Children who come from hard places such as early trauma, abuse, and neglect, have different ways of responding behaviorally than children who were given a healthy start with a parent or caregiver who responded to their needs appropriately and consistently. When children who do not have an attentive, attuned parent or caregiver who, for example, does not respond when they cry as an infant or young child, who may leave them unattended in their crib, or unfed, unchanged, or physically or emotionally harm them, must learn to survive however they can. There are many unfortunate outcomes for these children from these adverse experiences as their brains develop pathways that are about simply surviving - however they can.
One of the outcomes that we sometimes see with children from ‘hard places’ is the tendency to tell untruths (I’m resistant to the word lying). In fact, one of the concerns I frequently hear at the counseling center is “Why does my child lie about things that are so obviously untrue?” Case in point, the four-year-old with frosting and cake crumbs all over their faces who deny taking that last piece of cake. It’s obvious. Everyone knows they aren’t telling the truth when they say they didn’t eat the cake. They know it too – but they are likely fearful that they will be in trouble and in the past, being in trouble could have meant terrible, terrible physical or emotional consequences. And for some children, their brains may have developed in a way as young infants and children to convince themselves that in fact, they were ok. They had to tell themselves they weren’t in danger. They had to believe someone would certainly come and care for them. They may have had to ‘lie’ to themselves as part of sheer survival.
When children engage in this ‘lying’ or telling things so obviously not true, we often will recommend the parent or caregiver take a deep breath and say something like, “I care about you too much to talk about this right now,” stated in a calm, matter of fact, gentle yet still firm, voice. “Let’s take a break, both of us calm ourselves down, and when we’re ready, let’s have a ‘redo’ on this one.” Redo, then, means, come back together when you’re both calm and ready to try again - and then they can practice what would have worked better in the first place - asking for that yummy and much sought after last piece of cake. The child may not be ready to tell you exactly what happened (remember, being in trouble in the past may have been very, very scary), but the important thing is that you regain connection, you show you are safe to always be honest with, and that you love and care for them, even when they take the last piece of cake without asking 😊.
Written by Deb Levenseller, Clinical Director at The Maine Children's Home for The Connected Community @ MCH.