Understanding the Importance of Fantasy in 4-Year-Olds
“My child lies all the time.”
The above statement is one I consistently hear from parents of 4-year-olds. While this new stage of development brings many great social, emotional, physical, and intellectual advances for your young child, lying is unfortunately one of the drawbacks to your child’s newly acquired imagination, fantasy, and creativity.
Lying is typically not something parents are willing to tolerate from their children- no matter the 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 are beginning to be able to access the left-hemisphere of the brain for the first time, leading to improvements their use of logic, understanding cause and effect, and using 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 the child’s memory.
Love for fantasy and make-believe is typical for children beginning around the age of 4, as make-believe play is the mode through which children practice and strengthen 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 the child wants the world to be, rather than how the child perceives it.
When children experience the world to not be as they wish, the often resort to fantasy or make-believe play that enables them to cope with the difficult reality. At the age of 4, few defense or coping mechanisms have developed to enable the child to cope with reality, so they resort to lying (or using magical thinking) as a form of self-protection.
Imagine a 4-year-old girl, Angela, that loves playing with her dolls and tea set. She decides it would be much more fun to use real tea in her teacups, so the fills them with the liquid available from the refrigerator (as for this client- it was iced coffee!) and then ultimately spills the drink over the carpet in her bedroom. Angela’s young brain is not able to stop and think “It’s ok, everyone makes mistakes and I did not mean to spill the make-believe tea. I am still loveable, but this was not the best idea.” Instead, her brain goes into panic mode and begins perceiving herself as a bad kid because she did something bad. 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 is not 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 do not know how to face the reality of a situation, or when they have a strong wish or desire and do not have the cognitive capacity to think of other ways of getting their wish fulfilled. Children also lie because they have not developed the morality to understand that lying is not an acceptable behavior. They are incapable of understanding another’s point 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. The 4-year-old brain fears losing too much from coming clean and worries the parent will not love or accept them if they admit to doing something bad. Parents are encouraged to help children correct the behavior by not trying to point blame or shame the child. By letting go of needing to place blame somewhere, parents can help the child take responsibility for their behavior and help the child develop better coping skills for dealing with reality.
To help decrease the lying that is typical of 4-year-olds, parents can focus on helping their child use internal dialogue to regulate their own emotions and make positive choices with their behavior. Help your child find positive ways to get their needs, desires, or wishes met so there is not a need to lie. When your child does resort to lying, confront the undesired behavior and move on. Simple statements such as “drinks are for staying 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. Once you reflect the limit, 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 the child know that you are still accepting of your child. 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 develop skills of admitting their mistakes and correcting behavior. Once 4-year-olds feel supported and accepted by parents, they are free to become the active and adventurous beings able to take on the world with excitement and curiosity.
Laura McLaughlin is the Founder and Therapist at HeadFirst Counseling in Dallas, TX. Laura works with children, teens, and parents to foster secure attachments and create an environment for families to thrive. Read more about Laura and HeadFirst Counseling at www.headfirstdallas.com
Laura can be reached by contacting the HeadFirst Office at (469) 665-9416 or email@example.com