Lying Can Be More Than Bad Character
Society has always thought of lying as a character flaw. For the most part, I agree. Willful lying to deceive is not acceptable and could be an indicator that someone lacks integrity. But what about when that individual has ADHD? Is it still a character flaw? Not exactly.
There are many reasons that individuals lie. To avoid negative consequences and to impress others are the top two. When the individual has ADHD, though, lying just isn’t that simple.
Reasons Kids with ADHD Lie
- Avoidance. (a) Kids lie to avoid getting into trouble. Yes, this is a classic reason behind many a lie. This can be an even bigger motivation for lying for kids with ADHD. They get in trouble a lot — likely far more than their neurotypical peers. They don’t like being in trouble any more than anyone else and are likely to be more desperate to avoid a tongue lashing or punishment, since it happens to them often. (b) Kids lie to avoid doing something they find painful (yes, boring can be painful when you have ADHD). Many kids with ADHD lie about having homework. It’s not that they don’t care about their grades or doing well, it’s that it is physically exhausting to concentrate on something they are not interested in and/or find exceptionally difficult.
- To express how they feel. My son, Ricochet, is very susceptible to this type of lying. He is a great example of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. He is notorious in our school system for telling tall tales. Ricochet is a creative kid. He’s also very sensitive. When you combine feeling things deeply and a penchant for creative embellishment, you get a kid who tells a lot of grand stories. He’s not lying with intent, but it is lying. While lying isn’t acceptable behavior, it’s important to understand why you are lying. Kids with ADHD often struggle with recognizing, communicating, and regulating their emotions. Stretching or embellishing the truth is one way to be sure you’re letting others know how a situation felt to you.
- Poor executive functioning skills. Executive functions are planning, organization, memory, self-regulation, time management, and flexibility. Executive functioning deficits are common in individuals with ADHD. While you feel your child is lying to you, they may actually have forgotten an instruction or otherwise lacked the skills to follow through as asked. They may not have even heard the instruction when struggling with inattention or overwhelm.
- Impulsivity. The vast majority of kids with ADHD struggle with a clinical level of impulsivity. They frequently act before they think. Sometimes they talk before they think, as well, letting lies slip through their lips before they’ve weighted the potential consequences. Impulsivity can cause them to do something they shouldn’t, then feel compelled to lie to avoid getting into trouble (see #1 above).
- Shame or embarrassment. Feeling embarrassed and avoiding embarrassment are powerful motivators for kids. They may be ashamed that they can’t perform on the same level of their peers, or they may wish to avoid public embarrassment at any cost. This causes kids to lie, especially kids with ADHD who often have more instances of shame and embarrassment than neurotyical kids. Your kids with ADHD don’t want to, or intend to, let you down.
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What Parents Can Do About Lying
Understanding why kids with ADHD lie is only part of the battle. Lying is still not acceptable behavior. A parent’s best recourse is to validate their child’s feelings, show empathy, and implement behavior modification.
It’s important to separate malicious lies, like delinquent behavior, from those lies that are born from ADHD or emotional sensitivity. Malicious lies are those that cause harm to self or others. Shoplifting is a good example. This type of behavior needs to be addressed with immediacy and firm, strict consequences.
The more common lies, like not having any homework when they really do, are better addressed with empathy, positive reinforcement, and consistent behavior modification. Talk about trust and the need for others to be able to believe what you say (the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf is an excellent tool for this lesson). Reward honesty, through praise, or even by using a goal chart. They key is to be consistent with your reinforcement of truth and trust, and always remain calm when dealing with lying.
What does your child lie about most often? How do you handle it?