What Can We Do About Lying?

Q.  What can we do about lying?

A.  Often a child’s lying, like cheating, shoplifting, stealing, evasion and many other ‘hiding’ behaviors, is rooted in a felt need to hide themselves.  From a sense of shame about their own worthiness, a child (or adult) might say if they could, “I’m not good enough to be known for who I really am, and that means my (new) parents would get rid of me if they really, truly knew how worthless I feel.  So eventually, when people really see me, then I will have to get my needs met by sneaking.  Under the table.  On the sly.  By hook or by crook.”

With adopted children, this can flow from a nagging fear that what happened once can always happen again — being “given away” because they were “not good enough to keep”.  So they are sure they must practice surviving on their own, under the radar, for when the nightmare of abandonment happens again.  With incest survivors, the unconscious need to hide ones identity from others can feel like life or death.

One time an adoptive mother with her own horrid childhood lied to me in session.  I had suggested some communication exercises for her family.  She replied, “Oh we do that all the time at home, let’s just move on.”

You do?

“Yeah, let’s just move on.”

I’m curious.  When do you do it?

“Well…..we really don’t, but I just told you we did so you’d move on to something else,” and she grinned like her teenager whom she complained was compulsively lying.

(From my perspective this was solid gold.)

“You lied to me!” I exclaimed in mock horror, opening my eyes wide.

“No, I didn’t,” she giggled.  “I told you the truth in the end.”  She was 46.

“You LIED to me!  And you ENJOYED it!!”  I played this like a hooked sailfish.

“No, come on, I didn’t LIE!”  (i.e., Finally someone caught me!)

“And now you’re lying about LYING to me!!  Like a TEENAGER!!  WHOA!!!”  At these words she collapsed into giggles.

This playful incident became part of our therapy history.  We referenced it many times as a crucial deepening of our therapeutic relationship: the day she was caught in a lie, but not shamed for it.

"NOW what?"

What would be an equivalent response to a child’s lying?

Dan Hughes once role-played a nice response during a training.  In the role-play he neither shamed the “child”, nor accepted the lie — he found a balance:  “Hey, you’re giving me baloney!  You got any cheese in there?  C’mon, hand it over!”

The message:  1. You’re trying to put one over on me….2. I won’t even PRETEND to buy it….3. And I sure like you!


This good message offers the child both a challenge to the lie (I’m not stupid) and face-saving through humor (I still like you).  We can use this formula with teens and adults as well.

An exception might be when the child is lying from within deep depression.  In children this can appear as fierce hostility.  “I never took anything!  (while hiding stolen item behind back.)  I hate you!  Get out of here!  You’re stupid!!”  At those times responding with playfulness will sound to them like sarcasm.  I will cover responding to depressive lying in another blog — it can require some reflection on our part to find the voice we (and they) need.


Give an example of an Ambivalently attached child

Sometimes children have grown up experiencing not total chaos, but a confusing combination of closeness mixed regularly with rejection or neglect.  “What happened to our good little girl?  Why are you acting like this?  Maybe you’re telling me you don’t want to live with us, is that it?  Is that the message I’m getting?  What is it you want!!??”  (Child hearing this may feel more and more desperate, as children are generally not able to understand or explain their various needs.)

The discouragement may eventually lead children to take charge in a desperate and disruptive manner.  They act out to force the parent to respond, to get mad, to stay close, to get something, to leave them alone, to not set limits, to never say No (or the child will quickly try to reject the parent before the parent rejects them, “I hate you!”)

To all appearances the child and parent are organized together by conflict.

“Anxious/Resistantly [the original name for Ambivalently] attached children under-regulate [themselves], heightening their expression of distress possibly in an effort to elicit the expectable response of the caregiver. There is a low threshold for [feeling] threat, and the child becomes preoccupied with having contact with the caregiver, but frustrated even when it is available (Sroufe, 1996).”

            –PeterFonagy (U.K.)

Example of a 12 year-old child with ambivalent attachment:

A single-father was arrested for drugs and sent to prison for a year.  Unfortunately he was the more functional parent, and his bright 12 y.o. daughter was left with her mother who ignored her daily.  The daughter tried to cope alone with powerful feelings of abandonment from both parents.  At the time of referral to me she could not tolerate allowing adults to be in charge.  She was in the special behavioral day school, and acting very badly.  Father arrived in session with an attitude assigned to him by his daughter – “The teachers have it in for her.  I know my girl would not say the things they tell me she says.”

As I met mostly with father, we worked on saving his bright daughter from further nosediving into residential placement.  Already she had daily out-of-control rages against authority figures.  I gave father tons of empathy and support for himself, then suggested father imagine parenting his bright daughter in such a way that she could eventually go to college.  Father soon reported a shift at home.

“Last week she was barfing in the middle of the night.  She told me she was putting her finger down her throat so she could skip school.  I suddenly stood up and told her, ‘Don’t do that anymore!  That’s not a good thing to do!’  And she stopped.

“Then last night I took the Playstation out of her bedroom and said it wasn’t going back until the homework was finally done.  At first she said she’d stick a knife in my heart if I didn’t put it back.  Then she threatened suicide.  Then she tried beating me up and pulling my hair.  Finally she broke down and sobbed and asked me to get her up early to do the homework.  I left the Playstation out of her room and we both got up early to help her finish the homework.  It only took 20 minutes – she amazed me!”

Naturally the daughter resisted father’s stepping up to the plate and taking charge as the parent, but she also welcomed it.  Children deeply need a safe adult to be in charge.  As things gradually turned the corner, father reflected, “I’m not as bad a parent as I thought.  But I have to deal with more than ordinary parents do.  I don’t know why sometimes I have more authority than other times.”


Why does my child have a fit over little things?

Q.  My child tries to control everything and everybody.  Her demands and rages absorb every bit of patience and compassion in the house, and still she wants more.  She’ll act out to keep us paying attention to her.  Any ideas?

Robert signs the Bean Seed book at ATTACH conference

Book signing for The Bean Seed

A.  This is not easy.  These “ambivalent attachment style” children, who create drama and burn out the patience of everyone around them, are usually desperate to stay in your thoughts.  The quickest way to do that is to break things — rules, pets, objects, people.  Because if they are not in your thoughts, as Kevin Creedin points out, they are afraid they will disappear.  Each of us would do anything in the world to keep from disappearing.

With ambivalently attached children especially, you will end each day exhausted — your real choice is whether you want to be exhausted from trying to respond all day to your child’s lead, or be exhausted from planning and consulting in advance, staying four steps ahead of their desperation, and being proactive.  That is actually  the easier and more therapeutic way to end up exhausted.

Try delivering good times in combination with No.

“I’m so happy when we are snuggling like this.  And you know when you knocked your sister over yesterday?  That’s the last time.  I expect you to change, and I will help you change.  That’s what adults do for kids — did you know that?  Our job is to recognize when you are stuck feeling little, and then we help you with that stuckness.

“So you have work to do, and I’ll coach you and provide consequences later and also some help giving repairs to people.  I might yell at you if you break the rule again, and I still won’t swear or call you names.  I might yell because I pay attention now, and I care about how you’re doing.  I want to feel so close to you.”


“This attachment stuff is important for everybody, but it never gets examined until it breaks down.”

— single father, librarian