Understanding the Neuroscience Behind Why A Child Lies

Child Lies


Hi Dr. Joanette, I’m a mom of two boys, ages two and four. I’m struggling with what to do when my four-year-old lies. The other night I asked him to put away the crayons he was coloring with and wash his hands for dinner. After dinner, I went into his room, and the two-year-old was coloring on the wall with the crayons. He told me he had put the crayons away. But I know there is no way the two-year-old could get to them if he put them away. I was so angry I yelled at my son and made him clean the crayon off the wall. 


I hear your struggle, and I want to say that every parent I know, myself included, struggles to do and say the right thing when we face challenging behavior from our child.  There is nothing wrong with you when you are overwhelmed with your emotions and lose it sometime.  There is nothing wrong with your child because they felt compelled to lie to you about putting away the crayons.  

I have a couple of ideas that might be helpful.  Kids lie when they believe that the truth will threaten their attachment. They aren’t trying to manipulate their parents into not getting them in trouble. Evolutionarily, they must stay close to us to ensure their biological survival and psychological safety. They need to feel safe and like we want them close to us and we love them.

If we confront something they did with anger and accusations, when we look angry, super disappointed, or tell a child they are in trouble, big scary feelings come up for our child. They are afraid their parent will punish them or leave them in aloneness. Both threaten their attachment to us. A child doesn’t choose to lie; they feel compelled to lie to preserve their connection with us.  

A child will tell the truth when they believe their parents will respond with concern, curiosity, compassion, and caring. They will tell the truth when the parent sees them as good and struggling. It’s our job to create an environment that fosters the connection where your child feels safe enough to tell you the truth. 

What can you do when your child lies? Our instinct may be to call them out on it.  However, shame doesn’t create change!  If we want our kids to change, we must be on the same team. Coming at them harshly makes them the enemy, not our teammate. 

This means we need to activate an openhearted interpretation of their behavior instead of shame or blame. Assume the best, not the worst. When your son didn’t put away his crayons, maybe he finished what he was coloring and forgot to put the crayons away. The memory centers in a kid’s brain at that age are still under construction. Maybe he heard only some of what you asked. It’s difficult for young kids to multitask and if your child was concentrating on his drawing he may have only heard, come to dinner. Multitasking is a brain function that doesn’t start to develop until about age seven and isn’t fully developed until age 12-15.  

Try this, next time he “lies” to you. First, pause and calm your body with a few deep breaths. Then engage your four-year-old. Say, “I noticed X and you told me Y. What Happened?  I noticed your toys aren’t put away and you told me you cleaned up your room,  what happened? This puts you on the same team as your child.

Connect the neurons: When your child lies, it isn’t your fault; it’s an opportunity for you to consider what’s going on with your relationship and be responsible for creating an environment where your child doesn’t feel compelled to lie.  It’s also an opportunity to use neuroscience to help you access your openhearted understanding of the behavior.