I didn’t do that. Why do you always think I’m lying? I’m telling you the truth! I didn’t do it!
These are just a few of the responses we hear in moments when our kiddos are caught red-handed. Lying can be one of those baffling behaviors that leaves caregivers at a loss. As the Therapeutic Support Specialist at Foster Village, I want to start by saying — you’re right. This behavior IS difficult, frustrating, and overwhelming, especially when it happens over and over again. In fact, it’s one of the most common behaviors we work through with our Foster Village families.
Before getting into the specific best practices for handling lying behavior, let’s take a few seconds to breathe. You are not alone. All kids lie, but especially our kids who have a traumatic background. As we talk through the most connected, most effective ways to handle lying, we want to approach it from a trauma-informed perspective, and that means we must pull at the thread that leads us to where the behavior originated. This practice of understanding the need behind the behavior is always an important part of parenting our kids from hard places.
We know that kids who have experienced the foster care system come from some of the most tragic and heartbreaking situations, ones in which the people responsible for loving and caring for them caused them the most harm. To survive, these kids learned adaptive behaviors, and in situations that involved lying, they often learned to avoid the truth to protect themselves. When a child is no longer in the traumatizing environment, it can be easy to think they are safe, which is true. From an outside perspective, we can know the child is safe. However, the child’s brain is still operating as if they aren’t safe because there’s no felt safety.
Felt safety isn’t just knowing you’re safe but feeling safe. Even when we’re doing our best to meet all their physical needs, this lack of felt safety can remain. And because their maladaptive behavior wasn’t formed in a month or two, the behaviors will not disappear in a month or two just by simply removing them from a dangerous situation. Change takes time, and establishing felt safety takes an incredible amount of intention.
So how do we help create felt safety? How do we address lying and manipulation?
With patience, grace, and time. Do your best to create an environment where the safest thing they can do is be truthful with you. Reward positive behavior with praise. When they lie or manipulate, respond calmly and patiently, shifting your focus from disciplining the lie to praising the truth. Instead of saying, “If you continue to lie, you’ll lose iPad privileges for the rest of the week,” try, “Please tell the truth. You will not be in trouble. It’s more important to me that you are honest than you have a consequence.”
When they do tell the truth, make it a big deal. Praise and celebrate honesty, and even reward the truth with intentional time to foster the relationship and the trust you are trying to build. As trust and felt safety are established, you will be able to raise the bar of expectation gradually, but rewiring the brain takes time and patience.
But what happens if they continue to lie and not tell the truth?
Check out part 2 here.