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"Why did you do that?" Asking this question may NOT give you the result you desire

Updated: Sep 28, 2021

A question that Kristin and I have gotten from more than a few adoptive parents is "Why in the world do my kids struggle so much with lying?" When someone lies to you—especially someone close to you—it can create a strong emotional response It’s frustrating and can leave you feeling tricked or betrayed. Often, these episodes escalate when we take it personal. But that's exactly what makes this particular issue so difficult to deal with, it FEELS deeply personal. How can it not feel that way? The person who is lying seems to be saying "I don't trust you with the truth."

If you ARE struggling with your child telling lies, try to approach the situation In a nonconventional manner. Chances are, you've probably already gotten frustrated that your previous efforts have produced little change. Realize that when it comes to parenting ANY child, It will not help you to parent from the traditional viewpoint of misbehavior and punitive consequences but this is especially true of adoption and foster kids.

For instance, negative coercion does not create long term change, only short term behavior modification. You may say something like,"If you do that again, so help me I'm going to..." It seems to work, but only temporarily. (There's a great article on negative coercion down below.)

"WHY are you lying to me?" This feels like a straightforward, simple question with an easy answer. “You MUST know why you are doing what you’re doing, you’re the one doing it!” But here’s the thing, your child most likely does not have the answer to this question. This is a topic we explore in this BLOG about why teens argue.

Asking questions that you already know the answer to, is also a form of negative coercion, or asking questions in rapid fire, or interrogation style questioning should also be avoided, it typically only leads to more defensiveness especially in adoptive/foster kids who seem to be expecting this kind of behavior (it feels like it only validates they are not wanted or welcomed). For our foster/adoption kids, there is even LESS chance that these things will find any long term success.

Another reason for approaching the issue in a nonconventional manner is that often, adoptees and foster kids 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.”

Been there? Tried that? It helps nothing. All it has done is turned into a power struggle.

So what?

If your teen deals with lying to deal with stress, they may struggle with confabulating. It's when a child subconsciously fill s gap in memory error with fabricated memories, misinterpreted events, or distorted information because they are not able to remember. (1) This is something to consider if your teen has gone through a lot of trauma throughout their life.

Sometimes this is provoked and sometimes it is spontaneous. They are not making a conscious or intentional attempt to deceive. Rather, they are confident in the truth of their memories even when confronted with contradictory evidence.(2)

Here's the reality, they may not know why, because they may not realize that they are not sharing the truth. The person who is “telling the tale” may often, likely feel as if they are telling the truth from their perspective. The key to helping a child in this scenario is to help keep things calm and try not to make it feel confrontational. Feelings of confrontation can actually worsen the situation. Make telling the truth safe and a more disireable option.

Keep in mind that even when children are even lying on purpose, they usually still won’t be able to answer the question: Why are you lying to me. Kids aren't in touch with their behavior the way that adult are and even then may have a much more difficult time articulating those feelings.

Also, 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.

Now What?

According to Rebecca Rozema, every child expresses needs through their behavior, regardless of whether or not they are adopted. If a child is lying or stealing, are they fearful of the response from adults? (This may be true even if the response from the current adults has always been supportive.)

  • Are they trying to be independent and meet their own needs, because they haven’t been able to trust adults to meet their needs in the past?

  • Are they trying to get attention in a negative way because they don’t feel they are getting enough attention from their parents and are willing to get it in any way possible?

  • Do they believe that they are a bad kid at their core and are therefore proving this to themselves and others by bringing on punishment and shaming to reinforce that belief?

  • Does the child’s lying or stealing behavior increase in times of high stress or after experiencing some change or loss in their world?

These are important questions to ask in trying to figure out the underlying reasons for the behavior.

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.

Rather than deny your children’s feelings and take their emotions as personal rejection, find the space in your heart to accept that this is a natural response by some children to being adopted. Remember: empathy, empathy, empathy. As difficult as it might feel to give empathy during these moments, the payoff will be big as you build the relationship back with grace and forgiveness.

Also, 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 anyone to be able to change.

Also, 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 made cookies for class the next day only to discover most of them have been eaten, do not say, “Did you eat the cookies?” 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 ate the cookies. You are going to have to be ready 20 minutes early today so that we can stop by the grocery store to replace them. We will have to 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 ate the cookies?”

The goal is for YOU to try and understand what the child cannot articulate. After each episode of lying, take a deep breath and move forward. Your child may not display any sign of remorse, but that does not mean that there aren’t deep feelings of shame hidden inside. Shame is a terrible emotion. It eats away at a person’s sense of self. Try to avoid using shame (and negative coercion) as much as possible. Instead here are some things we CAN focus on.

Positive strategies:

•Focus on reducing stress and anxiety and preventing upset. A child that feels safe and secure is better able to remember things and think through a problem.

• Don’t address the fact that their memory of events is wrong. Focus on making a plan to move forward.

• Remind yourself why your child might be lying and try to move on from there.

I hope you can see how your child doesn’t lie because they don’t like you or they’re a horrible kid. Your child lies because of fear, and young kids sometimes do because they’re testing life. While this may be something that we don’t want to hear, it makes it much easier to deal with the lies. If you can stay calm and without much reaction to the lie, they can earn to trust you.

Hope this helps,

Pastor Mark


Resources in this article:

  1. Triviño M, Ródenas E, Lupiáñez J, Arnedo M. Effectiveness of a neuropsychological treatment for confabulations after brain injury: A clinical trial with theoretical implications. PLoS ONE. 2017;12(3):e0173166. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0173166

  2. Concordia University, St. Paul Online. Understanding Confabulation: An Introduction. Updated‌ April 29, 2016.

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