My 15-year old is always lying to me, I cannot trust a word that comes out of her mouth. She says she has no homework when she does. She says she is at her friend’s house when they were seen by my mother in town eating pizza. She says he’s not her boyfriend when I see them deeply entangled on the sunporch. She says she is telling me to trust about what she was doing at the mall, but then other adults contradict her, leading to yelling, tears and storming and slamming doors. I am at my wits end, and don’t feel I can leave her unsupervised.This is not how we have been raising her. Will I ever be able to trust her the way I did when she was that cute little girl that we adopted? -Fried Mom
Dear Fried Mom,
First off, sorry, but she will never be that cute little girl you adopted. That is okay. Besides, you adopted her to help her become that adult who is competent, successful, and a good parent. And never doubt that you are well on you way, just by noticing that she is not always being totally honest to you. That noticing tells me you are in-tune with her, and that is a good first step, since all issues with our children build upon our relationships to help them grow in a better direction.
Second, as with all issues with children who spent any time in foster care, there is usually an underlying reason for the lying. Because all lying is not the same, it is not always JUST about being dishonest. So fear not, this is probably not about the values you raised her with at all. Remember that when children experience early loss and trauma, even when they live in a wonderful house with fabulous parents and a tight-knit family, their “baby brains” retain this sense of needing to take care of themselves like they did early on, and that part of their brain holds on hard to the “survival behaviors” that it learned so long ago.
As part of normal development, children lie to avoid punishment, like when she tells you there is no homework because she forgot to bring it home, and knows you will take away her phone for not having it. Teens also lie to protect their parents from things they believe would be difficult to hear like the boy she is tangled up with is trying to figure out his sexual orientation and he trusts your teen to help him through this. They may avoid telling you things to not add to your stress. I mean, why bother you with a call home about going out for pizza with her friend, when she knows you are already dealing with a lot at home since dad is away working overtime to get money for a new roof and tires on the truck. Then, sometimes, adopted teens lie because that “baby brain” says, you got this, you don’t need another adult. You can figure out how to get those expensive jeans and what to tell the mall cop who catches you shoplifting. That is a survival behavior.
One good tactic is to remember that this could just be the teen exerting their independence, their attempt to show you they are grown up enough to manage both the lie and the consequences of it. Another tactic is to slow down the story, go back to the beginning with the teen, without judgement. What happened before that, and before that, and so on. Then gently ask them, not “why” but “what” led you to think that was the best choice? Or what else could they have done to solve this problem. If you can hear their thought process, you may be able to use your relationship to help them feel okay telling the truth to you, even when it will be hard to hear.
One final idea, especially when you clearly know the child is lying. Tell them to take a “redo”-give them another chance to tell the truth. Remind them that if they can tell the truth, any consequences will be less. A redo allows the two of you to attune-to and connect emotionally, then go back through the story in a way that avoids guilt. It also creates an opportunity to say; “thanks, I appreciate you being honest with me, I understand the situation better now, I know how hard it is for you to tell me this stuff, and I love you.” Do that often enough, you get the truth, even if it is hard to hear.