What to do when your foster or adopted child lies about everything.
Many parents were raised in a culture with clear moral values. Thou shall not steal, lie, cheat, or hurt other people. Teaching our children these same moral standards and values feels like our duty.
What happens when our kids with trauma background start lying about everything, big or small?
“Nope, I didn’t just color on my pretty pink shoes with this pen in my hand.”
“No, I wasn’t playing with the gum that was just in my mouth and put in all over my car seat.”
“Yeah, I turned that assignment in, the one with the zero in the gradebook, the teacher must have lost it.”
“I have no idea where that Lego man came from, someone must have put it in my pocket.”
Naturally we can take it personally and begin to feel like we’ve failed as a parent, and fear for their future. Any parent who has faced persistent lying has likely tried consequences or rewards for telling the truth and gotten nowhere.
It can be frustrating and infuriating, which we know will only make things worse. If you’re at your whit’s end, keep reading, there is hope.
When we can find the why behind the behavior and change our approach, we begin to make great progress. Most importantly we can curb the power struggle creating a divide between us and our child by changing our perspective.
Instead of seeing lying as a moral failure in traumatized children, or our lack of properly parenting, see it as an instinct of survival they developed living through unimaginable circumstances.
Maybe this child’s previous home had adults who struggled with mental health and had extreme reactions to even little things. Lying may be the way they attempted to deflect a parent’s anger.
Kids who struggle with anxiety will respond with attempting to control their environments. The more anxious they are, the more controlling they become. Lying can feel like a way to control the people around them, particularly when they feel shame and a lack of trust.
Children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder may have deficits in working memory and processing which causes them to recall facts incorrectly or in the wrong order. This may look like lying at first glance, but it is the side effect of permanent brain damage.
There are many thoughts foster and adoptive parents have about why a child might habitually lie. It’s crucial to understand how our thoughts drastically affect the way we respond. In my book “Faith Forward Adoption” I teach about the power of our thoughts in the mind map diagram. In looks like this:
When an event happens with our child, we have a thought about what we make that mean. This produces a feeling, which we take action from, and those actions produce more of the same event we were trying to avoid in the first place.
Our child may be lying because they feel ashamed, worthless, or scared. Us yelling and punishing will only deepen these feelings, causing the lying to become habitual and deeply ingrained.
Instead if we understand where they lies might be coming from and look for the why, our feelings move from panic to curiosity and empathy, and from those feelings we can take parenting actions that heal.
Now that you’ve first addressed your own mindset, you’re ready to change your approach and eliminate the opportunity for lying by not asking questions and using statements instead. With your statement of fact, also give them the opportunity to make amends.
Having a redo is one of the most powerful ways to reinforce positive behaviors and neuropathways in their brains. Our kids with trauma backgrounds need these do over moments to build on feelings of competency and success.
“Did you take this?” becomes “I found this in your pocket. We will go tomorrow and give it back. I know that’s hard and I’m here to help you give it back to the owner.”
“Did you sneak food into your room again!?” becomes “I found food wrappers in your room. I’m concerned about mice and bugs getting into your room. Come have a snack at the table, then you can go vacuum your room.”
“Who peed on the carpet!?!?!” becomes “Come here kids, I need your help with something. There is pee on the carpet, and I need you both to help me clean it up, we’ll do it together.”
Don’t require that they fess up to anything. The action of the redo for them is enough while they are still healing and build blocks of success. If they protest and say “I didn’t do it” simply reassure them you never said they did it, but they can still help you make it right together.
If there is an area your child continually struggles with lying in, be proactive to curb the lie before it begins. Go over homework together. Check their room for cleanliness together. Walk with them to brush their teeth.
Most of all, remind yourself that this is a process, and not an overnight or surefire fix. It’s your job to monitor your own mindset and teach your children with the best tools you can but let go of the results emotionally.
It’s not our job to fix our kids, it’s our job to love them and give them all the tools they need to be successful, even if that success looks different than the norm. There is tremendous freedom in controlling the things we can, mainly ourselves, and releasing the burden to fix our kids.
You can learn more about you parenting mindset, and overcoming burnout, failures, and toxic thinking in Faith Forward Adoption.