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.
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