Lying is a topic that I have been meaning to cover on this blog for sometime, but frankly every time I sit down to write it, I get frustrated and end up tucking it away for some other time. When I see an obvious lie on Facebook, Twitter or overhear someone lying I try not to react. Instead I wonder, what is behind this lie. What has happened that this person feels compelled to lie?
Almost every week, I get an email, phone call or facilitate a workshop/training where a foster parent or social worker tells a story about a youth in their care who has lied. Whenever they start the story, I can hear their frustration from their first words. When I let them go on, others usually join in with comments like “These kids have no respect and need to learn that they can’t lie” or something similar. I’ve learned over the years to let it go and let them talk. I’ve learned if I interrupt they will never hear the words of experience I have to share. I let them continue. Sometimes, it feels the story and examples of the lies will never end. I wait for that moment; where they take a breath while trying to find another example to point out to me.
Lying in its most general terms is defined as an intentionally false statement. Whenever a parent, social worker or advocate brings up the topic of lying, I try to be as direct as possible.
“How many of us have lied?”
You think everyone would raise his or her hands. It is usually only me and maybe one or two others. They all sit there, shaking their heads that they don’t lie. I switch to a different approach.
I ask, “How many of you where asked ‘how are you doing today?’ and answered with ‘fine’ knowing it was a lie?”
Generally, I get a few more hands. I give more examples. The truth is all of us lie about little things and big things all of the time. Sometimes when we lie it is a conditioned response, like answering, “I’m fine”.
All of us know we are lying, but we forgive ourselves and move on. So why then when a child lies about something do we take it so personally? Earlier I supplied the definition of lying as an intentional act. The argument could be made that answering, “I’m fine” isn’t intentional, but rather just good etiquette.
I propose we consider when a child is raised in dysfunctional and traumatic surroundings lying can become a way to stay safe. I can absolutely point to several instances throughout my own childhood that if I would have told the truth, I may not have survived. I can point to instances where I was coached and told by my parents that lying was essential to our well-being.
If my brain has developed in a way that makes it wired to believe that lying is essential for my survival, then why when I am removed from that situation wouldn’t I just stop? Simple, my brain hasn’t developed new pathways, and my brain hasn’t decided that you are a safe person.
Somewhere in the child welfare system, we have decided that a child should just “know” that when they are removed they are safe. But when I ask adults around the country how long it would take for them to feel comfortable if they went to live at a stranger’s house, the room usually goes silent. Trust doesn’t just happen, and new pathways in the brain have to be configured to overcome the previous trauma.
Instead of focusing on the lie, what if we step back and ask, “What’s behind the lie?” “Why would this person lie about this?” The reason behind the lie is much more important than the lie itself.
We need to ask ourselves, what does the lie provide? Is it tied to emotional or physical safety? Instead of focusing on the lie we need to focus on what in my support or care is missing. What am I missing?
When we remove a child from a home it is our job to first and foremost provide physical and emotional safety. When a child is removed, the State is telling that child that we can do better to keep them safe. It is not easy to provide emotional safety. It takes time and patience.
Shenandoah Chefalo is a former foster youth, and advocate. She is the author of the memoir, Garbage Bag Suitcase, and co-founder of Good Harbor Institute an organization focused on translating evidence based research on trauma into skills that can be used immediately by individuals and organizations. You can learn more about her and her work at www.garbagebagsuitcase.com or www.goodharborinst.com