The Truth about Lies

Written by: Elizabeth Smith Miller, Director of Marketing and Events, National Safe Place Network

April 30th is National Honesty Day. Let’s talk about being honest! Ok, that’s a lie. I’d rather talk about lies and why we, especially our young people, lie and what we can do to help.

I’m a foster mom. I’ve had teens in my home that lie (among other things), and I feel it’s important to offer my perspective as a foster parent. I’m hopeful that anyone reading this will be able to look at our kids in a different light and maybe even utilize some of the tips I’m about to share from myself and other foster parents.

As a population that works with youth, I’m sure you are aware that a lot of children and teens lie.  You have to realize – which I hope you do, or you may not be in the right field – that lying doesn’t make them bad kids. Many behaviors, including lying and stealing, can be a trauma response. There’s lots of reasons why youth may lie, but basically, it’s a form of coping that individuals take part in to:

  1. Avoid something
  2. Omit something (usually due to fear of getting in trouble — this is the most common type of lie by teens)
  3. Get/do something

While these reasons are real – and sometimes the very thing that may keep a youth safe, it can be difficult to be on the other side of the lie when you are trying to help.  Many foster parents have teens in their home that “lie about EVERYTHING.” On a daily basis, one or more foster forums receive a post with “My FS15 lies about everything and I’m at my wits end!” (FS15 means foster son 15 years of age.) Then, you see tons of comments in the online community to share the same experiences, show support, and offer suggestions. If you’re working with young people, you may have heard similar suggestions.

Here are some thoughts provided by foster parents on how to deal with lies from children and teens:

  • “Don’t give them the opportunity to lie. Don’t ask, ‘did you do x?’ Just say, ‘Hey, I know you spilled that drink in your room and I’m reminding you to not take liquids out of the kitchen.’”
  • “Reward truth telling.”
  • “Allow natural consequences to happen.”
  • “Bond with the child. I find that the more the children bond with me, the less they lie.”
  • “Find out why they are lying (fear of embarrassment, being caught, neglect, or abuse, etc.) Understand that children with trauma may become overwhelmed easily and struggle with certain tasks. When a child can let go of shame, guilt, and feelings of unworthiness, the fear will be replaced with love.”
  • “Make sure you’re leading by example. Don’t let them see/hear you lie about something and then you expect total honesty from them.”
  • “Work on the connection and why they are lying.”
  • “Make telling the truth more attractive.”
  • “Let them have control in other ways – give lots of choices.”
  • “Remember, it’s not about you trusting them, it’s about them trusting YOU.”
  • “Use humor to redirect.”

My suggestion is to take everything with a grain of salt. Kids don’t lie to you to ruin your life (or even your day). There’s something going on with THEM. (It’s not about you.) As I mentioned before, lies stem from something deeper — are they afraid of something, do they want something and are not sure how to obtain it, are they capable, etc.? Did the young person experience trauma? Did they have to lie to SURVIVE (or avoid abuse and neglect)? Show some empathy and try to understand beyond the lie. Then, work with them by empowering, connecting, and correcting (Trust-based Relational Intervention®, also known as TBRI).

The young people we work with as foster parents or youth care workers are in our homes and in our shelters for a reason, and in many cases, lying has kept them functioning in an environment that didn’t allow them to thrive. So many of our young people missed the opportunity to explore the critical story and truth telling development stage in a healthy way — or they did explore it and didn’t receive a connected reaction. Breaking this cycle and building trust takes time.

I also recommend looking into resources provided by Dr. Karyn Purvis, including “How do I handle Lying?” Dr. Purvis shares that parents or care-givers tend to over- or underreact when a child lies. Instead, we need to offer a balance of structure and nurture. She also shares we need to find a way to stay connected to keep trust in the relationships. “It’s important to celebrate the good and not have joy in ‘ah-ha, I caught you’ moments. Let youth see your joy in helping them succeed.” Together, we can get through the challenge that made youth feel they needed to lie. Be a young person’s advocate and help them solve their problems. Remember, success is easier and better when it’s created together. Now that’s the truth!

Just in case anyone came here to learn about National Honesty Day, I don’t want to leave you hanging. National Honesty Day was invented by M. Hirsch Goldberg as a campaign for the prevention of political lies. Goldberg wanted to bring awareness to some of the “most deceitful lies in history,” including the Watergate Scandal, Dreyfus Affair, and the Ponzi scheme. The date for Honesty Day was selected because it is the anniversary of the first inauguration of George Washington. The date was also chosen because the first day of April is April Fools’ Day, which celebrates falsehood. Interesting!

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