San Antonio Center For Childhood Trauma & Attachment LLC

When Your Child Lies

When Your Child Lies

Children who have been chronically traumatized or neglected can become proficient at lying. They’ve had to. Their survival would have depended on whatever strategies worked to keep them clothed and fed and to avoid harm. So children learned to lie out of fear. Parents have had their own experiences and carry their own internal models of lying and people who lie. Thus, parents react to lies from their own state of fear. That’s a lot of fear! It’s no wonder emotions run so high when a child lies to us. It feels like our worst fears about raising this child will be confirmed!

Let’s look at a hypothetical situation where a child lies.


Eleven year old Cami nonchalantly walks into the kitchen wearing her mom’s eyeliner and brand new lipstick, inexpertly applied to her face. Mom immediately feels very angry.

Mom: Cami! Have you been in my bathroom and into my makeup?
Cami: No way, mom!
Mom: (outraged) What do you mean, no way! That’s my eye shadow and lipstick! Do you honestly think I’m too stupid to recognize my own make-up? Answer me! Cami: Well I don’t know, mom. Are you stupid?
Mom: Cami, you need to treat me with respect! Now you’re calling me stupid! Cami: I didn’t call you stupid, mom! Leave me alone! It’s not your make-up anyway! It’s Beth’s!
Mom: Beth’s mom doesn’t let her wear make-up. You two are only 11! You’re lying to me again! Oh my God, I’m raising a liar! You should be ashamed of yourself!”
(Mom gets out of her chair and goes toward Cami). “I will not tolerate lying in my house!”
Cami: You hate me mom, and you know what? I hate you, too! Anyway, you’re not my real mom! (She runs out of the kitchen and taking the stairs two at a time, enters her room, slamming the door behind her. She isn’t seen for dinner, and leaves for school the next morning without talking to mom.

Well, what did this accomplish? Did this interaction enhance the relationship? Did Cami feel any safer? Is she more likely to confide in mom? What will be the degree of mom’s ability to influence and guide Cami? How does mom feel? Cami? It’s up to mom to set the tone and guide the interaction. Harsh start-ups should always be avoided.

Let’s reframe this using PACE and mind-mindedness.:

Cami comes into the kitchen wearing mom’s eyeliner and lipstick. Mom feels anger rising with a constricted feeling in her chest. Cami has violated her privacy and used her things without permission. Mom takes note of the feeling, realizing she’s being triggered. This is her warning sign to tread carefully.

Mom: Cami, I see you’ve been using my make-up. (notice mom’s not asking Cami if she did it. That’s obvious. She’s not giving Cami another opportunity to lie.)
Cami: No I haven’t.
Mom: (ignores the lie but not the child) Cami, I love you. You lied to me and I wonder if you feel bad or unsafe. When people feel bad or unsafe, they’re more likely to lie.
Cami: (raising her voice) I told you, I’m not lying! This is Beth’s makeup.
Mom: We’re both getting riled up. Let’s come back to this later.

Mom gets a glass of water and heads out to the patio, where she lets the sunshine and bird songs calm her. She breathes deeply and asks herself, ”Wow! Was I angry! Why? Where did that come from?” She lets her brain drift into memory. Then she hits on it. When she was 15 years old, her little sister Stacy was constantly getting into her make-up. She tried hiding it, but Stacy always found it. When she complained to her mother, her mom refused to back her up. She thought it was cute. “Oh, honey. Can’t you see how much Stacy looks up to you? She wants to be just like you!” But it wasn’t cute. It felt like a violation from both her sister and her mother and remained a sore spot of resentment.

Then it occurred to her. Was Cami attaching? Did she want to be more like her mom?

Later, when Cami is regulated, she sits down with her. “Cami, it really hurt me when you lied. And I feel like you didn’t respect my right to my own things, which is upsetting. But it has nothing to do with how much I love you. I know that it was sometimes scary to tell the truth in the past. I understand that. But I hope you will learn to trust me enough to talk to me. I know that will happen and I’ll be so happy when it does. I’m also thinking that you’re getting to the age when your appearance matters. How about we set aside a special time for a mother/daughter make-up and hair date? I would love to do your hair and make-up! Wouldn’t that be fun?

Oh, and Cami---just so you know, you’re not going anywhere. You’re staying right where you are.”

About San Antonio Center for Childhood Trauma and Attachment, LLC