Q. I've caught my 3-year-old fibbing on more than one occasion. He'll blame his action figures for things he's done, and sometimes he spins tall tales. Once he even said that he ran away from school and went to the park to play because his teacher was mean to him. Why is he doing this, and how should I handle it?
A. What you describe is quite common for 3-year-olds. Why? Because children this age don't fully understand the difference between reality and fantasy. And one important way young children make sense of the world is through their imagination. A toddler who has a new baby brother makes a doll go into time-out under a pillow during her pretend play as a way to deal with her feelings about having a new sibling. Another child slays a plastic monster to master his fear of scary creatures.
So your son is not purposefully trying to deceive you. In fact, through his stories, he is telling you what's on his mind. This is the perfect opportunity for you to help him work through and deal with difficult or confusing feelings.
The first step is to understand what the story means to him by being curious and avoiding any judgment. Using a negative, accusatory tone during your discussion could cause him to shut down and not share his thoughts and feelings. Instead, you might say, "Wow! You ran away from school because you felt your teacher was being mean. What did she do that was so mean?" When he responds, validate whatever feelings he shares. For example: "That made you really upset. Did you want to get away from the person who made you feel bad?" Understanding what motivated your son to make up the story will help you respond appropriately.
Keep in mind that discussing his story doesn't mean you're condoning his behavior. In fact, when children use their imagination to explore different behaviors, they're less likely to act them out in real life. So the more you help your son express himself through his imagination, the better. Use the discussion as an opportunity to explore with your son ways to cope with his feelings. Ask him what he thinks he could do when he's feeling upset. Brainstorm together some ideas for how he can express his emotions, such as telling the teacher what's bothering him.
If it turns out that your child continues to tell stories that have a similar theme, it is important to check it out. In this case, you might call the teacher to ask how things are going in the classroom. Tell her about the feelings your son is expressing. You may get some important information. For example, maybe your son is interpreting the teacher's way of enforcing rules or the way she talks in a serious tone as being "mean." She needs to know how your son is feeling so you can work together to resolve the issue.
Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a nationwide nonprofit that promotes the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).
Originally published in American Baby magazine, February 2007.