My toddler is ‘lying’- what should I do?
Toddlers (children between 18 months and 3 1/2 years) do not have the cognitive development to actually lie in the way adults understand lying. To lie, a child needs to understand that there is an actual objective truth – and toddlers are not yet dealing with that kind of truth.
Toddler development is a period in which language and imagination are increasing quickly and along with this is an expansion of magical thinking. As toddlers develop language skills and long term memory, they move from understanding the world from only a sensory perspective to understanding it from a place of applying past experience and some insight. This time period is complicated at times for adults because toddler connections may not always feel sound and, in fact, can be illogical and frustrating for the toddler as well as the adult.
Magical thinking is the way a toddler tries to control the ever increasing awareness of the world around her. She may have an explanation that makes her feel safer and keep her focused on her own needs, wants and desires. She may tell you that she did not spill her juice because her need to have you happy with her is more important.
Older toddlers have enough practice to know what might be make you upset, but they may also feel that if their arm had knocked over the juice, it is different then spilling the milk, so they may feel strongly that they did not have any intention involved in the spill – so it does not count.
It is important when you are reacting to your child that you do not put him on the spot. If toddlers – or children generally – feel defensive, they will self protect and that will not help you help them. In fact, it will often leave you in a place of a power struggle, which rarely gives parents the outcome they were hoping for. If your toddler has said something that you know is not true, act on what you know. For instance, if your toddler has taken something you had told her not to take, and when asked has said, “No, I did not take it,” try saying, “I see the cookie is gone and I know I did not eat it. I don’t want you to take the cookie before lunch even if you really, really want it. ”
You can also tell a toddler you know that he does not like hearing the word “no” – and so you understand why he is telling you they he not take the cookie, but you know what actually happened. Try to be as neutral as possible. Sometimes toddlers will tell you they did take the cookie, but they will often just take in your tone and matter of fact response, which will be more helpful in the future when they are faced with similar challenges and will recall your reactions.
Lastly, model trust. Toddlers need to know that you understand their developmental challenges (even when you do not) and will help them develop skills to manage their feelings when they have made a behavioral choice that that is not safe or disappoints you as a parent. Toddlers will also be observing your behavior, so try to also be trustworthy with your actions – both towards them and the world around you.
Marsha Greenberg is a therapist in New York City. She is the author of the newly released book, Raising Your Toddler, by Globe Pequot Press. She has masters degrees in Child and Family Development and Social Work from the University of Michigan. As the Director of the Health Systems Child Care Program for over 14 years, she was responsible for over 250 children between the ages of 6 weeks and 6 years of age. Marsha teaches in the Early Childhood Special Education department at NYU and has a private psychotherapy practice in NYC. Marsha is the mother of three grown sons and has three grandsons (aged 4 and 18 months and 4 months) with a new grandchild on the way.