Why Do Toddlers Lie?

It is easy to get alarmed when your cute little munchkin starts lying. What if this continues as she grows up? What if she turns into a lying teenager, a lying adult? What if she gets better at lying; how will I know if she is telling the truth? First of all, take a step back and realize that it is completely normal for toddlers to lie and there are many reasons they may do so.  Take a moment to consider: why does anybody lie? It is not always manipulation and deceit; people lie to avoid punishment, for self-protection, to protect others, to maintain privacy, to avoid embarrassment, to be polite, and sometimes for the fun of it. We all lie sometimes, and so do our toddlers.   Toddlers also lie for a variety of reasons. They may be testing out a new behavior.  Just like they did when they were first beginning to crawl and walk, your little munchkin is exploring how you will react, what the lie will do for them, what the lie can get them out of, etc. This is no different than any other behavior they have learned thus far. Remember that a toddler’s language skills are just developing and they may not have the right words to express themselves at all times. Toddlers also have very active imaginations and may have difficulty weeding out what is reality and what they have made up. Your toddler may simply be trying to save face and avoid getting into trouble. Research shows that the ability to lie is an important developmental milestone for children and can start as early as 2 years old, and suggests that lying requires theory of mind (being able to understand what another person knows and does not know) as well as executive functioning skills (particularly the ability to plan ahead). So, you can think of lying as a sign of your toddler’s growing cognitive sophistication.   Now that we have decided that lying toddlers is normal and developmental, let us focus on how you as a parent can respond. The goal is to create an environment in which your child feels safe in telling the truth, even when it means admitting fault. Here are a few tips:  
  • Keep calm. Focus on using a calm tone when your child makes a mistake or lies. If your child is worried about getting yelled at when they make a mistake, they probably will not want to come to you with the truth. Instead of yelling or blaming, help them identify what happened and discuss solutions together to problem solve.
  • Don’t set up a lie. Instead of asking a question you already know the answer to (Where did all this mud come from?), ask a question that encourages problem solving and accountability (What can we do to clean this up and make sure it does not happen next time?).
  • Get the whole truth. Help your child talk about everything that happened and how the lie came to be. Open up the conversation by saying something like “That sounds like a story to me. You must be worried about something and afraid to tell the truth. What would help you be honest?”
  • Celebrate honesty. Even if you are frustrated about the mistake your child made (usually a mess), stay calm and commend her for telling the truth. Thank her for telling you the truth and acknowledge how difficult it must have been.
  • Do-overs. Turn mistakes into opportunities. Ask your child what she could have done differently and help brainstorm ideas. Instead of the mistake leading to punishment or yelling, it now becomes a learning opportunity for your child to do it differently next time.
  • Show the love. Tell your child that you love them unconditionally, even when they make mistakes. Let them know that while you do not like their particular behavior you will never love them any less. This helps your child feel safe in opening up to you.
  • Walk the talk. Your child is always learning from your behavior. When they see you telling white lies, you are showing them that lying is ok. Check yourself and make sure that you are telling the truth to, and when not you own up to it.
  Now you know multiple reasons why your toddler may lie as well as seven helpful tips on how to respond. Still, it is ok to feel overwhelmed or unsure of what to do. Do not feel afraid to ask for help from friends, other parents, or professionals. Therapists can help you identify when and how to implement the above suggestions as well as others. They can also work with your children to help them start building skills to communicate their needs more effectively as well as cope with difficult emotions that can lead to lying. Remember that there is no step by step guidebook to parenting – if you need help please reach out.