in simple terms, explain that you know he is not telling the truth and why. "I know you ate the cake. You have cake on your face." Say that lying is wrong, and provide an appropriate consequence. For example, he could apologize, help to clean up a mess he made, take a quick time-out, or other age-appropriate consequence. With lying, it is important to respond to the behavior quickly while the situation is in mind.

    7. Teaching Takes Time

    As with any concept, your child will not learn that all lying is wrong and stop after only a few corrections. Have patience with him as he learns the difference between spoken truths and lies. He is learning the language, the concepts, and developing the thinking processes necessary to understand that lying about the cake is the same as lying about unrolling all the toilet paper or hiding your cell phone in the toy box. Consistency is important, and it will take time for him to consistently tell the truth. By about age six, you'll discover he's learned that lesson a bit too well...
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