“My child is always telling lies. It started at a young age and it has just gotten worse over time. Why is this happening? Is it common among adoptees? What should I do?”
I frequently receive messages about adoptees that struggle with chronic lying. It’s something that is not discussed enough in adoption circles, because nobody wants to be attacked for perpetuating the stereotype of the “flawed adoptee.”
Rest assured, adoptees, you are not flawed. And rest assured, adoptive parents, you are not doing anything wrong. This is a tricky dynamic. I’ve done extensive research into the area of adoptees and lying behaviors, and there are a few things that can help you understand how what is happening is an adaptive behavior by a child in pain.
First, if your child is telling lies, try to approach the situation with empathy, empathy, and more empathy. It will not help you to parent from the traditional viewpoint of misbehavior and punitive consequences. Often, adoptees have little regard for consequences. You may threaten to take away a prized possession, only to have the child say, “Take it. I don’t care.” And then nobody feels any better.
From the point of view of many adoptees, they may feel as if the world has been lying to them from the time they were babies. Even the most loving, open, nurturing parents cannot take away the fact that some adoptees feel like they are living a false identity. This can happen to any child under any adoption circumstances. Even if you have openness and contact, your child has the right to feel lost, lied to, and rejected.
Rather than deny your children’s feelings and take their emotions as a personal rejection, find the space in your heart to accept that this is a natural response by some children to being adopted.
Not all children will feel this way, of course. But some will. And if your children do feel this way, acknowledging it will help you understand many of their antisocial behaviors. They are doing the best they can to cope with huge, confusing feelings. Sometimes these coping strategies lead to behaviors such as lying, stealing, taking food, and engaging in self-harm.
It is important not to label your child. If your child struggles with lying, focus on the actual behavior, but do not call the child a “liar”. If your child steals, discuss how it is not acceptable to take things, but do not call the child a “thief”. Labels make it harder for people to change. Part of having a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset is to understand that antisocial behaviors can eventually change.
The key is the word eventually. Your child has spent years building up big feelings, and if you expect to handle lying as a one-and-done, zero tolerance issue, you are choosing a mindset that will lead to frustration and despair. This is a process, a day-by-day learning of how to cope in the world without defaulting to maladaptive behaviors. Those behaviors may clearly be wrong to you, but to your child, they may feel safe and comforting.
Lying can become very much a habit. Once someone tells enough lies, their default mode is to tell lies. Just as a truth-teller automatically tells truths, a child who lies often will tell lies without thinking. Many times these lies are inconsequential, and you may be wondering why the child would even bother lying about something so trivial. Other times, the lies can be devastating, with massive negative fallout. Either way, your child likely did not think through the potential consequences before telling the lie. You are viewing the situation through a logical lens; the child is living it though an impulsive lens.
If you notice your children telling lies, do not try to “catch” them or “trick” them. This only leads to more shame. Simply state that you know what they told you wasn’t true, and share what you know the truth to be, and if possible, include the natural ways for your child to repair the harm done.
For example, if you saw your child sneaking the bags of Halloween candy, do not say, “Did you take the candy?” That approach has set up your child to lie to you, and the lies usually grow more elaborate.
Instead, you could say, “I know you took the Halloween candy. Please bring the bags back down because I need to have candy for the trick-or-treaters. We can be sure to put aside some of your favorite things ahead of time, so that you are certain to get some. If you have already eaten it all, let’s use some of your allowance to help replace part of it.”
Do not let the child steer the conversation into how you know the truth. Tell the child, “How I know isn’t important. Let’s focus on the behavior and why it might have happened. How were you feeling when you took the candy?”
Often, the children do not initially know why they engage in these behaviors. It requires a massive amount of insight, maturity, (and probably years of therapy) to be able to say, “Well, mom, I have an empty feeling inside and I don’t know where it came from, but it makes me want to eat the whole bag of candy, and I was afraid the candy would be gone after Halloween, so I felt safer hoarding it in my room.” Yeah, that’s probably not the reply you will get.
The goal is for YOU to understand what the child cannot articulate. After each episode of lying, take a deep breath and move forward. Your child may display no sign of remorse, but that does not mean deep feelings of shame aren’t hidden inside. Shame is a terrible emotion. It eats away at a person’s sense of self. Try to avoid using shame as much as possible. Your child didn't ask to be adopted and doesn't deserve to be shamed for these adaptive behaviors.
If you are an adoptee that struggles with lying, give yourself grace and patience. You are not a bad person. You are someone who needs to change a behavior that doesn’t work well in the world. It’s okay. You are not alone. We all have behaviors that could stand to be changed. We all have good and bad days. If you mess up and tell a lie, do your best to repair the damage to anyone who was harmed, and then remind yourself that each day is a new day. You never run out of chances to be the person (or the parents) you want to be.
If you would like to submit your story for Portrait of an Adoption’s annual guest series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, please email a personal essay of 1,000-2,500 words to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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