The Magical Thinking of ADHD Brains — and How It Drives Our Kids’ Lies
“My child with ADHD had just done something impulsive — something outside her control — and was unable to stop herself in time. She wished she hadn’t done it. And magical thinking allowed her to imagine that she hadn’t.”
We were nearing the end of a very long day. My 4 year old clung to my thigh like a monkey to a flagpole, wailing because mommy was going to a PTA meeting after dinner. My 6 year old shouted “Mom, look at my LEGO ship” in machine-gun rapid fire, unsuccessful in attracting my attention because I only had eyes for my 8 year old — the one with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). She looked back at me through an unbrushed nest of hair piled atop her sinewy frame, holding a thick, black marker, standing next to one of my brand-new dining chairs.
I had absolutely no business buying sand-colored, upholstered chairs, as if I lived in some other house with well-behaved kids and relaxed grown-ups. And, as my eyes fell to the thick black line drawn on the back of my pretty new chair, I realized my daughter had just proven that fact.
“You drew on my chair?” I shouted. “My brand new chair?”
She shook her head, gripping the marker tight. “No, I didn’t.”
I pointed to the marker. “Of course you did. What were you thinking? Don’t lie to me.”
Her eyes welled and she began to cry. “I didn’t. I didn’t. I didn’t.” She threw the marker down and ran from the room, stunning the rest of us into a moment of silence.
It wasn’t the first time she’d lied — and it wouldn’t be the last. She’d lie about taking something that wasn’t hers when caught red-handed, she’d lie about hitting her brother when I saw her do it, she’d lie about finishing her peas when the bowl was still full. I was confounded. Our family values cherished honesty, and I was raising a misbehaving liar. Plus, now I had permanent black marks on my brand new chair!
Magical Thinking and ADHD
The key to understanding the connection between ADHD and lying is in a concept called Magical Thinking. My child with ADHD had just done something impulsive — something outside her control — and was unable to stop herself in time. A bit like if you’d slept-walked and ate a whole cake, then snapped out of it to realize what you’d done. She wished she hadn’t done it. And magical thinking allowed her to imagine that she hadn’t.
Beginning with the toddler years and waning close to about 10 years old, children are ego-centric, meaning they believe they are the cause of things around them, like whether a rainbow appears or someone is sad. They also believe in pretend and the animation of inanimate objects. They believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. This sense of magical thinking allows a child with ADHD to “wish away” the thing they’d just done. If they say it didn’t happen, then perhaps they can UN-DO it. Perhaps it didn’t actually happen after all.
Impulsivity and ADHD
It is important also to remember that the brain of a child with ADHD lacks the neurotransmitters necessary to control impulsivity. That lack of control likely accounts for whatever he or she did but shouldn’t have. It can also account for the lie. That lie would jet out of my daughter’s mouth so fast, I could almost sense that it surprised even her. But, once spoken aloud, she had to commit to the lie to have any chance of convincing me it was true. Taking it back would surely mean she’d get in trouble for whatever she’d done — and then also for lying about it.
Emotional Regulation and ADHD
My daughter with ADHD also struggles with tolerating big emotions — hers and mine. If she said she didn’t do it, then she had a shot at convincing me it was true and thwarting the potentially angry mom. But she was unsuccessful. Seeing my anger, coupled with her own frustration and disappointment in herself for her inability to control her actions, created a storm of feelings that were hard to manage. So, she erupted herself, letting it all out. And ran away to avoid having to manage it further.
Avoidance and ADHD
Other times, children with ADHD lie to avoid a task. In the case of “Did you eat your peas?” or “Did you do your homework?”, the magical thinking is that the task will go away if the child says it is already gone. Then, caught in the lie, the impulsivity and magical thinking pushes them further down their rabbit hole of story-telling.
What to do about the ADHD-powered lies?
My angry outburst at my daughter’s action (and subsequent lie) is a good reminder that I, too, often struggle with an impulsive reaction to things. I would like to be able to react calmly and rationally, but it isn’t easy with a toddler hanging off you, another child vying for your attention, and your own shock at your pristine new chair lasting all of five minutes! However, when calm, I try to heed the following:
“I understand that you wish you hadn’t drawn on my chair and that you would take it back, if you could.” If you come alongside your child and show her that you understand why she lied, you may find that she feels safe to acknowledge it. And your calm approach can scaffold her inability to handle all those big feelings that erupted.
“How do you think we could make this better?” Give your child an opportunity to be part of the solution to the problem she created. This empowers her to take responsibility for her actions. She may just shrug at first, but if offered enough chances, this can help to create a mindfulness regarding the cause and effect of her actions.
In some cases, the solution might be helping to clean up or to give back an item that was taken. It may be a simple apology or a written note. In other cases, it may be important to reflect on why your child may have lied. Was it impulse or avoidance? If your child is avoiding a task, then the onus may be on you to determine whether the task is too big. Did I serve too many peas? Maybe she hates peas. Is the homework too long? Maybe she has fine-motor issues that make holding a pencil difficult. Be a detective before being a judge and you may find your child’s need to lie diminishes.
Your lying child is not a bad seed. The lying is just another dysfunctional coping mechanism in your child’s ADHD box of unhelpful tools. While magical thinking does wane, remember that your child with ADHD is often three years behind in maturing, so magical thinking might last a bit longer. In fact, certain aspects of magical thinking may stay with us into adulthood, since at the end of the day, we all wish the world could be the way we want it. Some adults I know still cross their fingers, buy lottery tickets, and throw salt over their shoulder. Others pretend they live in grown-up houses and buy sand-colored dining chairs.
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