Many of the adoptive and foster parents I’ve worked with and spoken to over the years have shared with me that the number one behavioral problem they deal with is their child’s propensity to lie. “He lies about things that don’t even matter!!” is something I’ve heard frequently. As parents we know that all kids lie, at least occasionally. Typically, they do so to cover up something they’ve done, to buy time, or to cover up a previous lie, among other reasons! But why do I hear so much more about lying from adoptive and foster parents?
Let me share a story about “Jennifer” a 17-year-old adoptee from Russia that I worked with in a residential treatment setting some years ago. Jennifer was a vivacious, extraverted young woman. She made friends easily and loved people. She could also “lie the fleas off of a dog” as the old saying goes. She was just one click away from being pathological in her lying behavior. Her natural charm made her lies often seem very believable. With a lot of intensive work with our staff and her therapist, Jennifer slowly made progress. Now, ten years later, she is happily married and doing great. She will be a new mom this fall! Jennifer shared something profound with me years ago that opened my eyes about why she lied so much. She said, “Mark, you have to understand, when I was living in the orphanage in Russia, if I lied, I got what I needed (food, attention, etc.) If I told the truth about something, I got beat! That’s a great way to warp a kids psyche.
The profound insight that Jennifer shared with me helped me to better understand the bigger picture of why previously-traumatized kids lie when they are in our care. One would think that now that a child is in a stable home (ours) that he or she would not have the urge to lie any more. But old survival habits die hard—and that’s exactly what lying is for many of these children—a means of survival in an often dangerous and chaotic living situation. Our children lie because of fear and internal stress. I love how Dr. Bryan Post (Author of From Fear to Love: Parenting Difficult Adopted Children) describes the inner message of a child who habitually lies—“If I don’t lie to you, then the worst thing that ever happened to me will happen again!” I didn’t ask my young friend Jennifer about this, but I’ll bet this was often her internal message after having survived her traumatic orphanage experience in Russia.
In my next blog, I will share some practical approaches and strategies for parenting and dealing with a child who habitually lies. Stay tuned!