Bending the truth, fibbing, telling tall tales, truth-stretching – these are all gentle ways of describing a big fat lie. And no matter how sweetly your 5-year-old stares up at you as she describes her teacher’s new purple Mohawk, or her best friend’s pet gorilla, catching your little one in a lie can be unsettling.

Whether the lie is a little white one or one of Paul Bunyan proportions, most likely, you feel confused and hurt. What did you do wrong? Has the openness you’ve modeled in your home backfired?

First, relax. While it’s not exactly desirable, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports that lying is within the boundaries of normal childhood behavior, especially between the ages of 4 and 10. Younger children lie due to an inability to distinguish between reality and make-believe or to garner attention; older children lie to avoid doing chores, temper embarrassment, protect another child, or protect their privacy.

While lying is considered normal, experts remind parents to remain aware. Breathe easy, but don’t let down your guard completely. The guidelines below provide strategies that can be helpful.

  • Model honest behavior. Your kindergartener answers the phone and squeals with delight, “It’s grandma!! ”You quickly pantomime a person showering and shake your head from side to side, hoping your little one understands. Every parent has asked a child to fib on her behalf when she isn’t up for a phone call at least once or twice, but this does send a mixed message. If you do get caught in a lie, admit it and explain yourself.
  • Praise truth telling. Congratulate your child on telling the truth. Not only are you building a sense of self-esteem in your child, you are also laying the foundation for healthy decision making.
  • Tread lightly on rules. Kids today are beleaguered with rules and regulations – at school, the library, and even at social and sporting events. Lighten up on the rules at home and allow your child to feel safe and accepted, lessening the pressure to lie.
  • Assume the best. Catching your child in a lie can shake your faith and undermine your trust. Do your best to overcome negativity and restore your trust in your child. Everyone deserves a second chance.

Habitual or compulsive lying by adolescents can take on more significance. If deception becomes a way of dealing with everyday life, it could be indicative of a more serious problem. Consult a physician if the lies become systematic.