Understanding 4-Year-Olds: The role of Lies & fantasy
Learn how to navigate your 4 year old’s new burst of creativity, imagination, and fantasy
“My child lies all the time.”
This is a statement that I consistently hear from parents of 4-year-olds all the time. This new stage of development brings with it many great social, emotional, physical, and intellectual advances for your young child, and, unfortunately, lying is one of the drawbacks to their newly acquired imagination, fantasy, and creativity.
Lying is typically not something parents are willing to tolerate from their children – no matter what age. But if we are able to take a step back and view lying as a progression and a necessary stage of development, it can help change the way parents respond to their child’s falsehoods so that the child is not shamed in the process.
Around the age of 4, children begin to access the left-hemisphere of the brain for the first time, leading to improvements in their use of logic, their understanding of cause and effect, and their use of language to put words to their feelings. The typical 4-year-old brain is working to understand more complex situations and integrate factual information and concepts into their memory.
Love for fantasy and make-believe becomes more common for children around the age of 4. During this phase, make-believe play is the mode through which they practice and strengthen their internal images of experiences. Advancing language and reasoning abilities enable 4-year-olds to have more elaborate and detailed fantasies. Fantasy helps the child fulfill wishes, desires, or needs that they are not able to fulfill in reality, such as feeling powerful and in control. In a way, engaging in fantasy protects the child’s view of how they want the world to be, as opposed to how it is in reality.
At the age of 4, a child is not yet equipped with defence or coping mechanisms. As a result, when their reality is harder to deal with, they often resort to fantasy, make-believe play and ‘magical thinking’ as a form of self-protection.
Imagine a 4-year-old girl, Angela, who loves playing with her dolls and her tea set. She decides it would be much more fun to use real tea in her teacups, so she fills them with the liquid she found in the refrigerator (in my client’s particular case, it was iced coffee) and then ultimately spills the drink over the carpet in her bedroom. Angela’s young brain isn’t able to stop and think “It’s ok, everyone makes mistakes and I didn’t mean to spill the tea. I am still loveable, but this wasn’t the best idea.” Instead, her brain goes into panic mode and she begins perceiving herself as a bad kid because she did something wrong. In order to protect her identity as a good kid, Angela lies to her mother stating that her younger brother spilled the drink in her room. Angela isn’t capable of dealing with her mother not accepting her, so she resorts to the only coping mechanism she knows: self-protection.
Four-year-olds often lie when they don’t know how to face the reality of a situation, or when they have a strong wish or desire and don’t have the cognitive capacity to think of other ways of getting their wish fulfilled. Children also lie because they haven’t yet developed a moral code which helps them to understand that lying is not an acceptable behavior. They are incapable of understanding other points of view, and do not see how lying negatively affects other people. Four-year-olds are also fiercely self-protective, and will resort to lying to keep themselves out of trouble – even at the expense of blaming someone else.
Confronting the lie and forcing the child to admit their mistake is too costly for a 4-year-old. They fear coming clean and worry that their parent/s will not love or accept them if they admit to doing something bad. Therefore, parents are encouraged to help children correct the behavior by not trying to point blame or shame the child. They can help the child take to responsibility for their behavior and to develop better coping skills for dealing with reality.
To help decrease the lying that’s typical of 4-year-olds, parents can focus on helping their child to use internal dialogue to regulate their own emotions and make positive choices while also finding positive ways to get their needs, desires, or wishes met so there’s no need to lie. When a child does resort to lying, confront the undesired behavior and move on. Simple statements such as “drinks are to stay in the kitchen area” are more effective with this age than attempting to force your child to admit they were the one that created the mess. Instead, help your child find a positive solution (“The mess needs to be cleaned up. Do you want to use napkins or paper towels?”).
Helping your child right the wrong of their behavior lets them know that you still accept and love them. Mistakes will happen, but the bigger message you want to send is that you will always love your child, despite their mistakes from time to time. When your child is able to experience this unconditional love and acceptance, the strong need for self-protection and self-preservation will decrease, allowing your child to learn how to admit their mistakes and correct their behavior. Once a 4-year-old feels supported and accepted by his/ her parents, they are free to become the active and adventurous beings who can take on the world with excitement and curiosity.