A child ready to tell an imaginative story

Dr. Sarah (00:02):

Ever wonder what psychologists moms talk about when we get together, whether we’re consulting one another about a challenging case or one of our own kids, or just leaning on each other when parenting feels hard, because trust me, even when we do this for a living, it’s still hard. Joining me each week in these special Thursday shows are two of my closest friends, both moms, both psychologists, they’re the people I call when I need a sounding board. These are our unfiltered answers to your parenting questions. We’re letting you in on the conversations the three of us usually have behind closed doors. This is Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions.


Hey everybody, so glad to be back on Beyond the Sessions at the Securely Attached podcast. We’ve got Dr. Emily Upshur, Dr. Rebecca Hershberg, and we are going to be answering a question that someone sent me on a DM on Instagram. She said, hi, Dr. Bren, how do I address a toddler having a big imagination and saying something that isn’t true? For example, I’m even taller than daddy, or I flew a plane across the Atlantic Ocean, or I have a house that has 20 dogs, etc., etc. I usually went along with it, but I wonder if this could lead to lying. My toddler is three.


I think this is one a super common worry among parents, and I feel like I’ve got some really great news for this mom, which is drum roll, please. This is going to be just fine. This is a really, really, really typical and developmentally appropriate behavior and no indication that this is related to pathological lying of any kind. That said, let’s dive into some of the nuance because this would not be a two minute episode. Come on. We have so much nuance I’m sure to share. What are your thoughts?

Dr. Rebecca (02:00):

First of all, I would say enjoy. I mean, those are some of my favorite conversations with my kids I’ve ever had roll with it, and that’s what she said she does mostly, and so my hope is that we can just alleviate her fear and then she just keeps having these fun. I’m taller than daddy. You’re awesome. Whatcha going to do? I’m going to reach over his head for the pretzels. Ooh, I can’t wait. I mean, just rolling with the connectedness and the humor and the playfulness. Kids know it’s not true. She’s probably standing next to daddy and she’s like up to his thigh.


It’s their way of exploring this brand new thing they have, which is a great imagination. And isn’t it cool that I can have fantasies and thoughts and I can share them with you and see what you think, and we can go here later, but again, there’s nothing to worry about. It’s kids fantasies, it’s kids exploring, it’s kids playing around with all of that stuff. Sometimes it’s serious like longings. Sometimes it’s like, look at me. I have my own room and they share a room with a sibling and it’s like, oh, you really wish you had your own room? And other times it’s like, yeah, I flew a plate to the moon today, and they’re just thinking about how cool that would be.

Dr. Emily (03:17):

Yeah, I think we talk a lot, especially on here, how kids learn through play, and we insinuate that that means literal physical play, but this is also play, right? I think the idea of cognitively different kids are different. Some kids are very into fantasy and imaginary land and this sort of cognitive play, but it’s still play in young children and it’s still a way that they learn boundaries, who they are, where they can go, what’s safe, and they play with concepts. To your point, Rebecca, fantasy concepts, things that could be real. I want my own room. I wonder if I own my room, I have a beautiful room and a large castle. Or they can play with things that are totally just a concept that bounced into their head and they’re trying to bounce it off you in a more cognitive play kind of manner as opposed to a physical play type of situation.

Dr. Sarah (04:12):

Yeah. To your point too, Emily, I think just to add on other examples of what it might be for a child in terms of what types of concepts they might be playing with in addition to it being like a wish or just fun, goofy moon, I really like the moon, so I’m going to imagine that I flew to the moon, but I’m going to tell you that I did. But I think sometimes it’s also about power and power roles where we are on the hierarchy, like a kid who’s very aware that they are powerless or highly dependent on adults or maybe in a different pecking order in the family among siblings, they often might lie about having more power than they do, and it’s also a way just like children learn through play, they process feelings through this kind of play too. Maybe I wish I had a big room, but maybe I wish that my brother couldn’t control me all the time because he’s so much bigger than me, so I’m going to say I’m going to be 10 times bigger than my brother, or I’m the oldest sibling, or I’m 35 and my brother’s two when their brother’s five years older than them, whatever. But I think sometimes a lot of it is also about self-esteem and where you fit in the hierarchy in the world. That’s also, I think common themes.

Dr. Rebecca (05:43):


Dr. Emily (05:44):

Or anxiety. I mean, I think we see that a lot, or worries, I should say, not anxiety might be an over pathological term, but if your child has a worry about something, that’s also a way for them to express it and talk about it. So I think which both of you have said, there’s more often than not, nothing wrong with this type of fantasy, and more often than not, it’s kind of nice to sort of follow it and see where they go with it and have a conversation around it to see if you’re going to uncover something that might be worthwhile touching base upon or grounding in reality that I think that that’s a really important opportunity. So you don’t want to miss that.

Dr. Rebecca (06:28):

Emily, I think that’s a great point, and I think parents sometimes get really caught up in meetings to us or our stuff. So I’m thinking of kids who say things like, I had the worst day of school. I’m going to go into school and I’m going to beat every single person up. And parents might go to a place of, you’re not going to do that. That’s not kind. Or same thing when daddy was here, I hit him over the head and then I ed him and then I locked him in a closet and instead of being like, okay, first of all you didn’t, obviously because I just saw daddy or second of all, so not, oh, that’s not kind, roll with it. You’re clearly really mad. That’s what you want to do that let’s stay with that. Because sometimes when the theme is power or aggression, parents, it’s harder to engage in that than my kid. I want to fly to the moon.

Dr. Sarah (07:27):


Dr. Rebecca (07:27):

Yet it’s just as important to kind of roll without bringing in a judgment or a serious note because we want our kids to kind of open up about that stuff. It’s how we tune into what’s going on for them.

Dr. Sarah (07:39):

And it’s safer for them to talk about it in this sort of second degree way, this sort of indirect, maybe playful or maybe just, I might be mad and telling you a lot, an untruth, a fantasy of my aggression. So obviously the examples that this mom gave are really light and fun and cute, but I also think Rebecca, to your point, sometimes it doesn’t come out. I didn’t tell you this funny story. It’s like I locked daddy up and I poked him with a pencil until his hand fell off something ridiculous, but that aggression safe for it. It’s a one step removed or many steps removed from actually acting on that feeling that a kid might have in a moment and helping them be able to articulate a feeling that they’re holding onto indirectly. So shutting it down immediately is cutting off an outlet that we kind of want our kids to continue to have access to. So like you said, Rebecca, open-ended curious questions like, oh, and then what happened? Or, oh, how did he respond? Or How are you feeling? That’s intense. That was a hard feeling to have, whatever it might be, but it kind of reminds me of play therapy with kids.

Dr. Emily (09:04):

Yeah, that’s exactly what I meant. Yeah. It allows you to sort of explore concepts, see how they feel. It’s a safe way to talk about something with a little bit of distance, ego distance, right? You’re talking about this fantasy thing that has all these emotions, big emotions, big strong things or big fantasies, and it’s safer to talk about that than it is to talk about today. I had a really hard time at school, so I think it is a nice way and I think it’s a healthy way really to connect with your child and talk about material that they might not otherwise just bring up at the kitchen table.

Dr. Sarah (09:44):

Yeah, that’s a really good point. It makes me think too though, since we’re talking about the question, yes, we’re saying to this mom, this is not going to lead to lying. This is a developmentally appropriate typical behavior that we see in almost all children at this age. It makes me want to thread that needle of when do we worry about lying or when is what the content is needing to be more explicitly discussed.

Dr. Rebecca (10:15):

I mean, I think what comes after, and this is anecdotal, I don’t know, but I’m not formal developmental stages here about what I’ve found in certainly in my own own kids and then also with clients is what comes after kind of the toddler fantasy. Lying is the preschool kindergarten. I didn’t do that. The denial of a behavior, and that’s the parents really get anxious about that. I saw my kid break this thing by accident and then he stood there next to the broken thing and said he didn’t do it.


I have to teach him the importance of honesty. I have to teach him never to lie. And I think that’s where surprise surprise on this podcast, the relationship comes in. That’s where it’s all about a kid knowing they just did something that upset you and suddenly not wishing they hadn’t done that thing, whether it was by accident or on purpose and kind of wanting to shift the whole narrative. And your job as a parent at that age too, is not to be a litigator. Parents often go down this road of, but I will never forget my little one holding this laptop that I’m using right now, and it had pencil marks all over it and it’s holding a pencil. I’m like, again, you always say as a parent, not the things you would necessarily recommend saying in this pot. Like, Zeke, what did you do?


It’s my computer. And he’s holding. He’s like, I didn’t do this completely. I have idea how this happened. This is as much a misdemeanor to me as it’s to you and parents who don’t necessarily do what we do for a living would. Absolutely. It’s like, am I raising a sociopath? And instead it’s like, no, he knew. He could just tell immediately that what he did as maybe a playful trick or he wasn’t thinking about or he was being impulsive, I was actually really upset about. And so it was like I picture a kid back with old tape recorders wanting to press rewind. It’s like, no, can we just rewind to where I didn’t do the thing?

Dr. Sarah (12:23):


Dr. Emily (12:24):

Yeah. I always talk about giving kids the emotional space to own it. I think when naturally your reaction is like you just wrote all over my computer, there’s no room for them to be like, yeah, I did that. But I think as much as we can. And so I think to this writer’s point, if there’s an ability to give a nonverbal like wink, wink, nod, nod, oh yeah, you really did. I don’t believe you. We know we have this tacit underlying relationship based. Rebecca, to your point, understanding that I don’t believe you, but let’s go down this path thinking that begins to teach that sort of mentalizing reflective function that we’re talking about, that sort of, oh, I get it. I get that. She understands, but it’s still safe. And so I think that’s always my goal when kids unquote lie too much. That comes in across our desks a lot. Okay, fine. My kid was lying, my kid was saying things like this person’s question, but now it’s on overload now it’s too much now. And I think that’s where it’s teaching a child to giving them a little bit of an out so that they can sort of fess up. And sometimes that’s about modulating your own reaction, slowing it down, not becoming accusatory out of the back, exploring why that might’ve happened. Zeke might’ve been very upset with you, what’s going on?

Dr. Sarah (13:50):

Or curious, and he didn’t think it through. I think naming what might have been going on for a kid for them instead of demanding that they tell you. A lot of times my kids will do stuff to each other and then say, I didn’t. He hit me. No, I didn’t. Whereas there’s a hand mark on the kid’s back. Yeah, you did. But if I sit there and be like, all right, that’s it, everybody go to your rooms, they’re just going to double down on their stance because their stance is a defensive stance. So the more I entrenched them in their defenses, the more they’re going to feel like they can’t say that they did it. And frankly for me, I’m like, what’s my biggest objective here? Is it for them to admit the lie or is it for them to understand the bigger picture of ownership of behaviors and how it impacts others?


So I can teach that without making them tell me they did it. I can say I can sort of skip over the part where I need them to confess. It’s not like, did you do it? Ah, no matter what they’re saying, I might say, I see that you guys are having a hard time being safe. Let’s take a break. So I’m just skipping over the part of the light, not to say, and again, my kids are four and six for context, but I still might say this with even older kids, slightly older kids, I would say I would just name the thing that I know to be true and kind of move to that place of now I’m going to dress that part.

Dr. Emily (15:39):

Yeah, I think I do that a lot too with my own kids famous of yes, I brushed my teeth is really very classic in my house and what I think in an older child. So for context, my 10 year old, I’ll say, oof, okay, that’s your choice at this point. You can go to bed. I am not sure you brushed your teeth, but you have to own it. That’s on you. You get one set of teeth, now it’s your choice. And I’m not going to make you say to me, I didn’t brush my teeth and then I might give space so that he can go brush his teeth or make that choice.

Dr. Sarah (16:17):

Right, save the face.

Dr. Rebecca (16:18):

Once I stopped with zoom, I literally can pictures like a flash wall memory. I’m standing there with my computer on the pencil, but that’s where once I kind of paused and calmed down, I just said very clearly, and it gets back to the fantasy piece of I said, I know you wish you hadn’t done it.


You see that I’m really upset, and so you really wish you hadn’t done it. I get that I’m upset and I’m going to be okay. Let’s see if it’ll come off with a washcloth. And it did. It was pencil might’ve been a different situation if it was a sharpie, but I think that’s, so just naming with, again, skipping over and just saying, I get it. You wish you hadn’t done it. Same thing with hitting. It’s funny, I find that my kids, and now they’re seven and nine, when they hurt each other, I mean they don’t hurt each other that badly, but if they push each other, shove each other, they’ll own it. But if they hit harder than they realize they’re hitting and they actually really hurt, then they’ll be like, I don’t know what happened. I think you fell and hit the wall. And it’s like, it’s so clearly you didn’t realize you hit him that hard that you left a mark and you probably didn’t want to hit him that hard. I get it. And so again, it’s like they’re just dying to do the rewind.

Dr. Emily (17:31):

Or you did. And you feel really bad about it, right?

Dr. Rebecca (17:34):

Exactly. You wish you hadn’t done it because here he is, like your hand mark and now you’re looking at your hand marker and you’re like, Ooh, I didn’t realize. Right?

Dr. Sarah (17:41):

But if you compound that fear for that child, I’ve done something really bad. I just realized it’s bad or I realized I’m going to be in trouble. So I’ve either have guilt or fear, and then if my parent then comes and makes me feel very ashamed for lying, which was a defense against the guilt or the fear, my parents compounding my desire to have a very similar, if not bigger defense against those feelings the next time, which is going to lead to more lying. It’s helpful to think, I think of lying as a byproduct rather than a primary behavior. If I do something and I feel afraid that I’m going to get in trouble or I feel deeply guilty about something or ashamed of something and then the response, my parents have confirmed that fear, I’m going to be more inclined to lie about it again because I’m learning to defend against these situations.


Whereas if a parent can, again, just seeing the yelling, seeing the hitting, seeing the lying as a byproduct of a very dysregulated response to a feeling and saying, you wish you hadn’t done that, or I get it, you did not think that through and now you’re a little bit embarrassed or you’re afraid, I’m going to get mad at you. I’m not mad at you. I don’t like that this happened and I really want to come up with a way to prevent it from happening in the future, but I’m on your team here. We’ll work together to figure that out. That’s going to keep the shame low. They might still have feelings, but it’s just much more less likely that they’re going to feel that they have to lie again the next time. That doesn’t mean that one intervention will prevent all lying. It’s, it’s kind of how I think parents are very afraid of lying and they feel very compelled to shut it down.

Dr. Emily (19:39):

Or to have kids mess up. I think that was really important what you said, Sarah, about skipping the admitting part. Right. I think subconscious, I mean, not even subconsciously. I do that all the time in my parenting. I skip over that fessing up apology piece and get to the what is my objective out of this? What is my goal? And I do think, to your point, potentially that does keep the shame down, which is sort of like a snowballing in the right direction type of effect.

Dr. Rebecca (20:11):

And I think, I mean a couple of things like, so wait, hold on. I was going to say something in response to Emily, but I don’t remember. So I’ll say the first thing. So, Sarah, the only thing I would tweak, I think about what you just said is that as kids get older, I might say, and you’re right, I am mad.

Dr. Emily (20:27):

Yeah, I was thinking that.

Dr. Rebecca (20:27):

That I’m angry because it’s almost like the reality is much better than the anticipation. It’s like, it’s like I am angry and look at us handling it. Look at us as an iad, handling the fact that you did this thing and I’m angry again. So I don’t know that it’s always, especially as kids get older and they are more responsible for their actions, I don’t know that it’s always, I’m not mad at you. It might be like, and I’m mad at you. It’s still better to just to be honest about it. Totally. But I think parents worry, this is what I was going to say before. I think parents worry also so much about is this teaching that they’re going to get away with it if you skip over it and they learn that they can get away with it, and it’s just sort of like that’s the wrong, I mean, I rarely say things are wrong, but that frame is just not, it’s actually, again, it’s another counterintuitive.

Dr. Emily (21:16):

Counterintuitive, yeah.

Dr. Rebecca (21:17):

It’s like they actually learn that they don’t need, if you do it the way we’ve been talking about, they learn that they don’t need to lie because things feel safe around them as opposed to if you make them fess up and you make them admit it and you make them apologize, there’s so much shame there. It’s like clearly the worst thing that happened was that I got caught.

Dr. Emily (21:37):

And I’m not going to get caught again.

Dr. Rebecca (21:41):

Exactly. I just have to get better at lying

Dr. Sarah (21:43):

About sort of creating a different paradigm of, it’s kind of throwing out this idea that a lie is a malicious volitional behavior that is intended to deceive versus a lie is a defense to protect myself against the overwhelming feeling of fear, shame, guilt, and that fear might be that you’re going to like me less, or it could be something much more existential than, oh, I’m going to get in trouble. It could be I might lose your love. And I don’t think that that’s a conscious thought necessarily for kids, but I do think it’s a driver. And so if we can reframe what a lie is in our minds, it’s a sign a kid is trying to protect themselves from a scary feeling. One, we have more empathy for our kid for lying, and two, we can address the core issue, which is yes, I need you to learn that whatever behavior you’re lying about isn’t effective.


But I don’t actually have to teach you that lying is bad because that might be a conversation we could talk about what happens, what is the cause and effect of a lie when you lie? And I wouldn’t have this conversation while a child’s lying. This is a different conversation for another time. But to help them kind of connect dots, if you lie, one of the risks is that it can really damage trust in a relationship. It makes it hard for me to believe you and trust you when you tell me things right. And we build trust and that’s an important part of our relationship. So that’s great, important stuff to teach kids. But if you think of the lie as a reactive byproduct of a sort poorly, a not super sophisticated problem solving skill for managing really scary, embarrassed feelings, then we don’t really actually have to deal with that.


We need to deal with helping them kind of navigate those situations differently and we’ll likely see less lying spot on. Well, thank you. I love it when I get to talk to you ladies, you have just the most wonderful insight. And Rebecca, I love this image in my head of you standing with your computer and your pencil. Just be like, but then, yeah, that is a really real feeling and most of us will go there and it still makes you totally have tons of room to be a great parent. It, it’s totally okay. Yeah, this was such a good conversation. I always love hearing your guys’ input into things. It’s always so insightful, and I really love your anecdotes and how much you share about your own personal experiences too. I think it’s super helpful. Have a great day, everybody.

Dr. Rebecca (24:36):

Thank you.

Dr. Sarah (24:38):Thank you so much for listening. As you can hear, parenting is not one size fits all. It’s nuanced and it’s complicated. So I really hope that this series where we’re answering your questions really helps you to cut through some of the noise and find out what works best for you and your unique child. If you have a burning parenting question, something you’re struggling to navigate or a topic you really want us to shed light on or share research about, we want to know, go to drsarahbren.com/question to send in anything that you want, Rebecca, Emily, and me to answer in this new series Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions. That’s drsarahbren.com/question. And check back for a brand new securely attached next Tuesday. And until then, don’t be a stranger.

✨We want to hear from you! Go to https://drsarahbren.com/question to send us a question or a topic you want to hear us answer on Securely Attached – Beyond the Sessions! ✨

145. BTS: Will encouraging my child’s big imagination lead to lying in the future?