Why Your Child Lies and How You Can Help Them

Parents can pretty get frustrated if their child lies. It worries because we rely on our child telling the truth to know about what they’re doing, thinking and feeling, especially for times when we aren’t right with them. We also don’t like seeing our kids start bad habits.

Children lie for different reasons at different ages. Understanding why your child might be lying can be very helpful in discerning how to best help them. It isn’t always as simple as telling them to “tell the truth”.

For All Ages:

  • Set a good example.
  • Be consistent with your expectations
  • Establish age-appropriate consequences, taking into account what could be causing the lying and your child’s developmental stage.


Children sometimes begin to tell “lies” as early as 2 or 3 years old. It’s important to remember, though, that at this age, your child is not lying rationally and has no intent to deceive (in fact, they don’t even know what deception means yet). At this age, children have come to recognize certain patterns – cause and effect. Children “lie” to avoid negative effects. They are not fully aware that they are denying reality; what they are really telling you is that they don’t want you to be upset at them.

How can you help?

Rebuking or punishing your child for lying at this age is ineffective – they truly don’t understand the offense. You can, however, help them when they tell a “lie” by repeating the truth to them so they hear the truth. Also, if you show them that you aren’t upset with the truth, it will be easier for them to tell you the truth even when it’s difficult as they mature more and come to fully understand the difference between truth and falsehood.

Young Children (3-5)

Children this age have a very active imagination – one that is very real to them. If your child is this age, they might spend a lot of their time in imaginative play, or even develop an imaginary friend. Lying at this age is sometimes just the result of their overactive imagination. Children are still developing their understanding of reality, and the difference between fact and fantasy could still be blurry. When they tell you that such-and-such DID happen, or so-and-so WAS real, they are giving you an indication of just how strong their imagination is and how real it seems to them.

Young children also sometimes lie in order to explore people’s reactions. They are becoming more aware of the difference between themselves and others and start to recognize that what they say and do can make a difference in how the other person reacts. They might change their story sometimes in order to see how it affects you.

How can you help?

First of all, remember that this is a normal phase of childhood development. You child MUST go through this period of exploration in order to solidify their understanding of the difference between reality and imagination, and to understand the impact their words have on others.

That DOESN’T mean that you should encourage they’re lying, but it does mean you should know that your child is not yet making a conscious choice to deceive. You can help them by:

  • Continuing to repeat the truth when a lie surfaces
  • Talking about the difference between reality and imagination and pointing out examples in daily life.
  • Talking to your child, in basic terms, about what truth is, why it is important to be honest, and how our lies can hurt ourselves and others. The story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, for example, is a simple tale that illustrates one of the dangers of lying in a way even little children can understand.

Children (6 and up)

Once your child reaches the age of reason, they are capable of understanding the difference between telling the truth and telling a lie. They understand what reality is. They are capable of deliberately telling a lie in order to manipulate how another person thinks or feels. Children usually reach the age of reason around six or seven.

Some common reasons children lie:

TO AVOID NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES. If your child fears punishment, they might lie in efforts to avoid it.

How can you help?

In addition to focusing on the importance of being trust worthy (the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf can be helpful for this age as well), make sure your child experiences the benefits of telling the truth. If you tell them that it’s best to tell the truth, but get upset and punish them every time they do so, it’s completely natural for the child to revert to lying. Telling the truth doesn’t solve everything, and your child will still have logical consequences to face for their actions, but make sure they recognize that 1) telling their truth is the first step to solving their difficulties, while lying only makes things worse; 2) you are proud of them when they tell the truth and 3) you can actually help them when they tell the truth.

TO COVER UP FOR SOMEONE ELSE. If your child believes that the truth might get someone they admire (another sibling or a friend, for example), “in trouble”, they might lie in an attempt to protect the other person.

How can you help?

Show your child that, even though their intention for lying might be good, this is a false sense of loyalty and they aren’t really helping their friend or sibling. Focus on helping your child understand the real meaning of friendship and loyalty so they find ways to support others without lying.

TO COMPETE. “My daddy’s stronger than your daddy.” That type of thing. Kids want to be proud of themselves and their family. They want to stand out in some way. Usually this isn’t so much because they want to be superior as it is that they don’t want to feel inferior, and they have an overblown impression of others.

How can you help?

Help your child discover their own self worth and grow in a healthy self-confidence. Also help your child understand that when they, or someone they know and love really have a talent or strength, they don’t have to brag about it – it will be apparent on its own. Besides, the most important thing is that THEY know it, not that their friends recognize it.

Pre-teens and Teens

At this age, your child is going through leaps of mental, physical and emotional development. They might lie either by omitting important details or by saying direct falsehoods to avoid embarrassment. They might lie to get around household rules or to avoid you finding out something they have said or done because they actually disagree with you on the matter.  Teenagers are going through a phase of development very focused on value identity. They are determining the values and principles that they agree or disagree with. They don’t want to do things because “Mom and Dad said so”, but because they believe in it. During this time, teens sometimes stray from their family’s values as they explore other possibilities and sometimes, rather than acknowledge this and discuss it with their parents, they lie about what they did.

How can you help?

Address the real issues. Even if your teen is lying for one reason or another, they will appreciate, and learn from your example of honesty. Also, if your teen is lying because they disagree over family values or expectations, simply requiring them to tell the truth won’t solve anything. You need to straightforwardly address the issues in question and reach a common understanding. This doesn’t mean “giving in” to your teen, but it does mean making sure your teen understands 1) Why your expectations are what they are, 2) that they must meet your expectations in essential matters while still under your care and 3) you are willing to take their input into account whenever possible, but will not compromise what you believe to be best for your family.