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  • Red Kite Fostering

Parenting: Handling Lying and Dishonesty

Young people who have experienced abuse or neglect may engage in behaviours that mirror the trauma they have endured, often behaviours that once had some adaptive purpose - hoarding food or engaging in self-harming or self-soothing behaviours. Acts of aggression may stem from undeveloped empathy and impulse control that reflect an attempt to understand how others react when experiencing pain or attempts to make sense of harm that was done to them.

Without a strong emotional bond with a caregiver that acts as a secure base, children may engage in indiscriminate attachment behaviours, seeking affection from individuals relatively unknown to them, perhaps in an effort to find reassurance of safety.

Even in the care of those who truly mean well, there is often a gap between what some foster parents may expect from the child’s behaviour and the reality of the child’s ongoing emotional experience.

“If I am there for her and listen to what she has to say, even if it’s not true, she knows I’m listening and that I love her, and pretty soon she always stops with the lies and starts telling me the truth.”

- Quote from a young person in care

Children in care will likely have experienced rejection by their birth parents, or other caregivers, and some have experienced trauma. Trauma causes actual, real, physiological changes to happen in the brain; it impacts the limbic system where emotion, behaviour, and long-term memory live.

The impact of trauma is not fixed over a short period of time. In some cases, it may never repair, and in others, a child may need to learn to use the skills for regulation in a different way than they might have before the primary, and subsequent, traumas.

- What can I do if my child is lying?

- Why is my child lying?

Whilst the occasional “white lie” can be a useful tool for adults - something that can save many of us from unnecessary or awkward situations, however, often these lies are not too different to the ones children use to get out of trouble. White lies can be easily confused with broken promises in the eyes of younger children, so honesty is the best policy when caring for children.

Lying serves many purposes:

  • Lying is protective. “If I admit the truth, I might get in trouble and trouble can hurt both physically and emotionally.”

  • Lying might be based in fear. “If I am not good all the time, they won’t want me.”

  • Lying may be a means to control. “I have no control over anything in my life – where I live, when I see my siblings, going to therapy, what school I attend, if my parents will be successful, if my foster parents will want to keep me if I can’t go home, how people view me in society because I’m in foster care – but there are a few things I can control. I can control what they know or don’t know about my feelings and my actions.”

  • Lying might be impulsive. “I saw it, I wanted it, I don’t have the skills that allow me to prevent myself from taking it. Now I’ve done it and I can’t admit it because it’s embarrassing.”

- How do I make the lying stop?

- How can I show a child that lying is ‘wrong’?

Trust takes time - it’s not always personal

We teach children who have neurotypical brain chemistry not to lie using positive modelling over time and build a relationship with them; their trust in their carers and their desire to engage in a cooperative relationship, avoid conflict, and to emulate the adults they trust encourages truth-telling.

We cannot use the same tools for a child with whom we may not have that relationship until we build that trust. Therefore, we have to address the underlying cause of the behaviour before we can address the behaviour, which can take a long period of time.

Often we talk about teaching the child that if they lie, we can’t trust them. But in truth, the situation is happening because they can’t trust you. It’s not necessarily the case that they are choosing not to trust, but more so that they cannot.

The care that adults provide nurtures the development of essential mental tools for survival; as things settle down, they will feel stable, secure, and have age-appropriate control of their lives again.

Seek first to understand and then to be understood

When children misbehave, parents who understand their children’s underlying needs respond in ways that guide the development of the personality underneath the strong emotions paralyzing it. The more you can learn about attachment problems, bonding, normal development, and abnormal development, the more you will be able to develop useful behavioural and social interventions.

If you are a Red Kite carer and would like further training to prepare you, please contact your Family Support Worker to arrange this.

Demonstrate that you want what’s best for them

You can establish structure for a child by implementing house rules and child-specific goals, by linking privileges to responsibilities, and by creating safe and private spaces for children to be and discover who they are. You can nurture a child by engaging them in playful as well as skill-building activities that facilitate opportunities to explore relationships and the world around them, heaping affection unconditionally, lavishing praise on every effort, large or small, and showing a genuine interest in their lives.

Where possible, try to keep the peace

Complex trauma often results in chronic anxiety—internalised as depression, externalised as defiance, or both. Children may, consequently, withdraw or explode as they navigate complex emotional territory, and they need safe relationships where they can test the bounds of trust as they navigate a path forward through grief, anger, and healing.

It is sometimes hard to put emotions aside, but it is important to practice techniques to stay calm in the most frustrating of situations. By maintaining a consistent and calm emotional disposition, you can come across as more reliable and approachable to someone who you want to build trust with.

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