Why foster/adoptive kids lie, and what to do about it
March 7, 2022 by Sarah Earles, Clinical Supervisor/Child & Family Therapist
Lying. It is an early childhood problem out of which most children quickly emerge. But what happens when they don’t? What happens when lying becomes a pervasive problem? This can happen in any home, but is often a particular concern of foster/adoptive parents. It does not make sense why kids continue to lie, or does it?
Lying is normally a problem of early childhood development. Kids tell stories because they do not realize that the one listening knows they are not telling the truth. Eventually, in the context of a secure relationship, kids realize that their caregivers know the truth, that there are consequences for lying, and then they stop. Kids with secure upbringings normally stop lying by age 3-5 (Keck, n.d.; Kupecky, n.d.). But what if they don’t? Why don’t kids stop lying, particularly at much, much older ages? Well, kids who grow up without secure, stable caregivers might not get feedback about lying when they are young. Worse yet, they might be raised by adults who model lying as “’normal’” (Joyce, 2015). Lying might become a habit to stay alive, either to cover for actions done to meet basic needs (e.g. stealing food to assuage hunger), or to avoid caregiver displeasure and potentially abuse. In these cases, lying becomes not a developmental stage, but a habitual pattern to stay alive (Goldman, 2017). Behaviors based on primal needs are hardest to interrupt and break.
Kids in foster and adoptive homes might lie as a habit. They might lie as self-protection. Caregivers and parents might find that their foster and adoptive kids lie about things that seem strange too, lying in situations where there is no fear of consequence or punishment. For example, they may lie about their family of origin or about their upbringing. Kids might lie about these types of things not maliciously, but because they cannot tolerate the pain of their past. Lying can become a form of dissociation, a way to separate themselves from burdens too great to bear (Bianca, 2020). Kids with brains pruned by trauma may also lie when they do not know things. When kids go into fight/flight/freeze brain, their thinking brain detaches, and they legitimately may not remember events that happened when they were dysregulated. They may therefore confabulate to fill in the gaps, hoping that this will pacify caregivers asking for explanations (Fry, n.d.). When kids lie repeatedly and past expected developmental milestones, there are usually reasons, reasons that explain the behavior, even if the behavior is, in the adult’s eyes, still unproductive and/or wrong.
So what is the foster/adoptive caregiver or parent to do about lying? The first thing to do is provide safety and security (Joyce, 2015). This is the foundation for any loving relationship, and necessary for children’s brains to start calming so that they can connect with parents. Second, caregivers and parents can model and teach. Doing so from a place of relationship helps increase the chances that children can actually hear and apply the information. Third, parents can reduce fear associated with consequences for lying. When caregivers and parents know the truth, they can make statements rather than asking questions, which can raise children’s safety antennas (Kupecky, n.d.). Parents can give kids multiple chances to tell the truth, encouraging kids to interrupt their own lies by saying, “’Whoops, that’s a lie’” and self-correct without punishment (Keck, n.d.). Behaviors will not extinguish right away. In fact, they may go on for quite some time. The goal is not necessarily to increase the felt safety of children so that they sense less need to self-protect by lying, and have the opportunities to choose other coping mechanisms.
Dealing with lying is difficult. It can raise all kinds of issues for caregivers and parents, especially caregivers and parents raised with black and white definitions of right and wrong. When caregivers and parents realize that kids from hard places lie for biologically correct reasons, to survive and feel safe, though, it can help caregivers and parents respond in more caring and compassionate ways. This is the only way to change things for kids. Kids from hard places need to know and feel the truth of love before they can ever begin to accept and tell the truth themselves.
Bianca. (2020, October 13). Liar, liar, life on fire. The Imprint Youth and Family News. https://imprintnews.org/opinion/liar-life-fire-foster-bianca/48105
Fry, J. (n.d.) The truth about confabulation. Adoptive Families Association of BC. https://www.bcadoption.com/resources/articles/truth-about-confabulation
Goldman, C. (2017, September 20). Adoptees and Lying: Why your children might be telling lies. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/modern-day-parenting/201709/adoptees-and-lying-why-your-child-might-be-telling-lies
Joyce, C. (2015, Winter). Iowa Foster & Adoptive Parents Association News and Views, 1. Retrieved from http://www.ifapa.org/pdf_docs/NewsViewsWinter2015w.pdf
Keck, G. (n.d.) Why your adopted child may be prone to lying. Kids in the House: The Ultimate Parenting Resource. https://www.kidsinthehouse.com/adoption/parenting-adopted-children/common-challenges/why-your-adopted-child-may-be-prone-lying
Kupecky, R. M. (n.d.) Parenting an older child through the testing phase. Adoptive Families. https://www.adoptivefamilies.com/adoption-bonding-home/the-testing-phase/
Webster, P. (n.d.) The best way to help children stop lying. Foster 2 Forever. https://foster2forever.com/2015/10/how-to-stop-lying.html