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Toddlers and lies

4-minute read

Hearing your young child lie can be upsetting and cause you worry.

Discover why your young child might lie and what you can do to encourage them to tell the truth. We also provide information on what to do if your child is lying about a serious situation.

Why does my toddler tell lies?

It's important to understand why your child might have lied. Children tell lies for a number of reasons such as:

  • They are not old enough to understand the difference between right and wrong.
  • They are still learning the difference between imagination and reality so the lie seems true to them.
  • The lie expresses something they wish was true.
  • They want to impress their friends and fit in with the group.
  • They want to avoid getting into trouble.
  • The lie helps them get something they want.
  • Fear of punishment or losing parents affection.

Older children may also tell a 'white' lie to protect someone's feelings. For example pretending to be grateful for a gift they don't really like.

Telling the truth is something that children learn over time. A child's sense of right and wrong develops by about the age of 9 or 10 years.

When do children start lying?

Lying is part of normal childhood behaviour and development. Younger children in the early years of school want to please their parents more than they want to do the 'right thing'.

Children aged 3 to 4 years old learn that others do not know what they are thinking. They use this knowledge and test it out by telling 'stories'.

Children are less likely to tell the truth if they think that it will make their parents upset or angry. Do not get upset if your young child lies, it is normal for children to do this.

What can I do about my toddler's lying?

The best way to handle a toddler's lie depends on their reason for telling it. Try to understand why your child is not telling the truth.

  • Teach your child why it is important to tell the truth.
  • Let them know that it is safe to tell the truth. Tell them you will not be angry if something wrong has happened.
  • Talk to children about ways to deal with mistakes, so they know not to fear being honest.
  • Teach younger children the difference between truth and fantasy.
  • Show your child you understand that some lies are wishes.
  • Notice when your child tells the truth and let them know you are pleased.
  • Work out why the child lied and help them learn skills for handling the situation better next time.

Do not label you child a liar or accuse them of mistakes. Remember, they are still learning, so you need to be patient while they develop their skills.

How do I encourage my child to be honest?

Good relationships are based on trust, which requires honesty. You can encourage your toddler to be honest by:

  • making clear that your family values honesty
  • praising your child for telling the truth
  • being truthful yourself and keeping your promises
  • setting a good example

Not telling an adult about abuse or other serious issues

Sometimes children may not tell the truth to cover up a serious issue like abuse or bullying.

If a child tells you of a serious issue you should support them and help them feel safe. Your role is to listen and support your child. It is important to raise your concerns with the relevant authorities.

Resources and support

If your child keeps lying or they are unable to accept the truth you may want to speak with your doctor.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2022

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