Saturday, January 15, 2011

When a lie isn't really a lie

I had a group meeting today with parents who have or are in the process of adopting children from the foster care system.

The theme of the day was lying and what to do about it. As I listened to these parents talk about the frustration of dealing with children who lie so often I came to realize that none of them seemed to fully understand why these children lie so much. "to push your buttons, test their boundaries, push you away" these were all reasoning's by the parents. And not for the first time I looked around at them all and thought, "you just don't get it. None of you know what it feels like to be this kid" But I do. I was that kid.

When an abused child lies it's not a conscious decision, an act of defiance as an adoptive parent may believe. When a damaged child lies, it's instinctual, automatic, a way of protecting themselves. Because in the truth often lies the punishment: a child will lie to ward off retribution.

You can't expect a child who has been hurt in the past to come into an adoptive home and lose all instincts. And lying is an instinct. When an adult tells a lie it's a calculated decision - because we have learned that lying is wrong and therefore has consequences. A child doesn't have the mental capacity to reason that through and so an instinctual response is to lie. To protect themselves the only way they know how; by avoiding punishment. In a hurt child's mind they think "if they get mad I get hurt, if I admit I did something wrong they will hurt me" so the lies come out.

What adoptive parents often don't understand is that an automatic split second lie isn't a mark of a good liar. It's the mark of pure instinct. Deception takes thought, reasoning, time. If you ask your child, "did you do this?" and you get a split second lie, "no". That's not a child trying to be deceitful or "pushing your boundaries". That's survival instinct. And it can be something so basic as "did you brush your teeth?" Instantly they may say yes. But it's so fast as to be just an automatic response. More often than not they may be as surprised they lied as you are. So if you ask them "why did you lie?" and the answer is "I don't know". That's not just a way to make you angrier or to be obstinate. They really may just not know.

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