CETC [Lying as a trauma-based behaviour]-blog--feature-image

Fight, flight, freeze, and fibbing: Lying as a trauma-based behaviour

Dec 2022

Written by Noel Macnamara

In almost every session I have run for foster and kinship carers, someone tells a story about a child or young person in their care who regularly lies. I can feel their frustration at the frequency and intensity of lying they get from their children. Other carers will usually join in with comments like, “these kids need to learn that they can’t lie their way out of trouble in life.”

Do you ever hear yourself saying these things?

 

  • “Why did you lie about that? It wasn’t even important.”
  • “You’ll be in less trouble if you tell the truth.”
  • “Do you know the story of the boy who cried wolf?”
  • What do you expect me to say when you lie so much? I don’t know when to believe you.” 

All these little sayings may feel true, but they don’t seem to help, and they certainly don’t put an end to the lying. Punishing will also not get you the results you want from caring for a child who has had adverse experiences. It can, in fact, encourage more lying.

What if the child or young person’s lying is not evidence of a character flaw or disrespect? What if his/her lies are actually a self-preservation strategy rooted in trauma? This is the premise behind a theory that is giving caregivers a neurological lens through which to view lies.

As the human brain has evolved, it has developed a self-protective mechanism designed to ensure survival in times of extreme danger or stress. Faced with a threat, the brain must react in a split second; deciding how to best protect itself is an instantaneous reaction. This is widely referred to as the “fight, flight, or freeze” response.

There is a fourth “F” that manifests in times of real or perceived danger (remember that safety and danger is all about perception) for children and young people: “speak before thinking”, fibs. Fear of danger (perceived or real), causes the brain to have a stress reaction, which leads the child to protect themselves by telling the lie. So, can you understand why a child with a trauma history might be prone to lying? The child isn’t trying to be manipulative or defiant. The lying is a result of fear.

Let’s look into this issue a little deeper

Behaviours that challenge

The  limbic region of the brain processes an immense variety of information from myriad sources. It senses the presence of danger, assesses threats, and activates defence. These limbic structures are ready to respond to threats.

By activating the sympathetic nervous system, which is in contact with the brainstem and cerebellum, a person is “chemically fuelled” by the provision of adrenaline being released into the body. This adrenaline, in turn, triggers the decision to fight (attack and defend), flight (to flee), or freeze (play dead). Meanwhile, the body is flooded with the stress hormone, cortisol.

Neuroscience research continues to evolve and encourages us to study the development of the neocortex (the outermost layer of the brain), which is an additional avenue for processing thoughts and a new line of self-defence achieved through language. With complex and advanced language (not available to our primitive ancestors), we can verbalise both factual and/or fictitious reasoning instantaneously at point of performance, most notably in times of stress and threat.

Remember that there is always a reason for behaviour. The ‘fibbing’ mechanism protects the child in a number of ways:

  • Protection: Temporary protection from carer’s anger and the anticipated consequence.
  • Extension: This may be caused by a desire to “buy some time” in the momentary absence of information, or information that is not acceptable to the person that is perceived as a threat. This provides the one who fibs with an extension of available processing or thinking time. The consequence of the fib is not planned for.
  • Self-preservation: Preserving self-esteem and self-efficacy, avoiding the shame of “failure” that comes from resorting to trauma-related behaviours that ended in a negative consequence.

To boost self-esteem: Children may lie to peers to gain their respect and affection, or they may lie to carers because they need love and attention.

Often, a “fib” allows evading a present danger or threat, at least for the time being. The escape from fear, judgment, guilt, or shame provides a brief but powerful sense of reward or escape.

Tips on how to address lying

If you know the answer, don’t ask

Don’t create opportunities for your child to lie. If you know for a fact that she did something wrong, don’t ask her if she committed the misdeed. For example, instead of asking, “Did you hit that child?” when you already know the answer is “yes”, try, “I saw you hit that child. Can you tell me what happened?” Instead of asking, “Did you clean your room?” when you already know the answer is “no”, say, “I just saw your room and it’s untidy. Let’s clean it up together.”

Stop asking “Why”

“Why?” only leads to more lies. Infuriated you continue to pursue a rational answer, a lengthy argument results. During the conflict, the “why” is never answered, and the child may have lied numerous additional times. This generates a negative emotional climate.

Recognise that emotional distance feels safe

Anger inhibits attachment. Thus, the child or young person thinks, “If I don’t get too close, it won’t hurt so much when they dump me.” Lying almost guarantees an argument. So, lying is a sure-fire way to protect young people from another loss. A change in your emotional response to the child is essential. A calm response increases the level of carer-child attachment. And, connection, in turn, is the context in which all development occurs. Enhanced connection facilitates the developmental growth necessary for the child to pass from the lying stage to the honesty stage.

Remove the shame of lying

Don’t excuse lying but show the child or young person you understand how they came to do it. Lying comes from a place of shame and insecurity. As such, disapproval and sanctions for lying only exacerbate the reasons for lying and perpetuate the behaviour. You might say, “It sounds like you were struggling. Let’s figure out how you got to this place to begin with. Then let’s figure out how to get you back on track.”

Don’t take lying personally

Try to remember that the lie isn’t out of defiance or disrespect. Focus on what led to the lie, rather than the lie itself.

Be curious rather than judgmental

Use open-ended questioning to uncover the fear component of a situation. “Is there something you are worried about?”

Reward truth-telling

Flip the script, so that as much as possible, you are giving more attention to the behaviours that you want to see more of.

Build and maintain connection

It’s important to offer connection and support when you know a child is struggling with lying. Investing in the relationship really helps. Lying reflects the child or young person’s desire to make and maintain relational connection with others and be viewed in a positive light. Promoting safety while helping the child or young person address their lying will let them know they can come to you even when they have made a mistake. Remember, it’s not about you trusting them, it’s about them trusting YOU.

By helping to remove the opportunity for a child or young person to lie and not punishing them when they do, you are being curious rather than being judgemental. Staying close and building the relationship of safety, you can foster healthy discussions about why they feel the need to lie in the first place.

References

  1. Miyake, A., Friedman, N. P., Emerson, M. J., Witzki, A. H., Howerter, A., & Wager, T. D. (2000). The Unity and Diversity of Executive Functions and Their Contributions to Complex “Frontal Lobe” Tasks: A Latent Variable Analysis. Cognitive Psychology, 41(1), 49–100. https://doi.org/10.1006/cogp.1999.0734

You may be interested in: Behaviours that challenge Child & youth development Foster care Kinship care

Creating positive social climates and home-like environments in therapeutic care - Practice guide
Creating positive social climates and home-like environments in therapeutic care - Practice guide
This guide has been developed to support the implementation of Essential Element: Physical Environments from the Ten Essential Elements of Therapeutic Care. It explores how to create therapeutic care contexts...
Read more
Making sense of complex and challenging behaviours
Making sense of complex and challenging behaviours
An inability to understand trauma-based behaviours often sees young people 'labelled' in ways that can create a 'spiral of negativity'. A trauma-informed approach orients us to be curious about what...
Read more
Understanding and supporting young people who self-harm in residential care
Understanding and supporting young people who self-harm in residential care
Some of the young people we care for in the ITC programs deal with emotional distress and pain by hurting themselves physically. Young people hurting themselves is distressing to them...
Read more
The role of praise in working with young people
The role of praise in working with young people
We can see each of our daily interactions with each of the young people we care for as bids for connection.  By choosing to turn toward, to turn away, or...
Read more
Preventing self-harm among young people in out-of-home care - Research brief
Preventing self-harm among young people in out-of-home care - Research brief
Many young people in out-of-home care are at an elevated risk of self-harm and suicidality. The reasons range from early exposure to abuse, disconnection from family, instability of their living...
Read more
‘Tis the Season to be Jolly’ – but not for everyone
‘Tis the Season to be Jolly’ – but not for everyone
It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in the fun and happiness of Christmas and forget that, for others, the season isn’t necessarily a joyful one. For some the...
Read more
The essential elements of therapeutic foster care - Research brief
The essential elements of therapeutic foster care - Research brief
As far back as 2002 in the creation of the Catalyst Program, Mitchell developed what was Australia’s first therapeutic foster care program and one of a handful of pioneering programs...
Read more
Exploring the meaning that lies beneath young people’s behaviour and supporting change - Practice tool
Exploring the meaning that lies beneath young people’s behaviour and supporting change - Practice tool
This resource has been developed to support professionals to unpack and plan how to respond to identified behaviours that are concerning, challenging and disruptive for young people in their search...
Read more
What works? Promising practices to support young people who self-harm
What works? Promising practices to support young people who self-harm
Why do young people in out of home care self-harm? What are the best predictors of suicide and self-harm? What really works when supporting young people who self-harm in out-of-home...
Read more
Behaviours that challenge: What has happened to you?
Behaviours that challenge: What has happened to you?
Children and young people living in Therapeutic Residential Care in Australia often present with a range of behaviours that challenge us. The complexity and difficulty in working with these challenging...
Read more
Trauma-informed relationship-based recovery reflection tool - Practice tool
Trauma-informed relationship-based recovery reflection tool - Practice tool
Children and young people need adults who can co-regulate with them and teach them about feelings and their inner world. This Trauma Informed Relationship-Based Recovery Reflection tool can be used...
Read more
Children, young people and sleep
Children, young people and sleep
Many of those of you who know me, know that I have a big interest in sleep hygiene and the children and young people in out of home care (OOHC)....
Read more
Supporting children in out-of-home care to cope with ambiguous loss
Supporting children in out-of-home care to cope with ambiguous loss
When you think of grief and loss, what comes to your mind? You may think of the immense sorrow one may experience. For some of us, we can seek solace...
Read more
The therapeutic power of laughter
The therapeutic power of laughter
"The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter." Mark Twain We all like to laugh. It makes us feel good. Among humans, laughter begins as...
Read more
Applying polyvagal theory to relationship-based therapeutic care - Practice tool
Applying polyvagal theory to relationship-based therapeutic care - Practice tool
Relationship-based practice is at the core of effective therapeutic care. Key to understanding how to build effective relationships with young people who have experienced trauma is to understand how the...
Read more
Book review: What happened to you? Conversations on trauma, resilience and recovery by Dr Perry and Oprah Winfrey
Book review: What happened to you? Conversations on trauma, resilience and recovery by Dr Perry and Oprah Winfrey
Dr Perry and Oprah Winfrey recently released What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Recovery. The book tells the story of how adverse childhood experiences cause deep emotional...
Read more
Responding to behaviours that challenge - practice guide
Responding to behaviours that challenge - practice guide
Much has been written about understanding and managing the challenging pain-based behaviours of children and young people who have experienced trauma and live in therapeutic or out of home care....
Read more
Creating a balance between empowerment and limit setting in therapeutic care - Practice guide
Creating a balance between empowerment and limit setting in therapeutic care - Practice guide
This guide has been developed to support Therapeutic Care carers and staff to navigate the critical balance between empowering children and young people and setting limits. One of the most...
Read more
Frequently asked questions by foster carers: Behaviours that challenge
Frequently asked questions by foster carers: Behaviours that challenge
In Australia, there are about 18 thousand children and young people in foster care. Most foster carers will be the first to tell you how rewarding it is – but...
Read more
Understanding the needs of kinship carers in Australia - Research brief
Understanding the needs of kinship carers in Australia - Research brief
Kinship care placements in Australia are now more prevalent than foster care. They are the fastest growing form of out-of-home care in this country (AIHW, 2021). On 30 June 2019,...
Read more
Sibling placement in out-of-home care - Research brief
Sibling placement in out-of-home care - Research brief
The significance of sibling relationships for children and young people in out-of-home care is well documented by national and international scholars (Luu, Conley Wright, & Cashmore, 2020). These relationships offer...
Read more
‘Drop and run’ - the experience of kinship carers in the Australian child protection system
‘Drop and run’ - the experience of kinship carers in the Australian child protection system
Recent research was conducted by the Southern Cross University and the Centre for Excellence in Therapeutic Care (McPherson, Gatwiri, Day, Parmenter, Mitchell & Macnamara, 2022) into the experience of kinship...
Read more
Blocked care: ‘You’re not alone; it’s a brain thing.’
Blocked care: ‘You’re not alone; it’s a brain thing.’
“No one knows what it is like to care for a child in trauma until they have cared for a child in trauma,” said Noel MacNamara in one of his...
Read more
What Was I Thinking? Handling the Amygdala Hijack
What Was I Thinking? Handling the Amygdala Hijack
Remember that time when you put the child you care for back to bed for the fourth time? Your thoughts suggested a level of desperation and wishful thinking, hoping that...
Read more
12 ways foster and kinship carers can promote compassion and self-compassion in children and young people
12 ways foster and kinship carers can promote compassion and self-compassion in children and young people
What are Compassion and Self-Compassion?Compassion is the ability to feel and connect with the suffering of another human being, self-compassion is the ability to feel and connect with one’s own...
Read more
‘There was no support’: Getting kinship care support right
‘There was no support’: Getting kinship care support right
We did not and am still not receiving support requested or needed. Case managers or staff change without us being informed. Phone messages left at their offices and drop in...
Read more
Why sleep is so important for children with trauma
Why sleep is so important for children with trauma
Many of you who know me know that I have a big interest in sleep hygiene and the children and young people in out-of-home care (OOHC). To this end, I...
Read more
New years' resolutions and other goals for teens in care
New years' resolutions and other goals for teens in care
When I was a teen in care, I found the (well-intentioned) focus on my progress from case workers and other adults exhausting. If I tried hard, I made “progress”, but...
Read more
Living with the Fast and the Furious
Living with the Fast and the Furious
You have opened your homes and your hearts to children who are unable to live with their parents. You want to help them access a better life. To feel safe,...
Read more
Trauma-sensitive family time is about connection and repair
Trauma-sensitive family time is about connection and repair
Relationships with family come with good times and challenges for everyone, but for children and young people in care, this birthright of family connection can often be deprioritised for the...
Read more
Trauma-informed care connects to children’s needs; trauma-informed carer training should connect to carers’ needs
Trauma-informed care connects to children’s needs; trauma-informed carer training should connect to carers’ needs
The CETC is thrilled to announce our new online course “Caring for Children and Young People with Trauma” is now live and free for all South Australian kinship and foster...
Read more
Can we provide trauma-informed care for children without changing our beliefs about their behaviour?
Can we provide trauma-informed care for children without changing our beliefs about their behaviour?
This blog article was written by Noel Macnamara, Executive Manager - Research and Policy and Deputy Director, Centre for Excellence in Therapeutic Care, CETC. There is a growing tendency to...
Read more
How are restrictive practices interpreted in therapeutic residential care?
How are restrictive practices interpreted in therapeutic residential care?
This blog article was written by Glenys Bristow,  Senior Specialist, Therapeutic Residential Care, CETC. Restrictive practice in therapeutic care The Royal Commision into Violence, Abuse and Exploitation of People with...
Read more
What do foster carers tell us about their support needs? - Research brief
What do foster carers tell us about their support needs? - Research brief
Foster carers are a crucial human resource in responding to children and young people who have experienced abuse, neglect, and trauma. The design and implementation of foster care programs varies...
Read more
Thirteen coping strategies that caregivers can use to support young people through their grief process
Thirteen coping strategies that caregivers can use to support young people through their grief process
Being in out-of-home care (OOHC) often means loss: loss of parents, siblings, extended family, pets, home, school, and friends. Grief is a normal and healthy response to loss. Children can...
Read more
The role fear plays in the lives of children and young people in out-of-home care
The role fear plays in the lives of children and young people in out-of-home care
Fear is a fundamental human emotion triggered by a perceived threat. It serves as a basic survival mechanism that signals our bodies to respond to danger with a fight, flight,...
Read more
Untangling the challenges of FASD and trauma
Untangling the challenges of FASD and trauma
In honour of FASD Awareness Month this September, the CETC brought together esteemed thought leaders Dr Julia Shekleton, Prue Walker, and Noel Macnamara to delve into the complex intersection between...
Read more