Children, lies and fibs

When children don’t tell the truth it can upset and worry parents. It is important to understand what the lie means to your child before you react.

Learning about the truth

Children’s understanding of the truth is related to their development. 

Understanding and telling the truth is something that children learn over years, not something they know from birth.

Pre-school aged children

Telling lies has no meaning for children under three. They do not understand that thinking is private and they believe their parents can read their minds.

Three to four year olds are learning that other people don’t know what they are thinking. Children this age have a very strong imagination. It is normal for them to make up stories and to blame someone else.

Early school aged children

Children in the early years of school usually want to please their parents more than they want to do the ‘right thing’. 

They are less likely to tell the truth if they think it will make their parents angry or upset.

Middle to late primary school aged children

By eight or nine years of age children may have some understanding of the difference between truth and fantasy – eg: understanding about Father Christmas.

A child’s sense of right and wrong is usually developed by about nine or ten years of age.

Imaginary friends

Some children at about three or four have an imaginary friend. This friend usually disappears as the child grows older. A child might talk to the friend when they are upset or blame the friend when they do something wrong. 

There is no need to worry unless your child seems very withdrawn and unable to get on with other children and adults.

Why young children lie

Young children might lie because they:

  • are not old enough to understand the difference between truth and untruth, or right and wrong
  • fear punishment or losing parents’ affection
  • have low self-esteem and want to make themselves sound better
  • want to impress their friends and fit in with the group
  • really believe what they are saying is true – it is how things seem to them
  • are copying other people - parents might say that lying is wrong but not always tell the truth themselves - eg: when someone is at the door and a parent says, ‘Tell them I am not home’
  • are saying what they wish was true – eg: ‘My dad always takes me to the football’.

Why older children and teenagers lie

Older children and teenagers might lie because they:

  • fear that if they tell the truth they will not be allowed to do something they really want to do
  • have a need to keep some parts of their lives private and not share them with parents.

It may be helpful to give older children and teenagers some personal privacy.

What to do when your child lies

Try to understand why your child is not telling the truth. There may be something you can help with.

Try not to get into a battle about telling the truth. Teach children why it is important to tell the truth and how it helps to develop trust.

Notice when your child tells the truth and let them know you are pleased. Don’t label your child ‘a liar’ because labels tend to encourage the kind of behaviour you don’t want.

If you think your child is afraid of being punished

You should: 

  • let them know it is safe to tell the truth and you will not be angry if something wrong has happened
  • talk about the ways that you will deal with mistakes so they know not to fear being honest
  • try not to accuse your child of mistakes - eg: 'I see there's been an accident with the milk, let's clean it up' or 'Can you clean it up?' rather than 'Did you spill the milk?'

Teach younger children the difference between truth and fantasy

You should:

  • say ‘That was a good story’ or ‘I can see you make up lovely stories, maybe we can write them down to keep’
  • show your child you understand that some lies are wishes - if a child says their Dad is phoning all the time and you know this is not true, you could say 'It sounds like you wish Dad could be here all the time.'

Set a good example

You should:

  • tell the truth yourself
  • don’t break promises, because to a child that seems like telling a lie 
  • if you can’t do what you promised, give a good reason.

As your child gets older

As your child gets older you might want to help them understand that sometimes it can be okay not to tell the truth, such as when it is not polite or could be hurtful.

For example, saying ‘thank you for the lovely present’ whether they like it or not. 

It takes a long time for children to learn the difference between lies to be kind and lies for other reasons.

If your child keeps lying

If your child keeps lying for any reason or is unable to accept the truth when it is shown to them in a caring way, you may want to seek counselling.

More information

Find out more, including where you can get support to help understand and manage when your child lies, on the following pages: 

Copyright

This information was adapted from the Parent Easy Guide series © Parenting SA, Government of South Australia.

Last updated: 18 September 2017