19 answers

4 Year Old Lying

My 4 year old daughter has started lying. My husband and I are not sure what to do to get her to stop. The lies that she is telling are not little ones. For example today she told my mother-in-law that my 2 year old son is allergic to honey. My son does have some food allergies but honey is not one of them. My daughter knows that he is not allergic to honey. It resulted in my son having a huge meltdown. The first time she lied was when she told us that my son bit a girl at daycare. We talked to our son about biting and how it was wrong just to find out that he never bit anyone. We have tried talking to her and taking privilages away yet it as not made a difference. Any adivce on how to get her to stop would be greatly appreciated.

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Hi A., My oldest daughter went through this stage also. I believe it was sibling rivalry, but don't make excuses for her behavior. What I did and it worked, was pretended I didn't believe anything she said the rest of the day after I caught her in a lie. I told her that when people lie, others can't trust them to tell the truth. When she realized that her lying back-fired on her she didn't like it. It took a few weeks of being consistent with this method but it worked. She is now 25 and is one of the most honest people I know. Good luck. S.

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Hi A., My oldest daughter went through this stage also. I believe it was sibling rivalry, but don't make excuses for her behavior. What I did and it worked, was pretended I didn't believe anything she said the rest of the day after I caught her in a lie. I told her that when people lie, others can't trust them to tell the truth. When she realized that her lying back-fired on her she didn't like it. It took a few weeks of being consistent with this method but it worked. She is now 25 and is one of the most honest people I know. Good luck. S.

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I don't think 4 year olds lie, They tell stories, I think lying back is not a good idea. Its like hitting a hitter. We had a little problem same age (now 13) We were advised and did: acknowledged the lie, expressed disapproval, asked for apologies, and forgave when he did. Sounds like she's wielding power (which is a natural thing for a 4 year old to try to do). I'd show her it doesn't work by verifying all her claims, acknowledging when she's truthful and give her another way to be powerful and influential. Try to read her The Boy Who Cried Wolf weekly!

I am a child therapist who has studied human development in depth and worked with many children, in addition to having 2 of my own. So please believe me when I say...

4 year olds are not capable of "lying" as we adults think of it.

They are at a stage of cognitive development in which they use play and imagination to try to understand and figure out the world around them (their brain is unable to understand the difference between a truth and a lie). Because they do not understand the difference between make believe and reality (not in the same way adults do), once they make up a story (or what you refer to as a lie) they can come to believe that it is true. No amount of reasoning or punishment will help once this happens, as their little brains actually create a memory of the event! The image of a little boy with chocotale around his mother saying "NO mommy, I didn't eat a cookie" comes to mind. He will adamently deny to the point to crying despite evidence to the contrary, since now that he says it he believes it and remembers it this way.

The most important thing to look at and consider as a parent are the underlying needs that your daughter is exibiting through her stories. You as her mother are the expert here. The story about your son biting could be about sibling rivalry( wanting her brother to get in trouble), or maybe she wanted to know what you would do (after watching bad behavior in other children, maybe she wanted to know how you would react).

I would be very careful to not categoize these as "lies" and punish her, since from her point of view that is not at all what she is trying to do. I would teach her why her story was a problem and then I would begin looking at resources for addressing sibling rivalry (the book "Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too" by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish).

But I would try not to give the story too much attention as that will reinforce the behavior. Children will live up to our view of them. If you think of her as a lier she will live up to this view. If you think of her as a child with a creative imagination, she will use this to become more adaptive in life. I am not saying not to try to teach them the difference between real and imagined, just realize that it will probably be about 3 to 4 years before her brain will be able to understand in a more adultlike way. Hope this is helpful.

Most kids go through this between the ages of 4 and 5. Children that young aer exploring reality vs imagination. I don't quite think it's a lie yet because to her it may be something much more simple. Kids that age LIKE to get a reaction from adults and will say just about anything. Taking away her privledges may not be the way to go. I think it's just a lesson that comes to children as they grow and mom and dad to LOTS of explaining of the importance of not making things up.

My 4yr old daughter told Gramma that I ran over a PERSON in the bank parking lot. She's constantly telling me things that aren't true and we have to talk about it and I ask "Did that really happen or are you just thinking it in your mind?" She'll think for a minute and then say "I was just thinking it". I do tell her the importance of telling the truth... telling how things really are and not imagination world. Good Luck.

If I suspect that one of my kiddos is not telling me the truth I ask them if what they are saying is "right". They seem to understand the difference between right and wrong BEFORE they understand the difference between truth and lie.
I also stress the fact that even if mommy doesn't see it. The Angels do...
If its something that YOU know isn't true, just look at them with that dissapproving mom look and say now thats not right. If you know there are issues with honesty or perception, don't jump right on the kid they are "telling on" until you have proof. MAKE THEM SHOW YOU THE BROKEN TOY AND HOW IT GOT BROKE> WHERE PEOPLE WERE ETC... Become a detective. If the stories don't jive and you don't think there was ill intent on the part of the tellie, then just make a broad statement, oh, we gotta be more careful. And drop it. #1 is you don't want to train the older that she can get a reaction by lying on the younger...
If you know that there is a lie happening, then seclude the child. Tell her that you don't think thats "right",Send her to her room, make her sit on the sofa, In the time out chair... etc... Then make her appologize to you and the angels for hurting your ears with a lie. (Saying something not right, Or something you come up with)BUT DON"T SAY NO, YOUR WRONG... YOUR wrong is different than what your SAYING is wrong... Thank them when they tell you the truth and remember, telling the truth trumps the action... So even if they do something they need to be punished for, calmly thank them for telling you the truth and explain to them that they still need to be punished for doing the wrong, but you are happy that they told the right thing so they won't get as much in trouble...

Thats just what we do... If the result of the action is not what they expect it to be, they adjust...

My sitter who is a grandma says that almost all kids start telling tall tales at this age, my own daughter who is 4.5 is starting to tell lies as well.

Does the lying always involve your younger son?

A four year old is too young psychologically to understand what's real and what isn't. You may have more success with some one on one time with no interruptions to play with her to demonstrate with her dolls or whatever what happens when one lies to or about the other and show her what happens. punishment or restrictions are not going to connect for her, even if you explain it. Once you have done the role playing a few times and you feel she better understands what's going on, then time outs for 4 mins - 1 minute per year, can help. They need to be immediate and done with no talk, no emotion. If she gets up time starts again (a little dial timer helps) and when her time is up, the subject is dropped, otherwise it is you that keeps it going. These are things that helped with my son. He is highly emotional and had tantrums and crying jags that would make you want to rip out your eyeballs, but this worked and he was much happier once the structure was in place and he knew he could rely on me to be consistent.

A real sticky problem. But I'd sure try the "Crying Wolf" explanation. If she keeps doing this no one will believe her when she really IS telling the truth.

Hold her accountable. When she's been caught in a lie, have her retract it to that person. 'Grandma, it wasn't true that my brother's allergic to honey'. "Mom he really didn't bite anyone".

Tell her you love her but absolutely hate when she tells things that aren't true. It could be she's trying to feel grown up and communicative, but just doesn't get the facts right. Or wants lots of attention she thinks she'll get by telling fantasy stories.

I'd have an 'on-hand' disciplinary measure to use when/if it continues.

Later on, maybe she'll be able to use her imagination in writing or screenplay. But this is not good.

She sounds like she has a big imagination. Give her a creative outlet, such as writing stories (do not worry if they are unreadable) to experss her thoughts.

Many kids do this at about this age and grow out of it. I like the "Cry Wolf" suggestions. Kids respond well to role playing with toys. Especially when their favorite toys are playing the parts of the sheep.

Good luck with this I have a 8 1/2 year old that has been telling stories and lying since he was 3 1/2. I have not been able to change this or correct it. But I also have the problem of my ex lies all the time and his half sister do the a same.

Every single one of my children so far at that age goes through a lying phase. It doesn't go away overnight (some still did it after a year or more.) But do know that she is perfectly normal and it won't last forever if you are consistent.
We always had a consequence, like missing the activity they were lying about or going to bed early if it was happening at night. We also tried to be aware of giving the child an "OUT". By saying DID YOUR BROTHER BITE THEM? OR DID YOU DO THIS when you know they did, puts them in a place to defend themselves. Children (and sometimes adults) LIE to get out of trouble. This is what they do. It is disappointing,but normal. So, try not to get info from them that could put them in a place to lie.
We also, try to persuade them with... "I'll go check with MOMMY right now and see if that is true, or DADDY or the DAYCARE.... etc." A lot of times they back right down with the truth. They back down when they know they will have to sit out from the rest of the family or movie or game.
They even lie about washing their hands. So instead of asking if they washed their hands, I usually say, "Do you want to check if you washed your hands, just in case you forgot?" Wouldn't you know 3/4 of the time it sends them scurrying back to the bathroom.
We do not PERMIT lying, we just try not to put them in a situation to LIE MORE like this age does. They are so convincing aren't they?
I hope this can help with this aggravating phase.
I have 5 nearing 6 children...unfortunately I know that I have a couple more "lying phases" to go through.
Sorry I just noticed I wrote this under my mother in laws profile...Mine is Rachael M from Michigan.

I have 4 sons who are now 20,18,15, and 14. At one time or another all childern will lie. I stopped this by lying to them.

I know that this may sound wrong but it was a quick way to get them to stop. An example, if I caught them in a lie to me I would turn around and lie to them. I told them that we were going somewhere, ie. Dairy Queen, and when they asked me when we were leaving I would ask them what they were talking about. Naturally, they would say that I lied to them and I would deny every saying it. The looks on their faces could have killed you, but within 2 weeks the lying basicially stopped. They got a sense of what it felt like to be lied to.

You and your husband probably have never directly told her a lie and she really does not know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the lie. After they get the feelings of being lied to it will stop.

Hi A.,

It sounds like she is looking for attention. You may have to go over with her again and again why telling the truth is so important. And rather than punish the lies, be sure to employ positive reinforcement of good behavior -- praise and shower attention for telling the truth.

Also, check with your local library and ask the children's librarian for books that might be good to read with her about this. I'm sure Berenstain Bears and others have addressed it. There's always "The Boy Who Cried Wolf."

Best of luck to you.


Hi A.,

If you are looking for a more solid approach, I recommend finding a children's Bible or a book on character building (maybe google this). When a child learns at an early age that God likes and expects from us and we teach this over and over (of course, I would start with teaching them about God first, because they have to have respect for Him) and then of course, when we fall short, we must also teach that we can ask for forgiveness and also for wisdom and help to change. Hope this helps if you are open to it and maybe you already know this. Parenting is a big challenge and nobody's perfect -- hopefully she won't have to learn about it the hard way -- repetition, training, patience and prayers all work in the end!

L. O.

Hi A. ~ I too have a 4 year old daughter and a 2 year old son...neat...anyway my daughter is also doing this. Her's are sometimes a bit strange (about a month ago she told the hair dresser that I only feed her on Tuesdays!?) and sometimes their about her behavior (like when she is asked if she hid the camera, to which she'll reply "NO", even though no one else in the family is going to stick it in the back of HER closet and bury it under a bunch of clothes!?) After a little digging on the subject (although at the moment I can't remember where I read it) it is believed that at this age children don't understand the concept of lying. To them if they want something to be so...it just is...even if it really isn't so when I ask her about the camera it's "no mommy I didn't hide the camera or no mommy I didn't do it but Isaac did" Anyway I just try to counter act it, so if she tells me she didn't hide the camera I will say ok, but if you know where it is I'd appreciate if you'd bring it to me because I need it...which usually ends in her running upstairs and retreiving it...LOL. I think the article I read stated that the kids are closer to 7 before they truly understand and can comprehand the concept of lying, as we as adults understand it. If I can find that article I'll send a link.

My son just turned four in march and he just started to do this too. I have no clue why and how to stop it. It drives me crazy and he will deny lying.

Personally, I would say don't make a bigger deal out of it than it is. Most children go through this phase and it sounds like your daughter's behavior is completely normal. It also sounds like she's using her "stories" to express some angst or jealousy against her brother. Perhaps some more one on one or "girl" time would do her good in more than one way. She is too young yet to really understand the seriousness of lying, in her mind she is creating a made up reality that is still very real and close for her and she is simply telling you about it.
I know from experience that this can be extremely frusterating, I had one that was a compulsive liar to the point that I was strongly considering professional help. However, I'm glad to say that we were able to handle even that on our own. We just let him know over and over and over again that we loved to hear what he had to say and we were very interested, BUT we got confused when he said things that weren't true and reminded him that he needed to begin statements like that with "sometimes I pretend.." or "I think it would interesting if..", or "can I tell you a story?.." We also encouraged him to put his "stories" on paper, drawing pictures and either trying to write words himself or having us help him do it. That way he could share his story over and over again with lots of people or he could go back and "read" it later (this is also a great reading readiness activity) We would also explain how saying things that aren't true can cause a lot of trouble with examples he could understand (What if I mislead him by telling him he had chocolate milk in his glass, but really it was mud and I forgot to say "I'm just joking" - he would be grossed out and could feel hurt inside too!) and how it can make people value what we have to say less - even effecting whether or not we are taken seriously when we really do need help.

I would say treat it as if you 4 year old is just having trouble communicating, and she needs you to help her find her way to a better way to get her feelings and ideas across. There's nothing wrong with a good imagination - it's produced many talented professionals later on in life - just make sure she knows that there are some places/times imagination has a safe and healthy outlet, and others where it's best restrained or at least explained as imagination.

Excessive worrying and parental demonstration over this kind of thing I've found only makes the child hold onto their negative behavior tighter. They feel their very personal thoughts and imaginings and methods of being are being threatened and dissapproved of, and worse - when we well meaning adults accuse them of being liars (which we all know are "wicked"). Assume and expect the best instead (and teach them to expect the best out of themselves) and you are sure to get it with a little preserverance and support for their creativity (even if it's a little misdirected at this point), with much less headache and trauma for both of you! :) Good Luck!

My five year old is just getting over this phase. He would lie about his chores or behaviors. "I didn't say or do that" or "the toy room is all clean" when it wasn't. He also told the daycare provider that when our baby cried, my husband and I would hit her upside the head.

With the little lies, I would have him look me in the eye and then I would ask him the question again. If he said "No" again, I would say "Ok, but if I go in there and I find ....., you will have to stand in the corner." He would usually fess up. With the big one, I explained to him what could happen to us if people really believed that we hurt the baby. He said that he didn't know that could happen. Then he felt horrible.

We always made a big deal about telling the truth and reassuring him that he wouldn't be punished if he told the truth, even if he was caught in a lie. As long as he told the truth, he wasn't punished. Then we switched it over to, "I'm glad you told the truth. Thank you. Now that we have talked about this and you know that it was a lie, you will get in trouble next time because now you know." He hasn't lied in a couple months. (Majorly anyway.)Good Luck!

I'm an SLP too. Maybe it's not a lie, maybe it's a "processing problem." (Wink, wink!) I work in a K-1 building. My #1 referral is the 5 year old with a processing problem. :)

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