“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”
(Sir Walter Scott)
Lying is such a challenge for adoptive and foster parents. It creates a tangled mess that causes parents and caregivers great concerns about their child's emerging morality, the integrity of the hard-fought parent-child connection, and the child's prospect for a successful future. Honesty is so foundational to strong relationships that it feels like our children are needlessly tying us in knots when they lie to us. No matter how many times we try to explain that we just want them to be honest with us and the lie just makes everything worse, our adopted and fostered children keep on with their obvious lies.
When I brought the matter of lying up to an expert in the field, she helped me reframe the underlying question of "How can you stop a child you love from lying?" to "How can you love a child that lies?" That was an important first step in adjusting my perspective. However, it is important for adoptive and foster parents to understand why kids lie and learn some strategies for addressing it both sensitively and effectively.
For a quick and succinct overview of an effective approach to responding to lying behavior, I recommend Bryan Post’s work in this area. He suggests a simple formula for addressing lying, which he summarizes this way. "Ignore the lie. Don't ignore the child."
Here are the steps to Post’s formula for reducing lying:
1. Signal safety. When confronted with a child's lie, respond warmly with this statement: "Honey, you are alright and you are not going anywhere."
2. Return when Regulated. After 1-2 hours and when everyone is regulated, return to the child and say: "When you tell a lie, it really hurts and scares mom/dad. I need you to know that you can trust me and that everything is going to be alright. Do you understand?"
3. Let it go. This episode is over and need not be revisited or referenced again in the future.
For more information on the strong rationale behind this approach, take a look at these two videos (in the order listed) and give his strategies a try.
Robyn Gobbel provides additional information to help us understand why our kids lie and how to break the cycle that maintains lying in her blog post, “You’ve got to get out of the Trauma Tornado.”
It is also important to remember that adopted and foster children are not the only children who lie. There is also a developmental aspect to lying that can become entangled with the lying rooted in the trauma-based fears. For a succinct summary of lying from a developmental perspective, read Lynn Louise Wonders’ blog post “Help for Parents When Children Lie.”
Incorporating books (e.g., Lying Up a Storm, Pig the Fibber) and games [Fibber, "I Doubt it" (https://www.thesprucecrafts.com/i-doubt-it-card-game-rules-…)] can be a good way of generating conversations on the topic of lying, as long as the topic is explored with curiosity, humor, and compassion.
When it comes to untangling the problem of lying among children from hard places, the most important thing is to employ an approach that factors in an appreciation of the following strands of this web:
- The long-term effects of developmental trauma on the child’s physiology
- The connection between the fear response and the impact on memory (including the triggering of trauma memories and the shutting down of short-term memories)
- The need to signal safety and prioritize connection over-correction
- The reality that “discipline” means teaching and is only effective when both the child and the parent are regulated.