Lying is a tough behavior to deal with as a caretaker and can make difficult situations worse. When we get lied to we can take it personally and use it as an excuse to make the issue bigger and deal out a bigger punishment. Even though we know this doesn’t help, we rationalize that the child will learn from the lying and we won’t have to worry about it in the future. We are only lying to ourselves if we don’t understand the why behind the lie and help the child with the root cause instead of just punishing them for the symptom.
Kids in foster care come from a wide range of previous parental situations so we need to think about what their past experiences were and how those factor into how they process their emotions and what they think are normal behaviors. There are a couple of common reasons for kids to lie and each can be addressed differently to help them build better coping mechanisms and behaviors in the future.
Getting Out Of Trouble
Nobody wants to disappoint or get in trouble so telling a lie can sometimes be an easy way out. Foster kids might have had less parental oversight in their previous homes which makes it easy to get away with lying and it can be a tough adjustment to start telling the truth overnight. Some common areas you may encounter lying is when you ask if they have done chores or schoolwork. If the child doesn’t want to brush their teeth or do their homework project they can just say they already did so they can get back to talking with friends or playing video games.
How to correct: The best thing to do is avoid setting the child up to lie. If you know they haven’t cleaned up their room then don’t ask “did you clean up your room” and instead ask “can you go clean your room”. This sounds minor and the child can still lie and say they already did but it changes the conversation enough that they will do the action instead of lying about having done it. The more you can avoid giving them an option to lie you can eliminate these conflicts and keep your relationship built on trust.
Another practice is to let them know what you know before addressing them. For example: “I see you still have a math and an english assignment to do tonight, can you do those after dinner? I can help with any questions you have” in place of “have you done your homework yet?”. This way they will know they don’t have the option to lie.
Because we lack a detailed history of our foster kids’ lives, they are aware that they can make up stories to draw attention. These can be sad stories for sympathy or stories about impressive feats or one-in-a-million situations. Depending on your relationship with the bio-family it can be hard to ground what is true or not and at times we have to assume positive intent but when this behavior is used often or if the child is clearly making up stories we need to help them understand what is acceptable.
I once had an elementary aged foster child tell me a story that they claimed happened to them a couple years ago. But the exact story was mine and I told them about it THE DAY PRIOR… so that was a pretty easy lie to detect…
How to correct: One easy tip (especially if you can’t prove they are lying) is to downplay the story. Don’t make a big deal about the time they “got to sit in the Oval Office and have coffee with the president” when you know they’ve never been to D.C. Instead be engaged and interested when they tell you true stories about their day. This way they will stop seeing lies as a way to get attention.
When its necessary to manage the behavior further, don’t call them out directly as a liar but ask them if they got confused and are remembering something from a movie or book or even a dream. If your child likes to be goofy and entertain others you can also ask if their story is meant as a joke. This can give them an opening to admit it wasn’t true in a safe way.
From there you can have a light conversation about how it’s easy to sometimes mix things up but if you are telling a story you saw or heard to make sure you are clear that it didn’t happen to you so nobody gets confused.
Lying to Themselves / Embarassed
Some truths that our kids live with can be really heavy burdens to carry. Being in foster care alone can be ostracizing but depending on what they have experience in the past or how their peers or other adults have treated them their shame and guilt can make them want to deny things. You might hear the kids downplay how their parents are doing or lie about the reason they are living with you.
They may tell you that one of their parents is really involved in their life when really that person has been out of the picture for years. The child just wants others to see them as worthy of being loved.
How to correct: Let them know they have nothing to be embarrassed about. Be a safe space for them and work with their caseworker to find an appropriate resource that can help them process their feelings. A therapist and/or bio-family member can play a big role in helping them feel more comfortable with their situation.
You (or if there is another adult in their life that plays a mentor role) can also share parts of your life with them that aren’t perfect and places you’ve struggled with your self esteem. Showing them your flaws normalizes these emotions and they won’t feel that they need to hide from their past.
Lying feels Normal
Sometimes the answer for them lying is actually really easy: they think this isn’t a big deal. They might not have had adults who set a positive example telling the truth or correcting the child when the child lied in the past. They can get accustomed to lying out of nature as an easier way to get by and not understand the negative side.
How to correct: Without overemphasizing that they did something wrong, verify that they know what they said was not true. Don’t challenge them and be as positive and as open as possible so they aren’t threatened and double down on what they said. You can even start the conversation by saying you aren’t mad and they aren’t in trouble. Once they confirm, have a discussion about the importance of honesty and how in the future they will need to be honest with you and others. Don’t punish them this time but set an expectation that in the future there would be consequences. It’s also very important that you tell them YOU will tell the truth to THEM and they can trust you. Living out the example (even when it is hard to do) will help them understand the importance and build the trust they have in others.
No matter why your child is lying, remember to have patience and forgiveness with them. They aren’t going to change overnight so be ready to continue helping them learn the importance of telling the truth. If you have tips to help with lying please let us know in the comments!