“The Ugly Truth About ADHD and Lying”
Why some kids choose to lie when the truth is easier.
I have never met a grown adult who hasn’t told a lie. We might fib because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or call in sick when we just want to sleep in, but could it be possible that children with ADHD are habitual liars? This feels true in my own home.
Our son is six, and he has been diagnosed as having severe ADHD-combined, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and Sensory Processing Disorder. He is twice-exceptional as well. He is a loving, thoughtful, rambunctious little guy, depending on the day, but he can make you see red quicker than a traffic jam on the morning of a big presentation at work. It feels like he lies about everything.
“Honey, did you just hit your sister?”
“But I just watched you do it.”
“Nope. That wasn’t me.”
“Briggs, there is literally no one else in the house right now.”
“I didn’t do it!” (Cue rage episode.)
We have gone over The Boy Who Cried Wolf scenario so many times that I feel like the wolf actually lives next door, but nothing seems to faze our son. We aren’t talking about your everyday, run-of-the-mill white lie here. It has become so difficult to believe simple things he tells us because he almost never tells the truth, even when the truth seems easier than making up a story.
Our son has told the following stories in such complete, impeccable detail that my husband and I had to think twice to make sure we were the ones on the side of the truth:
- He said that when we sent him to his room to punish him he couldn’t eat or drink anything for an entire day.
- He said that we were going to have another baby after his little sister, and it would definitely be a boy this time.
- He convinced another boy on the bus that Michael Jackson was not only alive and well but also his older brother.
- He told us that, when the class behaved, his teacher let them pull a rope to the roof of his elementary school that made a giant dinosaur head roar.
- He told us that he and a neighbor boy found a killer groundhog with a hook in its mouth, which we were later told was put there when the neighborhood boy “caught him while fishing but let him go.”
Our son wants to tell the truth. The lies spring from his inability to manage some of his ADHD symptoms, such as trouble with memory, inability to manage tasks to completion, aversion to boring assignments, and impulsivity.
Let me paint a picture for you.
We are running around to get out the door for school and work. I tell our son he needs to wear his black jacket to school today because his favorite Ninja Turtle coat is in the wash from yesterday’s mud puddle jumping session. He nods as he crams his breakfast bar in his mouth and ties his shoes. Moments later, I am in an epic tug of war with my then five-year-old, who swears I never told him that, but that I said he could choose his jacket today.
Did he lie? Did I lie? Seriously, it happens so often it makes me question my own sanity.
Neither of us is at fault. I thought I was preparing him for a change in the routine that might throw him off, but I did so while he was already attempting to finish two other tasks—eat breakfast and tie his shoes. He nodded and seemed to acknowledge my directive, but he never processed the words I spoke.
This is typical behavior for children with ADHD. We must slow down, speak to them while they are giving us their undivided attention, and prioritize tasks so they accomplish what is most important, leaving the less-important items behind for now.
Another way kids with behavior diagnosis tell mis-truths is when they make something up to avoid tasks they’d rather not do. Our son is a grand master negotiator. He could make millions as a defense attorney by age eight. If he tells us that he needs to do XYZ before he takes out the bathroom trash (one of his typical chores that we always do on Saturday mornings), then his behavior needs to be addressed. We cannot excuse made-up tasks to avoid what he finds mundane.
However, a best-practices approach to managing ADHD behavior might be to explain why his story will not be acceptable in our home because pitching in is the responsibility of all family members. We should allow him time if he needs to calm down, and go on to explain a fun way to accomplish the task he is trying to avoid. This might mean shooting the tightly closed trash bags into the can like a basketball outside or seeing if he can finish his tasks in an allotted timeframe to race against Mom and Dad. Making the boring more fun is the key to undoing distraction.
On what planet is it acceptable to have no less than 17 projects or tasks launched, but zero finished? Welcome to our house. It is ongoing dialogue in our home to remind Briggs to pick something up before he gets something else out, or to finish doing this thing before you start that other thing over there. It isn’t a problem of irresponsibility as much as it is his insatiable attraction to distraction. If he is in the middle of completing a Lego building outside and he sees something shiny near our pond, forget it! He is gone.
These distraction-impulsivity dances that occur by the minute at times tend to breed some of his most dishonest stories.
“Did you finish putting your trucks away outside, buddy?”
“Are you sure? I can see at least three of them sitting in the driveway right now,” I say as I look at them out the window. “I also see all of your swords and dress-up clothes next to the trucks. What happened? You were just supposed to clean up the trucks.”
“Oh, well, I started to do it, but then this bald eagle flew down (we live in Ohio, not Alaska), and it tried to steal one of my dump trucks. I think it was going to take it to a secret lair where its nest is! So I had to defend it. I got my sword out and stabbed it, but it flew away. I put on my costumes to scare it away because I love you, Mommy. I was defending you.”
Really!? Yes. Hand to the Lord Himself, these stories happen on the regular in our home.
Our son’s imagination is never searching for material. However, his ability to complete simple tasks is dire because of this wildly creative imagination. Is he really lying? I am not convinced. Sometimes, I feel like he may believe what he is pitching to us in the moment. Regardless, it is important for us to break down large tasks into simple-to-follow steps. He works better when he is monitored, but not micro-managed. So this requires us to work near him without lording over him. A bonus here is that he thrives on positive reinforcement, so we are at the ready to dish that out as he finishes each small step toward the end goal of the assignment.
My husband and I are guilty of this, too. This is why my planner is riddled with Post-it notes and my phone with alarm reminders! The ability to prioritize reminders is almost nonexistent for most people with ADHD. Their lack of focus makes them scatter-brained and requires them to set reminders or write things down. Since our son is only six, it puts that burden on us.
If I ask my son before leaving for work in the morning, “Be sure that you brush your teeth, clean up your toys, and finish your homework with daddy today,” he can hug me and give me the smile that convinces me he has got it this time. In truth, he may have heard only one thing I said.
Children with ADHD don’t benefit (at least in our experience) as much from reward charts as they do from interactive lists. So, much like I add “grocery shopping” to my adult to-do list just so I can check it off since I already did it yesterday, he needs this interaction, too.
In our house, we use a chore chart that has pictures and magnets he can move. This allows him to feel accomplished when he is able to move tasks from the “to-do” side to the “finished” side as well as for him to take ownership in negotiating the daily list with us before it is completed. He then feels responsible for the tasks and is more likely to remember them. Otherwise, we will end up with the common scenario of, “Mom, you never told me to do that.” Or, “No, Dad, I remember you said to clean up my toys, but you didn’t mention homework so I’m not doing it!” And we have a meltdown on our hands.
Nothing can strain the beautiful bond between parents and child or put as much strain on a marriage as the challenges of discipline and consistent consequences, especially with regard to honesty. So, here are some rules we live by that have helped us make headway with our boy.
Strategies for Consequences
- Set up boundaries ahead of time. Our son knows what to expect before we arrive somewhere, before he is expected to clean things up, even before his regular bedtime each night. This step allows us to navigate difficult transitions more peacefully. It also gives him some ownership over his own behavior.
Time boundaries don’t mean much to kids too young to grasp the concept of time, so be sure to set boundaries that they will understand. For instance, “We will be leaving the park in five minutes. That is enough time for you to go down the slide four more times.” Be sure they are looking at you, process what you are telling them, and they are able to repeat it back to you. Trust me on this. It will save you a lifetime of meltdowns!
- Admit when you are wrong. This one step goes a long way! Our kids need to see that adults make mistakes, too. And, not only that, but that it is OK to mess up; encouraged even. Kids with ADHD feel like they spend more time being ridiculed and told they are wrong than anything else. It can be encouraging to see that we are on their side. They aren’t the only ones.
It is also important to apologize publicly if the infraction was made publicly. If I correct my son for something and find out later I was wrong, I will be sure he hears my apology in front of the people he was chastised in front of. It is our hope that our son will feel less pressure when he messes up and feel like he can count on his parents to tell the truth even when it is difficult.
- Be consistent. It is important to be on the same page as your spouse or partner on discipline strategies, even if this person is your ex or someone whose household you are not a part of, including in-laws or others who are a part of the village who raise your kids. If you want something enforced one way, everyone should be on board. Otherwise, you are setting yourself up for the, “Well, Daddy doesn’t make me….”
Have conversations often about consequences and what you are and are not comfortable with because these things will ebb and flow over time. Be sure to talk to your significant other before allowing or disallowing your kids to do something major so you don’t get “mommy-daddied” as we call it—the infamous “dad says no, so I go ask mom” trick. Dishonesty is a huge factor here as our son will flat-out lie to one of us if it means getting what he wants. Be sure to always ask the other adult first.
- Don’t EVER threaten what you won’t follow through with. This is crucial with kids who have ADHD. Our son also has ODD, so it may be the most important parenting decision we ever make in a day. We can’t say to him, “Well then just go find a new family to live with if you don’t like it,” because our son will first exit our home and begin hoofing it to said new family, and two, he will never let us forget it.
It is so important to only offer consequences that you are capable of following through with; so think it through, moms and dads. If you are a TV household, you may want to rethink the no TV rule if it will actually punish you more than them. Our son thrives on attention from others so sending him to his room is like a death sentence. That is something simple to follow through with and effective for him.
- Praise honest behavior. As I mentioned before, reward charts are pointless for our son, specifically. Because of the combination of ADHD and ODD, you can offer him the world or threaten to take it all away and his reaction will likely be the same. However, he absolutely lives for kind, heart-felt recognition from the people he loves. It is so critical for us to notice when he does something kind or honest and pour on the compliments. These are things he will remember and we want him to strive for those in the future as well.
Conversely, the scary truth is that kids with our son’s diagnosis are up to 80% more likely to suffer from mood disorders, substance abuse, and suicide. So, investing in our kids at a young age, showing them our own humble honesty and vulnerability, and pouring on the praise at every opportunity, could make all the difference long-term.
- Talk it out, always. If I have an issue with my husband, especially with regard to behavior, our son should see that it is healthy for adults to disagree, but that we do not resort to things like lying, yelling, or throwing things to solve our concerns. Allowing our kids to see us peacefully settle disagreements is important.
Likewise, our son should experience his parents approaching him to talk about situations after the dust settles. It makes no sense for me to try to rationalize with our son when he is at level five of a four-level meltdown. You don’t approach an alcoholic to talk about his alcoholism while he is at the bar. Too late, captain! We wait for the calm after the storm and approach him kindly and calmly. It is imperative that our son understands his actions, the consequences that follow, as well as why we did whatever it was we felt necessary at that time. He should know that we love him no matter what and that we are in this thing together.
Parenting is messy and hard and doesn’t come with a one-size-fits-all instruction manual. However, the dishonesty train is parked in our station far too often. It is important that we, as parents, unite so we know we aren’t in this crazy journey alone. Our kid lies too…a lot. However, because of his different needs, it will serve our sanity well to understand the why behind his struggles, and the motivation behind his story-telling, so we can craft a better approach from our end the next time.