3 Common Reasons Why Kids Lie (and How You Should Respond)

mother sternly talking to young son on couch
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All kids to stretch the truth and tell tall tales at one time or another. And while it can be frustrating to hear your child tell an outright lie, it's important to consider the reason your child is being dishonest before you take action.

Why Kids Lie

Here are the three main reasons why kids tell lies:

They Use Their Imaginations to Tell Tall Tales

Does your child ever tell you she rode a unicorn? Or does he insist a monster must have made the mess in his bedroom? Kids have wonderful imaginations and sometimes, they present their fantasies as truths.

When your child tells you a fantasy, ask, “Is that something that really happened or is it something you wish would have happened?” A non-judgmental response will encourage your child to acknowledge, “OK, it isn’t actually true, but I wish it were!”

Don’t discourage your child’s imagination. Instead, help your child learn to recognize that she can still tell wonderful stories as long as she makes it clear that her stories aren't true.

With practice and coaching, your child can eventually learn to start a fantasy tale by saying, “You know what I wish were true?” or “Listen to this story…”

They Want to Avoid Consequences

Has your child ever tried to convince you she didn’t eat any cupcakes despite the blue frosting on her face? Similar to the way an adult may lie to avoid getting into trouble with a boss, kids often lie to avoid negative consequences.

If you catch your child in a lie, offer one chance to tell the truth. Say, “I’m going to give you a minute to think about it and then I’m going to ask you one more time what really happened.”

Sometimes kids automatically default to a lie when they're afraid they're going to be in trouble. Giving them a few minutes to think about their answer provides an opportunity to be honest.

You might find when you ask her again, she's more willing to confess the truth. If she's honest, tell her you appreciate her willingness to say what happened even though it was probably hard to share.

If your child has a habit of lying to stay out of trouble, examine your discipline strategies. Research shows harsh discipline actually turns kids into good liars. If your child is fearful of your reaction, they will be more likely to tell lies.

They Want to Seem Cool

Kids also tell lies because they want to impress other people. A child may tell his friends he got a home run in the baseball game, or he may tell his parents he got the highest math grade in the whole class, even when it’s not true.

Exaggerating the truth—or even outright lying—is often used to mask insecurities. In an attempt to fit in with their peers, kids sometimes insist they’ve either endured similar experiences as their friends, or they attempt to impress their friends with their stories.

A child who doesn’t know how to swim may claim he saw a shark in the ocean or a child who didn’t get a lot of presents for a holiday may make up a long list of expensive gifts he received.

When children have a habit of lying to look good in front of others, they may need a boost to their self-esteem. Talk to them about the potential consequences of bragging, and work on appropriate social skills. Help them find ways to connect with other people without lying about their experiences.

Praise his efforts, not the outcome. Then, you'll show him that value his hard work, rather than his achievement. For example, rather than praise him for getting the most goals in the soccer game, praise him for trying hard. Reinforce to him that he doesn’t need to be the best in order to gain acceptance from others. 

How to Respond When You Catch Your Child Lying

Keep in mind, it is important to focus on teaching your kids a skill—impulse control, integrity, or honesty—rather than focusing on a punishment based on parental anger. Although you may feel disappointed that your child chose to lie, it is not about you. It is about helping your child make good choices and to make those choices freely, not while under the pressure and threat of a punishment.

Make honesty a priority in your home as well. Create a household rule that says, "Tell the truth," and your kids will be more likely to recognize the importance of being honest. 

Finally, make sure you're a good role model. Lying about your child's age to get him a discount on a movie ticket, for example, will teach him that lying is OK.

Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Talwar V, Lee K. A Punitive Environment Fosters Children’s Dishonesty: A Natural Experiment. Child Development. 2011;82(6):1751-1758.
  • Talwar V, Lee K. Social and Cognitive Correlates of Children's Lying Behavior. Child Development. 2008;79(4):866-881.
  • Xu F, Bao X, Fu G, Talwar V, Lee K. Lying and Truth-Telling in Children: From Concept to Action. Child Development. 2010;81(2):581-596.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.