Finding the Truth within the Lies
Society has always thought of lying as a character flaw. While willful lying to deceive is not acceptable and could be an indicator that someone lacks integrity, it’s not that simple when talking about kids with ADHD and/or autism. There are many reasons that individuals lie. To avoid negative consequences and to impress others are the top two. When the child is neuro-atypical though, lying just isn’t always that simple. In this episode, I outline the five main reasons your child may be lying to you, and how to reframe this behavior so that you can successfully address it and improve it. Hint: Punishment won’t make it stop.
Resources in this EpisodeNOTE: Some of the resources below may be affiliate links, meaning I receive a commission (at no cost to you) if you use that link to make a purchase.
- Behavior podcasts
- PAP 096: What the Nervous System Tells Us About Understanding & Improving Behavior, with Mona Delahooke, PhD
- PAP 093: Seeing Your Child Through a Brain-Based Lens, Not a Behavior Lens, Eileen Devine, LCSW
- PAP 015: Behavior is Just a Symptom, with Penny Williams
- PAP 003: What Your Child’s Behavior Is Actually Telling You, with Sarah Wayland, PhD
- Executive Function podcasts
- The Boy Who Cried Wolf, ADDitude Magazine
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Penny Williams (00:03): Be aware of the reasons that kids might lie to be able to tease out the truth of the lie. So either the truth within what they've said or the truth in how it felt to them or the truth in the underlying reasons for the lie.
Penny Williams (00:28): Welcome to the Parenting ADHD Podcast, where I share insights and strategies on raising kids with ADHD, straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author, ADHD-aholic and Mindset Mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your atypical kid. Let's get started.
Penny Williams (00:58): Hello, my tribe! Welcome back to the Parenting ADHD Podcast. Today, I'm going to talk to you about lying. This is something that comes up so often with kids with ADHD, and there are reasons behind it. We look at lying as bad character. We look at it as a negative personality trait, and then we react as though it is this bad character. And what happens is we avoid the reasons that it's happening and then we can't affect change. Behaviors is communication, as I've talked about so, so many times on this podcast, that is your guiding compass here, even with lying. There is truth in every lie and I'm going to help you uncover those truths. So when we look at lying as communication, then we start to look at it as a detective with some mindful awareness. Now we're looking for the reason why it's happening.
Penny Williams (02:10): Why is your child lying to you? There are many different possibilities that we are going to run through but I want you to keep in mind through this entire episode, that there is truth in every lie. And it's our job to find that truth, because that is the biggest clue as to what is going on, why it's happening and what our kids are trying to communicate to us through those untruths that they often tell. The first big reason that anyone tells a lie, but especially kids, is avoidance. Avoiding getting in trouble, right? If they feel like they've let you down, they know that they're going to get into trouble when they tell you the truth. No, they didn't do their homework. No, they didn't do their chores. Yes, they got an F on their science test today. They avoid these things. They avoid telling the truth in those instances because they just don't want to get into trouble.
Penny Williams (03:23): And this is bigger for our kids with ADHD, the neuro-atypical kids, because our kids with ADHD get so much negative feedback. They get into so much trouble. They get called out all the time, especially at school, right? They get called out for not paying attention. They get called out for not being in their seat. They get called out for not finishing the assignment. For talking too much, for staring out the window. All of these things keep coming up for our kids, that they are constantly being at least redirected, which they often internalize as getting into trouble. And so, of course, they're going to try to get into trouble less. And sometimes that is lying to your parents, lying to your teachers, to get into trouble less. The other thing that this avoidance piece plays into is that they will lie to avoid doing something that they find painful or uncomfortable.
Penny Williams (04:30): And this is true for kids on the autism spectrum, as well as ADHD, but they may lie to you about having homework. This is a big one in my house. It's been going on for years. "No, there's no homework today." Or, "Oh, I already did that. I already turned it in." When, in actuality, when we look at that at face value, that's not true. And he did have homework or he didn't complete it and turn it in. And what's happening there is that doing the homework is so uncomfortable, it's so exhausting and painful that there's avoidance there. The lie is to avoid doing the work or the task that they find so painful or uncomfortable or exhausting — keeping it together, focusing for a long period of time, for our kids with ADHD it's exhausting. It takes them so much work to be able to focus and get something like a school worksheet done, or to get their room clean, that they will lie to avoid it because they know that it's going to be really hard work.
Penny Williams (05:47): It's going to be really exhausting. And it's just not a preferred task. If you know you have to go do something that you don't enjoy and you know,it's going to be exhausting and uncomfortable, are you going to jump up and down and cheer and run out the door and do it? No, none of us would, but our brains as neurotypicals may kick in because it's important, the ADHD brain is not motivated by importance. Their nervous system is not motivated by importance. It just doesn't ignite anything for them to be able to take care of a task, and understanding that is really key for parents. So yes, homework is important, but that doesn't automatically create enough ignition in the brain to be able to get it done, when you have an ADHD brain. So often there's lies to avoid doing these tasks that are painful, uncomfortable, or exhausting.
Penny Williams (06:54): And I know that you're seeing that, I know that it's happening and you might be taking that in. As you know, this character flaw — my child is lying to me — this is such a bad thing. And it's an unwanted behavior. I'm not saying that lying is okay. Lying is not okay. And we do have to get to a place where it's not happening consistently, but understanding why it's happening is how you get to that place. Punishing a lie is not addressing why it's happening, so it will continue to happen. So the first one is avoidance, as we discussed, and finding the truth in that lie is seeing why they're avoiding, why are they lying to avoid something? And when it's just avoiding getting in trouble, that truth is really easy to find: they don't want to get in trouble.
Penny Williams (07:50): And sometimes it takes more effort on your part, more digging to see the why behind a lie, but it's there. It's always there. There's always a reason for behavior, positive and negative behavior. There's always a reason. And you have to find these truths within these lies to find those reasons. The second reason that kids with ADHD often lie is to express how they feel. And this is the one that is the biggest 'finding the truth within the lie.' Let me give you an example. My son is really good at this. He used to be, now that he's a teenager, he's not telling these tall tales about things that happened to him as much. Part of it may be because we've been at home with the COVID pandemic for what? Eight months now, seven, eight months, so he hasn't been in a lot of situations where this might come up or he might need to spin this tall tale to express how something really felt to him.
Penny Williams (08:56): But I think it gets better over time and it gets better because we've been working on it, because I've worked really hard for years to find the truth within each lie, to see what he's trying to communicate to me, even subconsciously. You know, lying isn't your child sitting down and going, "okay, well, I need to tell mom that this felt really bad to me today, so I'm going to tell her this tale that shows how hard and uncomfortable it felt to me." Of course they're not doing that. And looking at that intention and lack of intention is also really important when your child is lying to you. So let me share a story and give you an example of a child lying to express how they feel. One day my son came home from school and he was irate. He was super agitated.
Penny Williams (09:48): He was super dysregulated. I would say he was probably in middle elementary to late elementary school. So maybe eight or nine years old. And he said, "John, tried to kill me on the playground today." And he was completely and utterly believing that John tried to kill him on the playground today. Now you and I know that's not true. His fellow eight or nine year old probably didn't literally try to kill him at recess, but it felt like that to my son, it felt like an assault that had a super bad consequence. And so it felt like this kid was trying to kill him, but we know that if we take those words literally, that's not true. But it was true for him in that moment. And that's finding the truth within the lies. The truth was he felt like he was in danger at that moment during recess on the playground that day, he felt unsafe.
Penny Williams (11:01): He felt overwhelmingly unsafe and without a better way to communicate that feeling, he came home and told me that John tried to kill him on the playground. There was a lot of truth in that for my son, right? Was it something I needed to call up the school and report? "You have a kid in third grade, fourth grade, who's trying to kill other kids on the playground." No, of course not. But I needed to approach this lie with empathy and validation because it was his true feelings at that time, in that moment, that he's trying to tell me about. He's trying to tell me how hard that was, how bad it felt. Another example, in middle school, actually in fifth, which is an intermediate school for them. He was really struggling with a lot of school avoidance and school refusal.
Penny Williams (12:03): And we were really pushing him to be at school, because that's what we're required to do or required by law to have our kids at school or to homeschool them, which we weren't doing and couldn't do. So he was just getting more and more desperate to not be in that environment. It was so hard for him that he was starting to try to find any way at all for somebody to say, "okay, you don't have to go there. You don't have to be at school today or this week," or maybe ever, who knows what his thinking was, but in this particular story, it was certainly about that day, if nothing else. And maybe that was just because today was now and he wasn't thinking about anything else. And so he was crying and trying to avoid going to school and telling me that he was being picked on.
Penny Williams (12:59): And I said, "well, we have to go to school and we have to talk to someone. Let's talk to the principal" who we had already had some communication with and who really wanted to help him with his different school struggles. "We can talk to the counselor (who we also hadn't been working with) and let's tell them what's happening so that they can protect you, so they can help you. They can look into it and resolve the issue because staying at home doesn't make it better because you have to do school. You have to go to school, you have to get an education so you can move on with your life." And that wasn't enough that day. That was not enough for him to say, "okay, let's go work on it. I trust that it's going to get better." So his story escalated and it escalated to the point that when they were coming in from recess, another teacher, that he didn't know, grabbed him and scolded him for something, and then put him in her classroom for an hour and left him there by himself, locked the door and left him there because she had to go do something and he didn't get any lunch that day because of it.
Penny Williams (14:09): And I had had a lot of communication with his classroom teacher at that point. And I did feel like he would not have allowed this to happen. He just wouldn't have allowed this to happen. He would have noticed that my son was missing for an hour, but my son was so adamant that this thing happened to him and that it was so scary. And I said, "okay, well, we have to go. We have to meet with your guidance counselor. And we have to talk about this. We have to resolve this. If there's a teacher who's acting this way, leaving kids alone and trapped, the school needs to know. They want to know that this is happening. They want to take care of it. They would never want you to be treated this way." And so we went to the guidance counselor. This actually worked to get him to go.
Penny Williams (14:55): And typically, before this, if he was spinning a tall tale, once it was "okay, we're going to go and talk about it with school," he would back off of the lie. He would come clean and he would start to try to pinpoint what was actually really causing the school avoidance. But in this situation, for some reason, he went ahead and went and I thought "wow, maybe there's some truth to that." Maybe a teacher did pull him aside for 10 or 15 minutes and it scared him because it was a teacher that he didn't know. I knew that he wasn't locked in a classroom for an hour. I knew that was not possible, but I was, "well, maybe there's a little more truth to it than I would think."
Penny Williams (15:37): And so we went, we sat down with the guidance counselor. He told his story and the guidance counselor was like, "wow, if this is what happened to you yesterday at school, we really need to get to the bottom of it. And let's get your classroom teacher in here and let's find out how that happened. Why did he not notice that maybe you were missing?" And so his classroom teacher came in and he told the story again. And the teacher looked at me, specifically out of the four of us sitting in this room at this table, he looked at me specifically, And he said, "that did not happen." And he was hurt that somebody had insinuated or said that he would have lost track for one of his students for a period of time and would have let that happen to them, and that even that would have happened to them in the school or one of his colleagues would have done that.
Penny Williams (16:33): He was very hurt at the accusation. And there I was completely called out on the carpet because my son had spun this big, tall tale. And there was really no truth to it on face value. But, the truth that was underneath was that school was so hard, so scary, so painful that he was willing to tell a massive lie that he knew people would say was not true, he knew he would be called out for it not being true, but he was so desperate that he was willing to spin this tale and lie in order to try to avoid something that was so, so hard and to express how he was feeling. He was expressing in that moment that school was just not doable for him. It felt so bad that it was not doable for him at all under any circumstance. That was what he was communicating.
Penny Williams (17:45): And it was a big eye opener. And we had to really start to dig and find out what was happening that was causing him so much pain and so much grief. And he actually loved this teacher. It was one of his very best years academically, but it was one of his worst years as far as feeling comfortable and safe at school. And so there was just a lot to unpack there behind that lie. But again, there was truth to his lie. We were seeing what was true for him. There wasn't any truth to the words that composed the lie, but there was truth to why the lie happened. And that is really important for you as parents to be aware of and to be watchful for. It's one of the biggest reasons that neuro-atypical kids lie, they're spinning these tall tales because they don't have the skills to communicate their feelings more effectively.
Penny Williams (18:48): So this is how they're doing it. "It felt like John was going to kill me on the playground." That would have been true, but that is not as detailed as their communication skills are at that age. And so it came out as "John did try to kill me on the playground."
Penny Williams (19:09): Another reason why our kids lie are kids with ADHD, autism spectrum, specifically more than others, is poor executive functioning skills. And we've talked about executive functioning on the podcast before. These are the skills that help you plan, execute, and get things done. So planning, organization, sequencing, memory, self-regulation, mental flexibility, time management, and emotional regulation. They are very common deficits to different degrees in different individuals, but they're very common deficits for kids with ADHD. And then they play into sometimes when our kids lie and they don't even realize they're lying. So if a child struggles with working memory, they may feel like they actually did their math homework today.
Penny Williams (20:12): But it turns out that what they're thinking about is yesterday's math homework. And they are kind of confused because their working memory isn't great. And these skills come into play so often, or these lack of skills, really in these deficits when kids end up lying to their parents, because the skills make it hard to manage what there is to do and getting it done. So "Yeah mom, I brushed my teeth." Well, maybe he forgot. Maybe he was thinking about yesterday and felt like yesterday's brushing teeth was actually today. Maybe he was avoiding it because he's too tired. So many different things come into play. Maybe it didn't get done this morning because he has poor time management skills and he was running around trying to get everything done and that fell through the cracks. Brushing teeth fell through the cracks. It's really important to understand where your child's strengths and weaknesses lie within executive functioning skills.
Penny Williams (21:18): Because again, this is how we plan, execute, and get things done. That's pretty much life in general. That's the day to day, right? So when they have deficits in the skills that help them to plan, execute, and get things done, then sometimes lies come out because they think they did it and don't realize that they didn't or lies come out because they didn't get it done because they have poor executive functioning skills, but they don't want to get in trouble with you, so they're going to tell you that they got it done. They could say "yes, I spent 30 minutes reading for my reading homework" when they actually only spent five minutes. But to them it felt like 30 because they have time blindness, as in poor time management skills, right? Executive function can really play into the truth and the lying that comes from our kids.
Penny Williams (22:11): Because sometimes they're trying to cover the fact that they're struggling to get things done. And sometimes they just don't even realize that they didn't get it done. They didn't get their homework turned in. They didn't finish their chore. They stopped halfway through and walked away. And you come into the kitchen and realize that the dishes aren't done yet, that they're only halfway done. That there's a mess in the kitchen still and your child says, "well, YAY, I finished. I did it." Not even realizing that that's not true. And we have to, again, we have to be this detective. We have to be able to see these truths underneath or within the lies. It's so important because, if I punish my child for saying he read for 30 minutes when he only read for five, and he really didn't realize that he only read for five, what am I doing?
Penny Williams (23:07): I'm sending a terrible message to him that your brain is different. It's dysfunctional. And because of that you're a bad person. That's kind of the message that that sends. And of course we don't want that. We don't want that for our kids. So I really have to be very mindful, very aware, and really step back before you address a lie. Step back and say, "what is my child trying to tell me? What is this lie trying to tell me? What is the truth within this lie? What is happening That my child couldn't complete this task?"
Penny Williams (23:47): These are all really important questions for any behavior. Because when we dig to the why and we address the why, we change behavior. If we don't address the why, we don't change behavior, at least in the long term — if you punish a child for lying, then yes, they are going to be successful at not lying or not doing the thing that they were lying about. But that wears off. Why does it wear off? Because we didn't address why it's happening. So fear was controlling that behavior for a couple of days. And then it went back to your child's normal. It went back to, "I'm really struggling with this thing." And so it's creating these problems and creating this kind of perfect storm where I need to lie to my parents. Impulsivity too, for kids with ADHD, can play into lying. They're not even thinking before the lie comes out of their mouth, right? They instantly see, "Oh, this can be a problem for me." And so, immediately, it's, "I have to lie" and the lie comes out. There's no thinking — it's not even conscious behavior. It's that kids with ADHD have clinical level impulsivity.
Penny Williams (25:09): They are not thinking before they are acting until way into maturity, at least 10 years. For some kids, that's the twenties to start to be able to control that impulsivity a little bit. And so it really can play into lying because it just happens. They're so impulsive that it just comes out of their mouth before they even realize. And that is something that you also really have to be mindful of. Maybe your child just spews this lie really quickly when you call them out on something, take a breath for a minute, ask them to take a breath and think about it and then answer you again. Give them the opportunity to do the right thing. Don't trap them with that impulsivity — give them the opportunity to turn it around, think about it and answer again. And they may tell the lie again, for all of these myriad of reasons that we've talked about, but they may also take that second and think and go, "Oh yeah, that's not the truth."
Penny Williams (26:21): Or, "Oh, I would probably get in less trouble if I told the truth." They may change their story for the better if you give them the opportunity. The last reason that I want to talk about that causes kids with ADHD to often lie is shame and embarrassment — feeling embarrassed about something or avoiding embarrassment. Those are both really powerful motivators for kids. They may be ashamed that they can't perform on the same level as their peers, or they may wish to avoid public embarrassment, no matter what it takes, even lying. They want to avoid embarrassment. They want to especially avoid social embarrassment, being embarrassed around their peers, around their friends, around other students in their classes. And this will cause kids to lie, especially kids with ADHD, who, again, often have more instances of shame and embarrassment in their lives than their neurotypical peers. They get called out a lot at school.
Penny Williams (27:31): They get called out a lot at home. And these things cause embarrassment. I mean, think back to your own childhood, was there a time that you were called out in class? How did that feel? There are very few people who can really let that roll off and not get upset about it in one way or another. Many people will get upset internally and hold it in. And our kids just aren't great at holding in their emotions — they feel them bigger, more intensely, and they struggle with emotional language, emotional recognition, emotional regulation. And so that intensity can really intensify their view of a situation. So something that may not necessarily be embarrassing to one of their peers might really be embarrassing to them, much more so because they're feeling more intensely and they're more sensitive. So avoiding shame and embarrassment can be a big catalyst for lying from our kids.
Penny Williams (28:43): And again, all of this episode is about your awareness as a parent, being aware of the reasons that kids might lie and being able to tease out the truth of the lie. So, either the truth within what they've said, or the truth in how it felt to them, or the truth in the underlying reasons for the lie, those are the three areas where you need to be looking for that truth that's within the lie. And again, I want to stress to you, there's always some nugget of truth, even if it just says something about who your child is, what they're struggling with, what they fear, any of that, all of that is a truth within that surface behavior that is upsetting you, which is lying. And I challenge you to take that word out of your vocabulary for a while. Don't use the word lie or lying for a while when you're describing your child or their behavior. That's a mental shift that you can make so that you are better prepped to be looking for those truths and looking for those reasons why, and really work on your mindset about it.
Penny Williams (30:11): Stop thinking of lying as a character flaw. Yes, it's a problem that your child has today. It's a problem that your child's probably going to have tomorrow and maybe for a good bit of the future, but it doesn't have to be a problem that happens forever. And so often when we call our kids out for lying we're actually reinforcing that they want to lie to us. They want to just do better at it so that we don't realize, and we don't call them out. When we call them out for lying and they just get in trouble for that surface behavior of lying, that's actually fueling some of these reasons that we've gone over. It's fueling some of the reasons that they're lying to you in the first place. It's this vicious cycle that we need to stop. So I want you to really think about your mindset, your attitude towards lying, make some of these shifts in your perspective and your attitude and your approach in the way that you think about lying.
Penny Williams (31:13): And then start to look for these truths underneath. Keep in mind these reasons that this happens and you will find that it will get better. You're validating your child's feelings because you found the truth. The more you're working on the reasons that are triggering the lying, the better the lying is going to get. This is the way you improve it. Shaming your child for being a liar is not going to improve it. Punishing your child for every lie is not going to improve it. The only thing that's going to prevent or improve the lying is to address the truth in it and address the reason behind it. That's it! That is your task as the parent and that is the way that you can turn this around. I wrote once, a long time ago, many years ago for ADDitude Magazine, a piece on The Boy Who Cried Wolf, because that was my son.
Penny Williams (32:11): He was spinning all these tall tales because he was so uncomfortable and feeling so unsafe at school that he would tell any story to try to not have to go there. And this could be your child, too. It's just so almost rampant really within the ADHD population and kids, because they have all of these other factors that are feeding into the reasons why this lying behavior happens. So take that information and really be able to now improve that behavior. You can read the show notes for this episode at parentingadhdandautism.com/103 for episode 103. And I will see everyone on the next episode. Take good care. Thanks for joining me on the Parenting ADHD Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share, and don't forget to check out my online courses, parent coaching, and mama firstname.lastname@example.org.
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