Telling tall tales: Have you caught your child lying?

Developmental influence on the concept of lying

As a child’s brain develops, it has different capacities to think and reason. The child’s ability to understand the consequences of a lie or the ability to manipulate and control through lying is linked to the brain’s development.

The developmental stages and cognitive functioning are listed below:

  • Infants and Toddlers (0-3 years): Lying is very uncommon because the child is still learning to communicate. If an untruth is told, it’s usually related to not understanding the use of language or meaning of words.
  • Preschoolers (3-5 years): Children do not have the capacity to lie in order to deceive at this age. Instead, they are developing magical thinking. Magical thinking is a way that preschoolers interpret what they are actually experiencing with how they perceive things to be or how they wish they were.
  • School-age (5-10 years): Children can begin to lie at this age. School-age children’s brains do not have abstract thought yet. They reason from information captured through the senses. When telling untruths, school-age children will most often change the facts of an event or insert a desire or wish in the lie.
  • Tweens (10-13 years): Tweens have the ability to construct lies. Their brains are beginning to develop abstract reasoning skills. They reason from a mix of information captured through the senses with some ability to predict outcomes. When telling untruths, tweens generally are concerned with changing or inventing facts to drive a certain outcome or obtain a desire.
  • Early Teens (13-16 years): Most early teens have developed abstract thought. Their brains can manipulate multiple scenarios and predict outcomes. Early teens can construct complex untruths that are based on facts but then are embellished or edited to create the message they desire to communicate.
  • Late Teens (16-19 years): Late teens have mastered abstract thought. Their brains can reliably assess information, draw conclusions, and anticipate future events. This ability allows them to calculate risk. Late teens have the ability to fabricate complex, believable untruths that can deceive or conceal factual realities.

Of course, having the ability to create lies and actually lying are two different things. Yet, it is important that parents understand what a child’s mind is capable of in order to judge the consequences a child should receive when a lie is discovered. Also, it helps parents know how much probing they should do if they suspect an untruth is being told.

Guidelines to respond when a lie is discovered or suspected

  • Infants and Toddlers (0-3 years): These little ones can’t lie. Clarify definitions of words or the correct usage of language. Then, write the story down so you remember it because it will most likely be good for a laugh when they graduate from high school.
  • Preschoolers (3-5 years): Again, these little ones can’t lie either. Most often they are mixing reality with their creative imagination. The stories they are telling are reflecting what their desires are or their understanding of what is happening. Talk to your little one to find out more about their perceptions. If needed, explain in age-appropriate language how things really are.
  • School-age (5-10 years): When small lies are detected, it may be best to address them with the child. Present the child with the actual facts and discuss what motivated the child to change the facts. Teach the child new problem solving techniques so that lies are not needed. By doing so, the parent is showing the child that they are involved and want to help their child be successful.
  • Tweens (10-13 years): Asking for more detailed, specific information can help parents identify untruths in the tween years. If a lie is suspected, parents should ask their child to give a more complete response with precise details. Then, if an untruth is found, talking to the child directly about what motivated them to change information. This way, the parent can discover issues the child may be having at school, in the community, or at home.
  • Early Teens (13-16 years): Asking for specific details and then double checking those details at a later time can help parents of early teens identify untruths. If a lie is suspected, parents can ask their teen to “tell them again” what will happen or has happened. Verifying facts (i.e. calling another parent to verify that a child was in a certain location) while the early teen is present and listening can be helpful. Allowing the teen to have a chance to say the truth is important at this age. Showing the teen that the parent is interested and involved can help the teen make good decisions and share the truth without first telling an untruth.
  • Late Teens (16-19 years): It can be difficult to detect lies in older adolescents because of their autonomy and ability to plan and improvise as needed. Often untruths are told to guard their autonomy and independent decision making. Unfortunately, a lack of life experience may lead them into negative situations. Regrettably, parents may only find out about untruths when something negative passes. Open communication that honestly addresses sensitive teen issues (i.e. alcohol, drugs, sex, and violence) can be useful to reduce the likelihood of lying during late adolescence. Parent can discuss issues relevant to the teen, what values and morals are important related to those issues, and how the parent is available at any time to help the teen.

Catching our children telling untruths is a normal part of their growth and development. Knowing what the child is capable of and why they may be telling lies is useful information for parents. Additionally when our children are caught lying, we can use that moment to teach lessons that reflect our families’ values and direct our children toward better behaviors.


Knowledge is Power

What new information did you learn from this posting? Did it help you identify something in your family you would like to change? Share your experience below and what steps you plan on taking to guide your family.


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About the instructor
Proactive Parenting
Dr. Deanna Marie Mason PhD
More than 20 years of clinical experience helping families:
Bachelor's Degree in Registered Nursing, Master’s Degree in Pediatric Nurse Practitioner and PhD in Nursing. University professor, patient education specialist, pediatric researcher, published author and reviewer to first-line international scientific journals, continuous philanthropic activity related to health promotion and education, wife and mother of two children.

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