When Children Lie

Children tell lies. Sometimes they tell them in an attempt to get something they want; sometimes it’s an attempt to boost their sense of self. Most often they tell them to avoid getting into trouble. But they lie not just as an attempt to avoid the consequences. Admitting we’ve done wrong involves emotional flooding, and that is, I believe, the core issue.

The Hare and the Owl both woke up grumpy this morning. They were in that irritable state, where they just had to needle each other. Soon there were tears (mostly the Owl) and angry voices (mostly the Hare). Then I was faced with a dilemma. Someone had pushed over the Hare’s new bike, which is currently parked in his bedroom (long story). Both boys went immediately into their core stress reaction: the Hare tried to intimidate me; the Owl became stubborn and refused to interact. (Butterflies would try the cuteness button – baby-talk, pouting etc; Tortoises would just tell us what they thought we wanted to hear, whether it was true or not.)

I didn’t see the incident and those are always the trickiest to sort out, and I did want to sort it out – otherwise, I knew, the day would spiral downward into complete chaos. The Owl was the most entrenched, which told me he was probably the one in the wrong. So, I held him in a Boring Cuddle (Quick Way to Stop Children Fussing.) and made soft eye-contact with the Hare over the Owl’s shoulder. That immediately diffused the Hare’s anger and gave me space to speak with the Owl. 

Like all Owls, when ours gets into his stubborn mode, his body language shuts down – it can be pretty well impossible to get to the bottom of things. So, still holding him, I asked him if, “he’d made a mistake?” That didn’t work. “Did you push over his bike?” Then we got a stage one confession: “He told me to…” Now both of our eldest children are pretty creative at getting the other into trouble. This was a perfectly feasible explanation. So I gave him room to disengage. Direct attention is an Owl’s worst nightmare. The Hare then had a chance to tell me his side of the story. By the end of his explanation, I was convinced that his story was the correct one.

Then, with the Owl, I tried, “Things are wrong between us, and I want to make them right.” Still no confession. I attempted another Boring Cuddle and was pushed away. I began to carry him to his room. He began to sob, “I need a cuddle, Mum,” he said.  Eventually I asked, “Were you just cross and pushed it over?” and he replied with a very small nod of the head.

We then had about half an hour of emotional diffusion and reconnection behaviours: him rushing about like a mad thing; hanging off my body; wanting help when he didn’t really need it etc.  Then: calm and co-operative play.

When children with even adequate parents do something wrong, they experience shame. This is a form of emotional flooding, where their whole being is drenched with uncomfortable sensations. Because shame feels horrible, they immediately move into their core stress reaction. This stops them feeling the full brunt of the shameful feelings, but the adrenalin etc are still present. By confessing, they relive the situation in their imagination (however fleetingly) and for some reason, their brains then releases the lock it has over the sense of shame. If the children feel safe, the shame swamps them for a second, maybe less, and then all the stress hormones can be released. The silly behaviours afterwards are a way of getting rid of those stress hormones and reconnecting with us. If we indulge the child’s need to emotionally reconnect, and give them room to be physical, the silly behaviours soon disappear.

All children lie. It doesn’t mean they’re all going to turn into sociopaths. But, if we want emotionally intelligent children, they need to be able to manage all of their big emotions including shame. Confession is a great opportunity to practise. Besides, apart from white lies which protect another’s feelings: I believe lying is, quite simply, not OK.

(Should you find this article useful, Koha is accepted, $1 is fine. The button is under my blog-roll. :))

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About Karyn @ kloppenmum

kloppenmum is me, Karyn Van Der Zwet, mother of three and ex-teacher. I'm part of a revolution in parenting, with the aim to raise mature (not sophisticated) and self-assured children. I also know some stuff about adults. I have also had articles printed in The Journal for The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Children and Young People) and the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness, as well I regularly write for World Moms Blog (named as one of the Forbes 100 most useful blogs for women 2012 &2013). You can follow me on facebook (kloppenmum) pinterest (Karyn at Kloppenmum) and twitter (@kloppenmum). I'm also vaguely on LinkedIn (Karyn Van Der Zwet). Thanks to Joe (Mr Hare) for taking the photo. Cheers, son: xxxx.
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14 Responses to When Children Lie

  1. lindsay says:

    hello! found your blog through nathan’s, a beautiful place in the world. wow. another amazing resource. i’ve done a bit of peeking around and love your “tortoise”, “hare”, and “butterfly”. tell me more! are these your labels, or is there a book i must buy IMMEDIATELY?!?!?! i am also a recovering teacher and mother of 3. my oldest (a boy) is becoming an increasingly challenging and unhappy (i believe) child, and i worry constantly that i am alienating him. he’s very bright, very sensitive, and becomes easily angry, rude, and dominating. i know i am just missing what he needs, and it breaks my heart.

    • kloppenmum says:

      I had intended a book, and that might still happen, but at the moment just the blog. Next year a website with more information rather than anecdotes is planned. For now: yes, the Hare, Butterfly, Owl and Tortoise are my take on the temperament we are born with.
      It’s difficult when we see our children are sad and angry and we don’t know what to do about it…Have you had a looked at my post on ‘overwhelmed children and stress reactions’ – there might be something there for you to start with. I am intending to post every couple of days so pop back, and if there’s anything in particular you think I can help with just ask. Thanks for your support.

  2. Loi says:

    Beautifully said! Well done on how you reacted! I always need to remind myself of the need to keep calm and have now successfully tried your Boring Cuddles (thank you!). Did you read about how kids who lie are actually more intelligent – although I too don’t agree that it’s acceptable behaviour.

    • kloppenmum says:

      Hi Loi, and thanks for commenting. I’m pleased that you have had a go at Boring Cuddles so many people think….that couldn’t work…so never give them a decent try. Yes, I had heard that children who lie well are meant to be intelligent (better able to manipulate information etc). As for my sense of calm throughout – I was having a good day…calm is not (sadly) always so easy for me.

  3. You must be a great mom and a very nice person. The inspiration mothers need to remain calm. And yes lying is not ok and I’m sure you’ll have no problem with that in the future.

    • kloppenmum says:

      I don’t know about being great (or nice!), but I do my best and am happy to share from my mistakes. The lying will probably be an ongoing process…children!!

  4. Kloppenmum- i am so glad i found you. Every post i read of yours- excites me…. it makes me want to go out and show the world, well done!!! You are going to have your work cut out for you next year!!!

    • kloppenmum says:

      mynakedbokkie…that does sound rather personal…any way I am pleased that you are enjoying the posts, and yes please do spread the word. I believe I might be on to something, and I just love it when people understand where I’m coming from. I already planned to work hard next year…oh my.

  5. faemom says:

    I just can’t stand lying. I want the truth. I want to trust my boys. I’m going to have to try and work at confessing with Evan. Maybe that would work.

    • kloppenmum says:

      I found it really useful to understand that lying was something that all children do, and it is meant to be a sign of intelligence…however, I do work hard at getting to the bottom of things – and not always this calmly, I have to say. The thought of having deceitful teenagers worries me a bit and I’d love to avoid as much of that as possible (for their safety as much as anything), but in the end, all we can do, is all we can do.

  6. Shame in children is such an interesting topic to me. There are those who believe that a child should never feel ashamed about anything they do because it would damage their self esteem. I think this is such a strange idea. Adults feel shame. Why should children not do so? Shame is a normal and appropriate feeling when one has done something wrong. It is something to process, something to learn from, just as the other feelings are.
    Helping our children learn how to recognize and process their own feelings is one of the most important things we can do for them.

    • kloppenmum says:

      I agree. It’s the ability to process all our emotions, which is important. Ignoring them or trying to suppress them just makes them fester. However, it is a problem when adults use shame as a discipline tool. In this way shame is not useful.
      Thanks for commenting.

  7. Lisa Whisnant says:

    Wonderful way to handle this situation!! I only wish that when my first 3 children were young I would have known how to handle things like this in this loving manner. I am curious to know if you think any punishment is necessary when children lie. And if so, what would you think appropriate and effective. Thank you for blogs! They are a plethora of gems for sure!

    • Hi again,
      So great to have lots of comments from you! I don’t think ‘punishment’ as such is very useful – fullstop, however appropriate consequences which are as closely related to the issue as possible can be very useful for children older than six. Sometimes just a small time of Mindful Disconnection (in the boundary setting category) is helpful – particularly with the younger ones. I really do think that the actual confessing and having to emotionally relive something that they *know* they shouldn’t do is often enough. I’ll think about this some more and get back to you. (Remind me if I don’t. :))

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