OH NO! Thinkthinkthinkthinkthink... "I don't know... Weird."
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 would not admit my wrongdoing. 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!). If she is reading this blog, this will be the first time she's ever heard the truth from me: I did that. I smoked outside of my window for months and made a huge messy pile of nastiness in our yard, and then I lied about it. I shouldn't have lied to you, and I'm not sure why I thought you would buy my ridiculous explanation.
"Crazy lying" or "lying about the obvious" is one of the top behaviors associated with RAD and trauma-related disorders. It seems so hard to understand, but it's not. I mean, haven't you ever been so afraid of what would happen if a parent or loved one discovered something wrong you had done?
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 was afraid she would go through my room (plausible), or take my privacy away (less plausible). I likely feared I would disappoint her (I had a healthy relationship with her and felt awful if I let her down) or make her angry. But, I did.
Same with kids diagnosed with RAD, or kids who have been through developmental trauma, or kids in general. Kids, and adults, lie to protect themselves... To keep something they want or need, to avoid punishment, to make someone happy, to avoid breaks in attached relationships.
Here's the difference: if I hadn't pulled that far-fetched, but possible, excuse out of my you-know-where... If my mom had had irrefutable evidence that I'd been smoking, I'm fairly certain I would have come clean (maybe not! Who knows!). Kids with trauma who engage in "crazy lying" 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!
And when caught up in their lie, kids with traumatic pasts have even less motivation to tell the truth, because their life experiences have taught them they could be severely punished for wrongdoings and they might fear their current parents will completely derail when lied to.
Another difference between "normal childhood lying" and "crazy lying"? My lying was a fairly isolated incident that occurred out of "necessity" when my mom confronted me... I needed to lie to her so I could continue on in my stupid teenage mistakes (most of which weren't life-altering, but smoking was definitely something I should have listened to my mother about because I still suck down cancer sticks like they're full of oxygen instead of, you know, cancer). I did not initiate the conflict over the pile of discarded cigarette ends... I never would have walked up to her and casually mentioned, "Hey, there are a ton of cigarette butts outside our window and I have no idea how they got there." A child with trauma issues may do just that, perhaps to intentionally disrupt harmony so that they are in control of when their parent confronts them on something they've done. To kids with trauma issues, instigating a conflict (even an unnecessary conflict) 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" on with 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 the crazy one and reading too much into the behavior of a precocious little girl who had experienced more trauma in her four years than I had experienced 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 and Middle's handwriting, so 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 KNOWWWW!" she wailed, and started to cry (but the smile remained on her face... I would come to figure out that the smile she puts on while simultaneously sobbing indicates she is terrified, but at the time I mistook her smile for her thinking our discussion was funny).
Husband entered the room, concerned. "What?!" he asked.
"Someone wrote on the wall. It's not a big deal, it will easily 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. Why did you write on the wall?"
Middle threw down the towel and started wailing. Then, she stopped 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. He could not do it (he was only three at the time). Husband looked at Middle pointedly. "Little did this?" he asked.
"YES!" Middle then said, "Hey, Little, like this... This is what you did!" and proceeded to write 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?"
"Middle, Little did not write 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.
Now, this was before we knew about therapeutic parenting. This was before we switched from the ways we'd been raised... Stern lecturing and exasperated yelling from me, isolation and corporal punishment from Husband (I am neither for nor against spanking... Husband sees no problem with it as he is a typical Southern guy (sorry for the stereotype!), who believes physical punishment worked well with him and his siblings and didn't see any problem with giving his kids a swat when they misbehaved. HOWEVER, we have bothcome to realize that physical punishment and yelling do not work with our kids... In fact, that usually just serves to make things worse. Therefore, we try not to utilize these "old school" methods and try to remain bastions of therapeutic parenting). This went on for HOURS and HOURS as we tried to get Middle to admit lying. By the end of the night, we were all exhausted and traumatized (and re-traumatized) by trying to get her to tell the truth using discipline methods that only forced her to cling to that lie even tighter. These discipline methods probably would have worked well with most kids (stay in your room until you are ready to talk, if you lie again I'm giving you a swat).
Let me tell you... We handled that lie poorly. As we have many, many other lies... She once sat at the kitchen table every day after school for most of the evening 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.
And we handle the lying poorly because it shows us how different her brain works from our brains, from the brains of kids who didn't go through the trauma she did, and those differences can be incredibly scary. The prognosis for a child diagnosed with RAD is frightening, and sometimes we overreact to our own fear when our kids engage in troubling behavior (and, sometimes, unfortunately, when they engage in normal childhood behavior). We were--we are--terrified 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 worried about her empathy levels or her understanding of cause-and-effect like I am 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 because 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 has she already started building an alternate reality that she will 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 a 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. 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, and that is 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 we 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).
But she would NOT admit it, no matter how many times we told her she wouldn't be in trouble, that we didn't care at all about the desk but only that she trust us enough to tell us what happened. It took her four hours to admit it under intense interrogation, and by that time we were so angry that she was already in trouble for lying to us and her admitting the truth didn't mitigate our anger or her consequences.
A few days after the desk gouging incident, Middle lied to me about a marker she'd hidden in her room (she is not allowed markers in her room because she marks up her walls, and we rent an apartment that for some stupid reason used matte-finish paint on the walls... so removing the marker results in the paint coming off which means we have to pay to repaint the room when we move!). I asked her where it was, she said she didn't know, so I said, "If I find it hidden in your room, I will know that you are lying about not hiding the marker. Are you sure you don't want to tell me? You won't get in trouble, but you will if you don't tell me the truth right now."
"I didn't hide it. It's just gone."
Of course I found the marker, hidden carefully and strategically underneath her clothes. I didn't move the marker, and went back to her to ask, "Are you sure you didn't hide it?"
"I didn't do it!" she yelled, and started crying.
"Middle, I already found it and know you hid it. Won't you tell me the truth, please?"
"Aaaaaaaaahhhh-ahhhh-ahhhhhhhhh!" she wailed. "You don't believe me!"
"I want you to find the marker and then we will talk," I said. I was starting to doubt that she'd hidden it. Middle is very convincing.
But when she came in, she went right to the clothes and pulled it out. And I saw RED. I wanted to punish her and I started yelling at her. "WHY DIDN'T YOU JUST TELL ME WHEN I ASKED YOU!? NOW YOU ARE IN TROUBLE!"
I went out and bought ice cream sandwiches and gave them to Little and Oldest, and then asked her again if she'd hidden the marker. "No," she said.
So I put her ice cream sandwich back in the freezer. "You can have THIS when you decide to tell me the truth!"
The next night after dinner, I doled out ice cream sandwiches again but withheld Middle's. "Are you ready to talk about the marker?"
"Okay, no ice cream sandwich for you."
After that night, I started feeling guilty. I was definitely not following the SPACE model for therapeutic parenting by trying to force her to explain herself. I thought really hard about why she was lying, and past incidents in which she felt she had to lie, and realized that she absolutely did not believe us that she would avoid punishment if she'd just tell us the truth. I realized that in her past, she probably faced severe consequences when she finally owned up to a lie, consequences that were the exact same had she kept on with the lie. She was afraid to tell me the truth... And when I asked her what she thought I'd do if she admitted to hiding the marker, she said, "I don't know... Swat me or something."
I decided that since I already knew the truth about the marker that it didn't really matter... what mattered was that she trust me enough to admit a wrongdoing. So we practiced. I made her feel as safe as possible, and asked her to say, "I hid the marker because I wanted to keep it in my room." And when she did, I responded by giving her half an ice cream sandwich, with the promise of a whole one after dinner.
That hasn't stopped the lying. Oh, no. Not by a long shot. But instead of responding with anger and punishment, I've started having her practice telling us the truth. The last lie was over our shower nozzle which she accidentally broke (or on purpose, but that doesn't really matter, does it?). She freaked out when I asked her about it and started lying and crying, but I reassured her and told her it was safe to tell me the truth. I asked her again what she thought would happen if she admitted to breaking it, and she said, "Never let me take a shower again." And we practiced her telling me, "I accidentally broke the shower nozzle." And I said, "That's okay! And, since you told me what happened, I know how to fix it! Thank you for being so brave!"
I'm not sure how this will work out in the end, of course, but I'm feeling pretty good about this method I'm trying out. I certainly enjoy working with her like this instead of punishing her or getting so angry... because when I get angry it just scares her more and makes her clamp onto that lie for dear life. It breaks our bonds and depletes her trust in me, and how can I expect her to tell me the truth if she doesn't trust me?
Bottom line: "Crazy lying" originates from the fear she grew up with before I even met her. When I punished her for lying, I only reinforced the paradigms of her trauma (I can't trust anyone, I must protect myself, and my parents will hate me, maybe hit me, if they find out I did something wrong). While addressing a lie is important because of the control issues our kids with traumatic pasts tend to have, it's important to address it in a way that makes them feel safe and reinforces the bonds of attachment you have with them, however tenuous those bonds may be.