Q: My 6-year-old daughter lies a lot. She has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and a pretty intense personality, so she pushes buttons and gets in trouble a lot. She will often deny things, throw her siblings under the bus or just make up completely false stories to avoid the negative repercussions of her actions. How can we help her realize that she’s only making things worse by lying about them? (It really pushes my husband’s buttons!) If I am calm and ask a couple times, I can usually get the truth out of her, but I don’t want to always ask three times to get a truthful answer from her.
A: I have written a couple of columns about children and lying, but this one piqued my interest because of your daughter’s ADHD and “intense personality.”
Lying frustrates many a parent. It is extremely aggravating to know that your child is not telling you the truth, and the more you push and dig, the worse the lying gets. Let’s take a look at lying and how your daughter’s young brain is affecting it.
Children lie because they sense that if they tell the truth, they will get in trouble. And if they get in trouble, you will go away. I can hear you scoffing, “What do you think, Meghan? I am going to leave my child at the local fire station for lying about fighting with a sibling?” No. I don’t think that. But when we give children angry eyes, punish them, put them in a timeout or send them to their room, the alarm in their brain goes wild. Wild.
That’s because the primary need of all children is to feel close to their parents. When they are babies, it is literal physical closeness that is required. As they get older, this closeness becomes more emotional. So, when your daughter has done something “bad,” her brain flies into action. “What can I do to make Mommy and Daddy not mad at me?” And because her brain is young, it creates a lie. A lie that doesn’t even make sense. Her brain is doing anything to escape feeling separated from you. The brain thinks it is helping her (even when it isn’t).
In neurotypical children, lying appears in 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds, and if the child is not punished for it, it will usually go away on its own. But having an ADHD child who is also intense changes everything. Your ADHD child is facing some challenges that are resulting in more misbehavior and more lying, and we can help her with this.
By virtue of her brain feeling more (the intensity) and her impulse issues (ADHD), your daughter is going to walk into trouble over and over. Her prefrontal cortex (pretty immature in even the average 6-year-old) is overloaded with sensory information. Before her brain can even sort through consequences, empathy and compassion, her body has acted. The train has left the station.
An ADHD expert once told me that the ADHD brain is like having a bucket for information (like every other person), except the ADHD brain bucket has larger holes at the bottom. All of the good consequences and adaption are not absorbed into the brain. Essentially, the child is not learning from her experiences.
To make all of this even more fraught, she may be sensitive. This means that even as she walks easily into trouble because of executive functioning issues, she also feels that the family is “against her” (even if you are trying to be kind and compassionate). Being intense or sensitive means that your brain will often guard you against feelings that are too painful, and sensitive children appear to not “learn their lessons” as other children do. Is she sensitive because she has ADHD? I don’t know, but I am guessing that her brain is also quickly alarmed by even the smallest negativity.
Here are my recommendations:
1. Let’s no longer label her as a “button-pusher.” Her misbehavior is not intentional. Additionally, it makes you angrier with her because you keep waiting for her to just “stop it,” but she needs your help. Write this on a note and stick it up: She is not misbehaving and lying intentionally.
2. Let’s also release the idea that she is lying to manipulate you. The lying is a function of her brain defending herself from vulnerability and pain. She is not trying to hurt you. She is not throwing “anyone under the bus.” View her as a child who is doing the best she can. This will help you to find your empathy and compassion for her.
3. Stop asking her to lie to you. If you know what happened (between siblings), don’t ask about the details. And even if you don’t know what happened, don’t ask about the details. The details will just lead to lies. If you know she did something wrong, don’t ask “why” questions about it. Just move the moment forward.
4. Intervene before she finds herself in a mess. If you know she is struggling with her siblings, you have to help her navigate more. This may mean she needs more supervised activities, more time with you, less independence around other family members. This will proactively help her not steer right into disaster.
5. Remove the negative repercussions for her actions. Yes, this will make your head spin, but I think you and I both know it is making everything worse. If the punishments worked, you wouldn’t be writing. She needs help. She needs compassion. Yes, you have to lead her away from the fray, and yes, you have to protect life, limb and home. But punishment increases separation, which increases her alarm, which increases her lying, and then everything is a mess. And it goes on and on.
6. Find an ADHD expert and get help. You and your husband are raising a child who can make you very, very tired and very, very frustrated. There are wonderful and specific techniques that will help you raise your daughter, as well as help the entire family. To begin, pick up some good books. I especially like Edward Hallowell’s work and his book “Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping With Attention Deficit Disorder.” He emphasizes the strengths of a child with ADD or ADHD and concentrates on growing those strengths, rather then just trying to lessen the more annoying behaviors. Also, look into support groups with other parents of ADHD children. It will help to not feel alone in your struggles, and it will give you a safe place to vent your feelings without feeling judged.
Please know that as difficult as this is right now, it can get better. Get the support you deserve.