What to Do When You Catch Your Kid in a Lie: The Truth Behind Your Kid’s Lies
What's Really Going On?
What should you do when you catch your kid lying to you? “Catch” is the operative word here! It implies that your kid has purposely set out to deceive you. Have they, or is there something else going on here?
The challenge is that everyday logic points in the wrong direction! It's hard enough to accept that once AGAIN, they didn't turn in their homework, clean their room, or brush their teeth. But that they lied about it, AGAIN – how is that supposed to be okay?
The reality is that our kids want to be good, but sometimes they do things that aren't.
I'm sure you've been in situations like this before:
You walk into the kitchen and see your kid playing video games on her tablet.
“Did you feed the dog?” you ask.
“Yup,” she says, never breaking her concentration on the game.
You walk over to the dog bowl and see that it's empty, as is the water bowl. The dog is whining in hunger.
“You didn't feed the dog, did you?” you ask.
You're angry now. Not because the dog's hungry – but because your child lied to you.
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What Are You Feeling?
When you catch your kid in a lie, notice what you're feeling: disrespected? Frustrated? Astonished and scratching your head? Are you worried that they are “bad” – and will never make it in the real world? Or that you are bad – and ineffective as a parent?
What if the reason your child lied is actually because they have working memory issues? If they were stressed out and trying to save face, or so afraid of failing again that they resorted to lying, or answering impulsively without thinking it through – that would be pretty typical.
2 Reasons Your Child is “Lying”
Scenes like that play out in our homes every day, and a parent's tendency is to react strongly – to yank that game right out of a child's hands, and ensure the chores get done. But before jumping to conclusions, remember these two essential things about the way your child's mind works.
1. Repetitious Tasks Can Confuse kids (especially if they have ADD, Anxiety, or other challenges)
Many kids with executive function challenges face working memory deficits, which make it difficult to recall repetitive tasks. Often, a child remembers feeding the dog, but cannot differentiate between whether it happened today or in the recent past. Feeding the dog today is exactly like feeding him yesterday, and feeding him last week. It's hard for a child to be “remember” which day is which. The result looks a lot like “lying.”
Yes, I turned in my homework. Yes, I put my soccer cleats in the closet. Yes, I ate my protein snack. They remember feeding the dog. They have difficulty recalling whether it happened today or the day before.
2. Lying Might Be A Defense Mechanism Against Stress
Think about times when you've been stressed or felt threatened. Do you get a knot in your throat? Does the hair on the back of your neck stand up? Are your breaths shallow and rapid? What happens in these situations is that your brain shuts down, it sends all the blood to your feet (the better to run from that lion!) and shoots cortisol into your body.
When you ask your child why they didn't do their homework, or feed the dog, or clean their room, it can produce this stress reaction. Now, all they want to do is feel safe again. In the immediate moment, lying is a pretty darn effective way to do that.
Dr. Jerome Schultz calls this type of behavior “Saving FASE.” Kids engage in behaviors, including lying, because of Fear, Avoidance, Stress, and Escape. He explains that “many of the behaviors that seem negative or bad are actually self-protective strategies children employ, either consciously or unconsciously, to hide their incompetence.” The “incompetence” could be deficits in working memory, the inability to focus or break focus, or other challenges with executive function.
Three Tips For Enabling The Truth
Whether your child's lies are intentional or not, here are three strategies to remember to keep Pinnochio behavior in check:
- Use daily structures to aid with working memory problems. When your child turns in their homework or feeds the dog, for example, they put a checkmark on the list. That way they can visually see that they have done it today.
- Recognize when your kids feels threatened. Elaine always tells her son, “You're not in trouble, so tell me what happened.” Then, they can work on getting out of the threat cycle: taking deep breaths, having a sip of water, doing a few jumping jacks or running in place to shift the energy back. Whatever it is, they can then talk about what really happened – after he's calmed down.
- Get curious and show compassion. It's okay to feel stressed or threatened when your child lies to you. But instead of, “My kid didn't turn in his homework again. He told me he did, he lied to me,” try, “I've got a good kid who is having a hard time. I wonder what is going on and how I can help him?” It's a simple switch, but it can make a powerful difference for both of you.
Sometimes, you have to be willing to let go of a lie when you know your child was stressed, threatened, or simply didn't recall correctly. When you take a coach-approach and implement systems and structures designed to help her remember or feel safe, you can reduce stress for your child and for yourself. The truth is that ADHD kids want to be good – and you have the power to help your child succeed.