When I was fourteen, my mom called me outside on a lovely spring afternoon. She walked me over to the fence. “Can you explain this, please?” she asked, gesturing at the extinguished cigarette butts that covered the grass underneath my bedroom window.
Engage panic mode.
“I don’t know… Weird,” I said, a bit shaky, with a voice that lacked my usual surety.
My mom looked at me, steady. “Pick them up.”
While I cleaned up the mess I’d so obviously created, my mind clamored for an explanation that would take the blame off me. And then I remembered something.
I finished my task and went inside to find my mom sitting in the kitchen. “Hey, remember how we’ve seen Jordan and his friends walk through here sometimes? I’ll bet they are the ones who made that mess.”
My mom laughed. “I think it was you. You’ve been smoking outside your window!”
“No! No, I don’t do that!” I tried to muster up all the indignation I could find within myself. “It was those boys!”
Now I’m 100% certain my mom knew I was lying. Of course she did… How could she not?! But this lie was just plausible enough to introduce reasonable doubt. Those boys had walked that way while they smoked their cigarettes. Maybe they did smoke dozens of cigarettes and throw them out under my window… I mean, that was certainly possible, right?!
So there we were. I’d been confronted with the stinky mountain of evidence I’d flicked out my window, but I refused to admit guilt. Instead of coming clean and accepting the consequences of my silly teenage actions, I deflected the blame onto others, and I stuck to that lie for years. I’ve even lied about this incident as an adult! In fact, I’ve never come clean to my mom about this (and I’m 31 years old!).
Until now… Because my mom reads my blog (sorry, Mom!).
“Crazy lying” or “lying about the obvious” is one of the top behaviors associated with RAD and other early-childhood-trauma-related disorders. When you encounter this behavior, it seems so ridiculous and hard to understand, but it’s not. I mean, haven’t you ever done something so wrong that you genuinely feared the consequences of admitting your guilt when a loved one confronted you about your behavior?
I don’t know why I felt the need to lie to my mom like that… She is wonderful, was never abusive, and never over-the-top in her punishments. Perhaps I worried she’d start snooping through my room (plausible). Maybe I thought she would take away my privacy until I no longer had an opportunity to smoke behind her back (less plausible). I had a healthy relationship with her and felt awful if I let her down or made her angry, so maybe I lied to avoid that. I can’t remember why I lied, but I did. I nailed that lie to my tongue so hard that it stayed there for over a decade.
Kids (and adults!) lie to protect themselves… Lies allow us to avoid punishment, to spare the feelings of others, to avoid breaks in attached relationships, and even to keep something we want or need. And nearly everyone lies every once in a while.
Crazy lying, or normal childhood behavior?! You decide!
But “normal lying” and “crazy lying” are two completely different animals. Whereas I would have come clean had my mom shown me irrefutable evidence that I had been smoking, a child engaging in “crazy lying” would not admit such a thing even with photographic evidence. Where I tried to cover up my new disgusting habit by throwing my cigarette butts out the window, a child engaging in “crazy lying” would throw the evidence directly in the path of their caregiver, essentially “asking” to be caught. I lied with a purpose… I wanted to keep smoking without pesky ol’ Mom getting on my case about it! A child with trauma issues who lies about the obvious will lie for absolutely no reason… In fact, they may come up with a lie, seek you out, and start a conversation with a lie that causes you to investigate their claim only to find more “negative behaviors” that you never would have uncovered had the child just kept her mouth shut (Middle loves to do this)!
When kids with traumatic pasts get caught up in a lie, they have very little motivation to tell the truth. Their early-life experiences taught them that any misdeed could be met with swift and severe punishment. They learn that lying about their wrongdoings at least offers them a chance at avoiding harsh consequences. Those lessons, repeated often enough at an early enough age, forms their worldview. With that in mind, are we really surprised when they arrive in a new home and start lying about anything and everything that could be connected to something they did wrong?
There are more differences. Kids who engage in “crazy lying” will seek you out just to lie to you.
In my example, I didn’t initiate the conflict over the pile of discarded cigarette ends… I didn’t walk up to her and casually mention, “Hey, there are a ton of cigarette butts outside our window and I have no idea how they got there.” Because that would be ridiculous. Telling my mom to take a look at the mess I’d created would have been asking to get caught. What kind of teenager would do such a thing?!
Well… a child with trauma issues will likely do many such things. But why?
Perhaps they engage int his behavior to intentionally disrupt harmony so that they are in control their caregivers discovering their wrongdoings. Perhaps kids with trauma issues believe getting caught on their own terms beats responding to a conflict that someone thrust upon them unexpectedly.
I’ve mentioned that I noticed something was slightly askew with Middle almost as soon as I met her, but Husband didn’t really catch on to her disordered mental organization until the first time she turned her tendency to “lie about the obvious” toward him (I’d been experiencing it from day one, but it took about a month for her to start in on her dad… and I didn’t mention it because I felt like I was losing my mind and reading too much into the behavior of a precocious little girl who’d experienced more trauma in her four years than I had in my entire life).
I was cleaning the room Middle shared with Little when I noticed she had written some letters on the wall. Little hadn’t learned to write yet, and I recognized Oldest’s handwriting. I knew who had written the letters without a doubt.
No big deal, I thought. I’ll just have her clean the wall and we’ll be done with it. I called her in. “Middle, what happened here?”
She started smiling. “I don’t know!” she shouted.
“I think you do. Want to tell me about it?”
“I don’t knowwwwww!” she wailed, suddenly sobbing while simultaneously smiling.
Husband entered the room, concerned. “What?!” he asked.
“Someone wrote on the wall. It’s not a big deal, it’ll wipe off! But I want Middle to talk to me about it.”
Husband looked at the writing. “Middle, why did you write on the wall?”
“I didn’t!” she cried.
“Middle. All that is going to happen is that you’ll have to wipe it off.” He got a towel. “Here,” he said, handing her a towel. “Now, why did you write on the wall?”
Middle threw down the towel and just howled. After
eighteen years in which we all lost our hearing from the screaming a minute or two, she stopped suddenly and suggested, “Maybe it was Little!”
Husband pulled Little in and asked him to write the letters that were up on the wall on a piece of paper. When he failed to write anything that came close to a legible letter, Husband looked at Middle pointedly. “Little did this?” he asked.
“Yes!” Middle grabbed the pen and paper and sat down next to her brother. “Hey, Little, like this… This is what you did!” She then wrote the letters out on the paper for him!!!
“You know, whoever did it will have a consequence. Are you okay with Little having to take the consequence?”
“Yes, because he did it!”
“Middle, that is enough. Little did not write these letters on the wall.” Husband held the piece of paper up to the wall, comparing handwriting samples (CSI here we come!).
“Then it was oldest!” she screamed. Husband repeated the process with Oldest.
Now, this was before we knew about therapeutic parenting. This was before we switched from the ways we’d been raised… My go-to used to be to speak with a progressively harsher tone and if that failed I would send the kids to their room; Husband used to spank the kids. So when Middle went on for hours, even after we told her it didn’t matter and to let it go, Husband had popped her on the behind and we were both yelling. By the end of the night, we were all exhausted and traumatized. Trying to get her to tell the truth using harsh discipline methods only forced her to cling to that lie with a death grip.
Let me tell you… We handled that lie poorly. And before we learned our “new” way of parenting, we mishandled many, many other lies and misbehaviors… We once spent a week forcing her to sit at the kitchen table every day after school for hours because she kept insisting she didn’t know how to read the word “of.” EVEN AFTER SHE’D JUST READ IT, EVEN AFTER WE’D JUST SOUNDED IT OUT TOGETHER, EVEN AFTER I FREAKING TOLD HER THE WORD. That, my friends, is a “crazy lie.”
We handled the lying poorly because it showed us how her brain works differently than anything Husband and I had ever seen before, and those differences can be incredibly scary. Kids diagnosed with RAD don’t usually have a very good prognosis, and sometimes we overreact to our own fear when we interact with our kids. We were–we are–scared for Middle and Little in a way we are not for Oldest (I am certainly apprehensive for her as most parents are when they think of their kids’ futures, and I’m probably more nervous for her future with her genetic disorder delaying her development, but I’m not worrying about her capacity to empathize or her ability to connect behaviors with consequences like I’m worried for Middle and Little… But I digress).
We let our own fears overtake us when our traumatized kids confront us with a “crazy lie.” And during the “writing on the wall” fiasco, Middle really punched Husband’s fear for their mental health on the nose because, at one point, she shouted at him, “It’s not a lie in my head!” That caused Husband to completely lose it. There is a history of mental illness in his family, and the kids’ biological mother’s history and family. Her claiming that her lie was actually true unsettled him to the point he began shaking, full of anxiety, wondering what, exactly, she meant by that. Would she be able to surpass her trauma and become a healthy adult? Or had she already built an alternate reality to live in instead of “the real world” and run into all sorts of terrible problems that we can’t solve for her?
Bottom line: When our traumatized child gets stuck in a lie and can’t bring herself to tell the truth, even if we swear up and down that she won’t get in trouble for the action we want her to discuss with us, NOTHING makes her tell the truth about what had happened until she feels like it. Same goes for Little. And the more we try to push them into opening up to us, especially if we employ punitive methods in an attempt to get the truth, the more they lock themselves up. That’s a dangerous road to travel down with any child, but it’s especially dangerous for kids with traumatic histories. Traditional discipline strategies of punishment won’t work, and ignoring the lie won’t really work either, because they won’t let us ignore their lie. We also need the kids to open up to us, to give us a chance to prove we won’t hurt them for something like writing on the wall or destroying the desk or ripping holes in clothing or hurting the cat or hiding the laptop or hoarding the Halloween candy or lying about their academic abilities (all things that have been lied about with gusto in my house). If we use traditional punishments like yelling and spanking, so similar to the punishments that escalated to verbal or even physical abuse in their early lives, we’re just triggering them. And triggering hurts them, and proves to them that we are lying when we promise that we won’t cause them pain and distress.
So. What do we do?
I’ll cover that in my next blog.