All kids stretch the truth from time to time. But what should a parent or caregiver do when a child is caught in an outright lie?

Research shows that lying is developmentally normal in children, and typically begins as kids are developing important cognitive skills, generally around ages 3 or 4. It’s important to make the ground rules clear early on, says Dr. Pilar Bradshaw.

“I recommend, as a pediatrician and a parent, that if you start noticing that your child is telling little white lies or big lies that you sit down with them and have a conversation about that and set the expectation, ‘Hey, listen, as your parent, I’m always going to tell you the truth, and in our house, we always tell each other the truth.’”

Why do kids lie?
There are generally three main reasons kids lie:

  • Fantasy: Younger children often use their imaginations to tell big stories.
  • Bragging: As children get older, they might exaggerate the truth for attention.
  • Avoiding negative consequences: Kids lie to avoid getting in trouble.

Lying to avoid negative consequences is the type of lying that is often most concerning to parents. However, it’s also an indicator that the child is developing a sense for right and wrong. Parents who overreact to lying and become extremely negative may make the problem worse. It’s important not to label your child “a liar” because it will likely foster feelings of inadequacy and distrust.

What should parents do?
So how do you handle a child who’s lying to cover up their actions? Dr. Bradshaw suggests these tips:

  • Offer your child one chance to tell the truth—sometimes, that’s all it takes for a child to correct their mistruth.
  • If that doesn’t work, talk with them about the natural consequencesof lying. That’s when you allow your child to experience the effects of what they’ve done or haven’t done, as long as it’s safe to do so.
  • Teach your child that they are less likely to get in trouble if they tell the truth as soon as they’ve done something wrong, instead of trying to cover it up.
  • Explain that dishonesty will make it hard for you to believe them next time, even when they’re telling the truth.

If you do catch your child in a lie, remain calm.

“Many kids are fearful that when they are caught lying, they are going to be physically punished or verbally confronted, and I really encourage parents not to overreact,” Dr. Bradshaw says.

“Your words and your actions have a much larger impact on your kids than you can even know. So, if you get into a situation where your child is telling you things that aren’t true, sit and talk with them calmly. If you are not able to be calm, leave it for 20 or 30 minutes until you’ve calmed yourself down enough that you can sit down and have a rational conversation,” she says.

Remember, kids learn by watching their parents, so be a role model by practicing honesty if you expect the same behavior from your child.

If your child is compulsively lying—telling falsehoods out of habit, sometimes for no reason at all—especially as they are getting older, Dr. Bradshaw encourages parents to talk with their child’s doctor or school counselor and have a real discussion about what may be a bigger problem.