It can be a huge shock to parents when their toddler starts lying to them. The lies can range from denying they’ve hit a sibling, through to categorically stating they don’t have a dirty nappy when it is abundantly clear they do.
Small children will typically tell lies in order to gain something for themselves or to avoid consequences for their actions.
Some toddlers will also indulge in telling huge tall stories that they will present to you as fact. Mum of two Alicia was dumbfounded when her alarmed babysitter informed her that her 3 year old daughter Madison told her solemnly that: “mummy was going to heaven very soon.” Alicia’s own great grandmother had died recently and clearly Madison was processing the event in her own way. This isn’t unusual. Toddlers and preschoolers sometimes cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Some “lies” are simply an extension of their imaginations
As parents it is important not to get angry or over-react when you catch your child out in a lie. For instance, if your child denies breaking an object when you have irrefutable proof they have, instead of accusing them, observe what has happened and wait to see how they respond. Yvette Vignando publisher and advocate for the importance of emotional intelligence suggests saying: “It’s a good idea to tell me what really happened, because then I feel happy that you told me the right thing and I can help you fix your mistake.” Rather than accusing them, look at what led up to the event and talk about a solution: “I know you didn’t mean to spill the milk on the carpet. That’s why you shouldn’t walk round with your drink. Let’s clean the mess up together.”
Recognising that your child has only just started developing their language and speech skills is crucial. Because of these limitations children do not understand fully that they are telling a lie. After about the age of three and a half they start to recognize that they can tell you something that is not true. However the moral implications of this will not be clear to them yet. You need to remain calm and reinforce to them calmly that lying is wrong.
It’s also important to make it clear to your child when you know they are telling a lie. “That doesn’t sound right to me. Can you tell me what really happened?” You can look at their body language and as their parents you will usually be able to pick up on cues as to whether or not they are being truthful. However it is also vital the parents don’t accuse children of lying if they aren’t absolutely sure. It can be devastating for small children to be accused of lies at this age. Dr. Brent Waters and Liz Kennedy, authors of Every Kid recommend: “If you are unsure, it’s better to wait and see, or if two children were involved and you can’t identify the culprit, deal with both equally,”
There is a small positive side to when toddlers tell fibs: “Preschoolers with higher IQ scores are more likely to lie,” says Angela Crossman, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who researched the subject. “Early lying proficiency may also be linked with good social skills in adolescence.” While this certainly isn’t an incentive to encourage them, it reinforces that lying is very normal in young children. The role of the parent is to encourage young children not to lie and to reinforce positive behavior and the importance of telling the truth. By not over-reacting when you have discovered the lie and working with your child to consistently tell the truth you will help your child immeasurably.
Last Published* December, 2022
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