When your Child Lies

As I often begin many articles, I state “this has been coming up in the Facebook group a lot lately.” And, it has. I’m going to try to present this issue (lying and ADHD or other disabilities) as succinctly and unbiased as possible. But, to be honest, it’s very triggering for me.

Because, you see, I am a liar.

sad child

Yes, you read that correctly. I lie. Or, used to. Quite often. And, it has taken me literally decades to overcome what was drilled into me as a child–that I am flawed. That my lying was a character flaw. It meant I was a bad kid.

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I felt terrible about lying. I knew I shouldn’t be doing it. I mean, we all know this, right?


“Honesty is the best policy!”

We’re flooded with quotes and proverbs about lying and honesty.

And, as a child who often fibbed, I was punished and told I was bad for lying. That sticks with you and is tough to shake.

People who lie are not to be trusted. They are manipulative, untrustworthy and probably do other bad things. Right? That’s what we are told. I mean, if your child lies, robbing banks and murder cannot be far behind. These are the messages we are told from society.

Our society loves to be all sanctimonious and judgy about lying. After all, only criminals and bad people lie. Good people are honest, they never lie. It’s mentioned many times in the Bible.

But, everyone lies. And the person who says “I don’t, I never lie” is lying. We all lie and to think otherwise, well, you’re not being honest with yourself (see what I did there?).

When we lie and to what extent varies. And the stakes. But we all do it.

But like most things in life, this can also be approached from a “When you know better, you do better.” And we know so much more about lying now, and what it means for kids with ADHD, autism, anxiety and more.

anxious teen worried about going to school

Lying is often self preservation. Or covering up a lacking skill set. Or it’s a processing issue. Or, all of the above.

Lying and Mental Health

While 2E kids certainly existed in the 70s and 80s (when I was growing up), the concept of them did not. And, if I was growing up today, I clearly would fit in that category.

But, that alone is not what led to my lying habits. For me, being raised by alcoholic parents, and therefore an enabler, family alcoholism is what got me started in lying.

See, if one of my parents knew the other was drinking, and if there were “incidents” that day, there’d be fighting. Small kids don’t like to watch their parents fight, so if asked, I’d lie. (Yes, it’s a really shitty thing to do to a kid–ask them to narc on the other about their drinking, but I digress.)

It was self preservation. If my Dad didn’t know my Mom was drinking that day, they wouldn’t fight. Once you learn (consciously or not) that lying leads to self preservation, you do it in other areas of your life too.

And, as a 2E child, that’s what I did.

Even though 2E didn’t exist when I was in elementary school, Adaptive Phys Ed did. And, I was in it. So I was the only girl in gifted, and in adaptive PE. If that doesn’t make up a 1970s nightmare social status, I don’t know what does. Nerdy smart and non-athletic.

So, I lied to get out of PE. All the time. I’d purposely wear shoes that were not permitted in PE. I’d feign illness. I’d inflate my numbers on the Presidential Physical Fitness test. Whatever it took.

Self preservation.

When my lies would be discovered, I’d be shamed.

tweet about autistics and lying

Lying and Disability

There is a ton of data starting to emerge about kids with ADHD and lying. But, surprisingly enough, there is no data to support that kids with autism or ADHD lie more frequently than there non-disabled peers.

A person with PTSD may feign illness. A person with anxiety may lie to avoid a social event or something else. There are many reasons for a person to lie, but more often than not it is a coping mechanism and not a direct personal attack on the person(s) being lied to.

And, as we are beginning to realize and acknowledge, sometimes when a child with ADHD or autism lies….they are not in fact, lying.

Remember, a person’s perception is their reality.

And we now know that not all kids have the same sensory or perceptive experiences. What I see, hear, touch and experience during the course of a day varies greatly from what my autistic son experiences. Or his brother.

I’ve mentioned the recent Sixers game we tried to attend with him. My non-disabled child loved it–loves basketball, loves all the noise and hoopla associated with an NBA game.

My autistic child literally became nauseous at the game due to his sensory overload.

If you asked each of them about the game, you’d get two very different responses. Does that mean that one of them in lying?

Not at all. They each processed that Saturday afternoon quite differently.

This often happens with our IEP students, but ableism and other factors give us bias. We tend to believe non-disabled students more, even though both may be communicating or verbalizing their lived experience.

Executive Functioning Deficits and Lying

And, this does not even take into account deficits in executive functioning skills. If a child truly does not remember something, as often happens when you lack working memory skills, does that mean they are lying about it not happening?

Again, a person’s perception is their reality.

Other reasons that EF deficits or ADHD characteristics may lead to lying include:

  • covering up an impulsive decision that resulted in an unwanted consequence (and they are internally vowing to do better next time and not let it happen again, trust me!)
  • forgetting what happened and lying to pretend like they remember
  • responding impulsively with a lie due to wanting to be a people pleaser
  • hiding a lack of understanding of something with a lie so as not to expose a skill deficit
  • answering questions incorrectly because they were distracted and not listening
  • telling white lies out of difficulty expressing themselves
  • impulsively making promises they can’t keep or exaggerating things because they feel inferior to peers
  • They may also lie to preserve their self-esteem or to be seen by adults or peers in a certain light as they seek social validation.
  • Kids with ADHD may lie to get out of tasks that they cannot do, they lack the skill sets.
  • Avoiding punishment or embarrassing situations
  • Getting out of an awkward social situation

Lying is often rooted in true struggle. And we, as adults in their lives, need to recognize this, acknowledge it and put them on a true path to success.

If you are lied to, as an adult in a child’s life, we must make the conscious decision to do self talk. “This was not done to purposely hurt/harm me, disrespect me, or otherwise with malice.” Because 99% of the time, it’s not.

You cannot punish a skill set into a child. I was caught in many lies. I was called all kinds of names by my stepmother and experienced being grounded, had all kinds of privileges taken away. Did it stop me from lying? Nope. Not one bit.

What is the Purpose of the Lying?

We’ve said it a zillion times as IEP people–every behavior has a function.

Lying is no different.
What is the function of they lying? You will only see progress in a child if you get to the core of the issue and set them up for success.

Addressing and Correcting the Lying Issue

If your child is lying at school (and I really should be using the term ‘perceived lying’ because if it’s a processing issue, it’s not a lie), there are some things you can do with your IEP team to correct this.

  1. First and foremost–stop treating this as a character flaw. Depending on the child’s age and development, lying is a normal part of growing up and testing boundaries. Most kids learn and grow out of this. But avoid attaching labels, anger and sadness to the lies. I find this is the hardest things for IEP teams to do, because our society has very strong messages about this. But to look at the issue objectively, it requires you to put your sanctimony on a shelf. I could rant about this all day, but I can’t stress it enough. If you treat it as “won’t” vs “can’t” you’ll never fix it.
  2. Collect data on the occurrences. There likely are common themes and situations. Every behavior has a function.
  3. Teach and accommodate the lacking skill sets. Sounds simple enough, but you’d be surprised at how often this doesn’t happen.
  4. Make the child feel safe and supported. If it is a processing issue, help them understand how or why they process information differently than others, and how that often leads to a different conclusion. Shaming a child for lying will only make the situation worse.
  5. Don’t take it personally. This one is hard too. But, when you look at lying as a coping mechanism rather than a personal attack or wanton disregard of your feelings and your authority as a teacher or parent, it really reframes things.
  6. DO NOT set the child up for failure. I see this one often. Creating fake scenarios, where the child will be ‘tested’ and then deemed successful or a failure based upon if they lie or not. Guess what? Self preservation will win every time. And shaming them for failing to tell the truth will only lead to more….self preservation.

Changing Mindsets about Lying

First, let me be clear. Honesty matters. The truth matters. We live in an age where our own legislators continually gaslight us about what is happening around us.

The truth does matter.

However, there is a difference between purposely ignoring the truth in order to achieve political or financial gain and self preservation of a child’s psyche.

We should all strive to communicate as honestly as possible. Of course the “Oh Aunt Edna, I love your fruitcake!” lies will always exist.

All lies serve a function. Preserving Aunt Edna’s feelings isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When a wife asks her husband “How does this dress look?” the smart husband will choose self-preservation every time.

But here’s the thing– very few children lie with the function of intentional deceit as malice. Yet, that is how it is treated, usually.

We need to recognize this, support our kids and help them grow and achieve skill sets.

I find that many parents accept this philosophy and get on board before school staff does. It’s tough. These are social mores that are ingrained in us from a very early age.

I mean, if you excuse one child’s lying….the school building burning down to the ground cannot be far behind. Or at least, that’s what we believe.

I’m not suggesting we excuse the lies. I am suggesting we get to the root of the behavior, and support the behavior, teach and accommodate the lack of skills…so that this undesirable behavior fades.

And, it will.

Kids do well when they can.

{this was originally published in 2013 and recently updated}

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