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Why does my toddler lie, and how can I stop it?
There may be a few reasons why your child has started fibbing. First, she may not be deliberately lying at all -- it's common for toddlers to confuse reality and fantasy, or what they wish had happened with what really did. You may overhear your daughter mentioning Mommy's new dress when you haven't been shopping in ages, announcing she was sick last night when she wasn't, or even telling friends she has a baby brother on the way! One of the main reasons for this casually inaccurate talk is that she probably hears it from you. We all tell little white lies out of tact, kindness, a desire to avoid hurting someone's feelings or to save time -- and our children hear that. Now we're not advocating telling a friend she actually does look fat in her new dress, but explain the reasons for these "white" lies to your daughter when she witnesses one so she understands that making up tales that serve no purpose (outside of her creative play time) is not appropriate.
Another reason toddlers lie is to deny wrongdoing. For example, your daughter breaks her older sister's doll by mistake. Faced with it, she denies the whole incident. If you want her to own up when she has done something wrong, then make it easy: "This doll is broken. I wonder what happened?" is much more likely to encourage her to say, "I broke it, I'm sorry" than if you start yelling. Of course if your child admits to something of her own accord or because you asked for the truth, make sure you don't overwhelm her with anger and punishments. You can't have it both ways. If you want her to tell you when she's made a mistake, you can't also holler at her, because she'd then likely hesitate to come clean in the future.
The next time your child lies to you, make it clear why the truth matters. Explain that you can't look after her properly or keep her safe unless you know that when she tells you something (such as "I don't feel well" or "I ate those berries") it's true. Tell her the story of the boy who cried wolf. She'll enjoy it -- and it drives home the point very clearly.
Copyright 2002. Updated 2009
The answers from our experts are for educational purposes only. Please always refer to your child's pediatrician and mental health expert for more in-depth advice.