Foster children, as many carers know, can have an unusual relationship with Truth.
In all the training I’ve delivered to carers, lying is probably one of the most perplexing and frustrating issues that carers talk about. “Why do they lie so much?”, and “how do I get them to tell the truth?”
There are many reasons why foster children have difficulties with the truth. Their experiences of trauma are a common thread. Here are seven of the more common ones, and some trauma-informed ways to respond.
1. Self Defence
One time, when we were washing the dishes, a foster child accidentally stabbed me in the side with a sharp knife. It was a genuine accident, but he stood there and flat out denied he’d done it. No apology, just “It wasn’t me”.
But the terror on his face told a different story. He’d not been with us long and he was still sussing us out, learning how we’d react to different situations.
In his life before living with us, the word “sorry” didn’t exist. Sorry was an admission of guilt. And guilt brought about violent punishment.
So his denial was less about lying and more about self-defence. He didn’t know that I wasn’t going to beat him.
Had I confronted him on this obvious “lie”, I would have further increased his fear of me. He knew he’d stabbed me, I knew he’d stabbed me. We both knew it was an accident.
it is more useful to respond to the unspoken fear of consequence and to create safety
So, instead of responding to the words that came out of his mouth – “Yes, you did!” – it is more useful to respond to the unspoken fear of consequence and to create safety. “It was an accident, don’t worry about it. Can you pass me the plasters from the drawer, please?”
Over time, he learned that it was safe to apologise for minor accidents and mishaps. This gave him the confidence to be honest about more serious things.
2. Truth Has No Meaning
Before coming to us, the children’s lives have often been filled with lies, distortions and coercion. Even when in care, lies continue – “its only for a few weeks”, “yes, you can go home soon”, “the social worker will be here any minute”.
They have learned to not rely on anything adults say. Adults say one thing and then they do something different. Words are neither true, nor false. They are just words.
To many looked after children, there is no relationship between words and actions. What matters is not what someone says, but what they do.
Words are neither true, nor false. They are just words.
This is less a case of, “if its ok for adults to do this, then its ok for me” and more a case of, “this is how the world is. You say what you need to say at the time you say it”.
Whether people mean what they say or not is irrelevant. The outcome is the same. Nothing anyone says has any meaning.
Trustworthiness and transparency are key cornerstones of trauma-informed care. Every time we shield them from the truth, every time we tell a half-truth, we undermine their ability to trust us.
Before we can insist on truth from them, we must exemplify it ourselves. Children can cope with a lot more truth than we sometimes think they can.
3. Just Survive Somehow
Traumatised children very much live in the moment, minute-by-minute. They are hyper-vigilant to threats and in a perpetual fight-or-flight survival mode.
Fight-or-flight mode dramatically changes the way our brains function. It hijacks the part of our brains that does forward-planning and rational analysis. So we are not thinking straight, or at all.
It also turns off our empathy centre. That’s why people in survival mode often seem like they don’t care about others.
Instead, we can only respond to the threat that is immediately before us. We don’t consider that our response to this threat may actually create a new threat. We just need to survive it, then we can worry about what’s next. As a result, we lurch from crisis to crisis.
“why you don’t just tell the truth? Your life would be a whole lot simpler.”
Did you ever notice a child heap lie upon lie and then trip themselves up and tie themselves in knots?
All the while, we are wondering, “why you don’t just tell the truth? Your life would be a whole lot simpler.”
When traumatised children blurt out untruths, it may be a survival instinct. Their fight-or-flight brains aren’t weighing up the pros and cons of telling the truth. They aren’t thinking about whether they will upset us. They aren’t considering the implications of lying.
They are doing whatever they can to get through the next 5 seconds of their life. Once they manage that, they can worry about what comes next.
The good news is we can help with this.
Children are more likely to instinctively lie when placed on the spot. This triggers their fight-or-flight mode.
Give them some time to think – 10 seconds is often enough. This gives time for the hijacked brain to regain control of it’s logic circuits.
Don’t demand they tell the truth. This can also trigger a hijack, causing them to tell more lies. Tell them that it is ok to tell the truth.
Praise them for being honest, even if there needs to be a consequence for the thing they are being honest about.
It can take years for children to unlearn their fight-or-flight response. So be patient, be consistent.
4. Can They Trust Us?
In order to feel safe with us, foster children need to know if they can trust us.
They need to know we will be sensitive to their needs and love them regardless of their experiences.
It’s quite common for them to test-the-water with fantasy stories. They may talk about other people’s experiences as though they were their own, to see how we respond.
A child or young person might say something like “in school today, I got into trouble for… But it wasn’t me”. Our inclination may be to investigate. To find out the truth.
We may phone school to see what actually happened and learn that they never got into trouble at all. “Why would you lie about that?” we may respond.
They won’t be able to say why. But the whole thing will keep happening, again and again, over and over.
“dare I allow you into my world? Are you compassionate? Do you show concern about my feelings?”
What is often going on here is the child is looking at our reaction to see if they can trust us. It is safer for them experiment with a story that wasn’t about them, in case our reaction is negative.
The questions they are asking are, “dare I allow you into my world? Are you compassionate? Do you show concern about my feelings?”
If our response is to suspend belief, to check and investigate and to tell them off for lying, they are never going to trust us with their true experiences.
Responding to a child’s stories as though they are true, even if we know they are not, does not encourage further lying.
It encourages trust and empathy. It makes it more likely that the child will be able to move from testing-the-water to inviting us in.
After all, we need to trust someone if we are to tell them the truth. So if a child is not telling us the truth, then is this because they are untrustworthy, or because they think that we are untrustworthy?
5. To Keep Us At Bay
In contrast, children may lie to keep us out. They may feel ashamed and guilty about their traumatic experiences and worried about how we will respond.
Will we be disgusted? Will we hate them or blame them? Will we cart them off to a therapist?
To protect themselves, they may throw up smoke and mirrors to distract us from what it is really like to be them.
When asked “how are you?”, one foster child would always respond “I’m fine” – despite being anything but fine.
Her reasoning was a simple one. Every time she was honest about how she was feeling – suicidal, hearing voices, risk of self-harm etc – there had been negative consequences
She would be taken for emergency CAMHS appointments, to A&E, and subject to extra safeguards.
To her mind, the people around her kept demonstrating that they couldn’t cope with her truth. So she learned not to trust them with that truth.
6. Promises Are The Same As Lies
As any of my foster children will testify, I am always on time. Picking them up, dropping them off. Getting them to meetings and appointments. Going to watch them perform in a show. I am never late.
So when I say “Meet you at 5pm” they know that I will be there at 5pm, and probably half an hour before.
Contrast this with someone who says “I promise you, I’ll be there at 5pm”. What has occurred previously to qualify the use of “I promise”?
It’s likely there is a history of not showing up, being late or just forgetting entirely. A person who needs to make promises is probably unreliable enough to rarely make good on their promises. So, they’ll turn up at 5.15pm, having been “stuck in traffic”.
Children learn quickly. They are scrutinising us more than we are scrutinising them. Can they put their trust in us? Are we dependable?
Broken promises harm children’s trust in us. When a child hears the words “I promise”, they hear the words of someone who can’t be trusted.
So, when we ask a child to make a promise, what does that say about our trust in them?
7. We lead them into it
Foster carers aren’t normally trained in how to ask questions. Some questions can imply certain answers. Others can suggest that one answer is preferable to another.
For example “did you do well in your test?” invites the answer “yes” as there is an implied expectation of success in the question. If the child doesn’t want you to be disappointed, they may not then tell you that they found the test hard
What children often want is our acceptance and love. Their answers to leading questions may be informed by whether they think we will like the answer. Not necessarily by whether the answer is strictly true.
Consider trying “clean” questions, which don’t imply a preferred answer. Such as:
”What did you do today?” instead of “did you see your friends today?”
”How was it?” instead of “was it good/easy/hard?”
“How are you?” instead of “are you sad/happy/stressed.”
Clean questions are easier for the child to answer as they invite a more honest response without pre-loading expectation into the question.
Its unhelpful for care teams to frame the things a foster child says as either truth or lies.
It is more productive, and conducive to a trusting and safe relationship, to consider what might be driving those words.
Rather than ask “why do they lie?, consider asking “what might they really be trying to tell us?”.
And instead of “how do I stop them from lying?”, consider asking “what else might they need to be able to trust me?”
For more on fight-or-flight response, read our article How Trauma Hijacks the Brain