Probably one of the hardest behaviours to face in vulnerable children is lying. Of course that depends on your own values and feelings around this subject, but I’ve not met a person and particularly an adoptive parent yet who doesn’t get frustrated at the frequency and intensity of lying they get from their children.
Mine are no exception, although generally they do eventually seem to own up. I hear myself saying all those things my parents said that I vowed I’d never say “you’ll get in less trouble if you tell the truth”, “you know the story of the boy who cried wolf….”, or this mornings’ gem when one of my children got quite indignant when I accused them of embellishing the truth somewhat “what do you expect me to say when you lie so much? I don’t know when to believe you”. And of course all these little sayings are true, but they don’t seem to help and they certainly don’t stop the lying.
Bryan Post in his brilliant book The Great Behaviour Breakdown talks about lying as the result of stress for a child.
‘ Stress causes the brain to have a fear reaction, which leads us to protect ourselves by telling the lie. So, can you understand why a child with a trauma history might be prone to lying? The child isn’t trying to be manipulative or defiant. The lying is a result of stress.’
I can see this often in my children, the more stressed they are the easier the lying becomes. I don’t believe they are even aware of it sometimes, it just happens.
Many of the behaviours of vulnerable children who’ve experienced early trauma are confusing for us. However much you try to understand what they are feeling it’s very difficult to change our way of thinking. We struggle to accept the fact that they are not in control of how they respond. The amygdala in the brain is triggered by any perceived threat. For a child whose back part of the brain, where the amygdala lives, is over developed and hyper sensitive due to their past experiences, they are not able to calm themselves easily. When they feel that threat from others (whether it’s real or perceived) they cannot help but react. Those reactions may be very different for each child – they may be all out, bear faced lying, it might be hiding or running away, it may be aggression and defiance.
All behaviour communicates something to us.
What I’ve come to understand also about lying for vulnerable children is that it’s what they really believe has happened. Bryan Post also says in his work that whenever we feel stress we become confused and lose our short term memory. Children who have suffered extreme stress in early years are more likely to revert to a confused and distorted state once stressed again. This means of course that when we quiz them about telling the truth and make them feel afraid and stressed all they can do is carry on the lie.
I heard a story once of a child who was telling her therapist about an incident with her parents. Something she had done to them because she was so angry with them. As she was talking about what she had done it was clear to the listener that it was actually a scene from Matilda the film. Once they talked it through it was apparent that the child has seen the film, those were her strength of feelings for her parents and so she had connected them together as her truth. Something she had actually done to them. It wasn’t true. It was what she wished she had done. If a child came and told you that story and you hadn’t seen the film you would of course believe it. We know though that some of their truths can be dangerous and can cause lots of trouble for them and others.
So what do we do when they lie? Well apart from all the words we vowed we’d never say – we need to try a different approach. We need to see past the behaviour to the stress and dysregulation they may be feeling. Ignore the lie but don’t ignore the child. We need to try and focus more on the relationship and helping them to feel safe and calm so that we can connect to them and alleviate the stress they may be feeling.
This sounds so simple but it is soooo hard to do. To ignore the lie and focus on the child, letting go of the outcome of making them tell the truth. I know what you’re thinking – “but if they don’t learn not to lie then they’ll always be lying”. And yes that may be true but I know from experience just telling them not to lie or trying to force them to tell the truth definitely doesn’t stop them lying. If we go back to why they might be lying – due to stress – then the more they can learn how to cope with their stress the less they will lie. The only way children and young people will learn that is with the help of us adults. Until they can regulate themselves they need us to help them to do that.
So ignore the lie but don’t ignore the child, connect in relationship and aim to help them find ways to manage their stress and to regulate.