Hearing your toddler lie can be a shock. Discover why your toddler might lie and what you can do to encourage honesty. We also provide information on what to do if your child is lying about a serious situation.
Why does my toddler tell lies?
Toddlers tell lies for a number of reasons.
- They may still be too young to know that it is right to tell the truth and wrong to lie.
- They are still learning the difference between pretend play and reality so the lie seems true to them.
- The lie expresses something they wish was true.
- They’re exaggerating to make themselves sound more impressive.
- They want to avoid getting into trouble.
- The lie helps them get something they want.
Older toddlers 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.
Toddlers' first fibs
Lying is part of normal childhood behaviour and development. Your toddler is starting to realise that you don’t know everything and this gives them some wriggle room with the truth. Toddlers may begin to lie from about age 2 and a half and get better at it as they get older. Do not stress if your child lies, it is a normal thing for them to do.
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.
- Pretend play: compliment their imagination and story-telling. Over time, this helps them to tell the difference between fantasy and reality.
- Unmet desires: help them to talk about their underlying feelings. ‘It sounds like you wish your friends would play with you more often.’
- Seeking admiration: try building their self-esteem in other ways.
- Avoiding trouble: try not to put your child in a situation where lying seems worthwhile. For example, rather than asking ‘Did you pull all your books off the shelf?’ try stating ‘Your books are on the floor. Put them back on the shelf, please.’
- Manipulating you: call their bluff. If they’ve told you that ‘Grandpa said it was OK to have some sweets now’ you could say ‘Really? I’ll just check that with him’ or ‘Well, I don’t think it’s a good idea to eat sweets before dinner.’
If you catch your toddler in an obvious lie, talk to them about why they lied and what you’d prefer them to do next time. Try to suggest that lying is not usually effective and there are other ways to handle situations where they don’t get their way, like being honest and negotiating. You could point out that perhaps they actually don’t need the outcome they were trying to get. Calling them a liar and punishing them may just make them feel bad about themselves. Remember, they are still learning about how to deal with other people, so you may need to be patient while they develop their skills.
Encourage honesty from a young age
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, especially when they’re owning up to something
- being truthful yourself and keeping your promises. Modelling is so powerful.
Not telling about abuse or other serious issues
Sometimes children lie to cover up a serious issue like sexual abuse because they feel scared or ashamed. If something serious is happening to your toddler, you’ll probably see other signs of distress like emotional or behaviour changes. Keep trying to talk to your toddler and emphasise that it is safe for them to tell you what’s happening so that you can help them. Your role is to listen and support your child. Let others investigate.
Child Wise has produced A parent’s guide to talking to children about safety to help prevent abuse and to show you how to respond to it, including which professionals to call.
You can call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 for advice on toddler tips or managing your child’s behaviour.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: June 2021