Typical ADHD Behaviors

Fight, Flight, Freeze… or Fib?

What if your child’s lying is not evidence of a character flaw or disrespect? What if his fibs are actually a self-preservation strategy rooted in poor inhibition, emotional regulation, working memory, and attention — all hallmarks of ADHD? This is the premise behind a new theory that is giving caregivers and educators a new, neurological lens through which to view lies.

Why lie? Child covers her face after telling a fib

As the human brain has evolved, it has developed a self-protective mechanism designed to ensure survival in times of extreme danger or stress. Faced with a threat, the brain must react in a split second; deciding how to best protect itself is an instantaneous reaction. This is widely referred to as the “Fight or Flight” response1.

More recently, the field of psychology has added “freeze” as a significant and common behavioral response2. In the event of a harmful attack, this may mean playing dead while literally petrified with fear.

Today, psychologists are beginning to observe and document a fourth “F” that manifests in times of real or perceived danger for children, adolescents, and even adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): “fib.”

The Limbic region of the brain processes an immense variety of information from myriad sources. It senses the presence of danger, assesses threats, and activates defense. These Limbic structures are ready to respond to threat. By activating the sympathetic nervous system, which is in contact with the brainstem or cerebellum, a person is “chemically fueled” by the provision of adrenaline being released into the body. This adrenaline, in turn, triggers the decision to Fight (attack and defend) or Flight (to flee) or Freeze (play dead). Meanwhile, the body is flooded with the stress hormone, cortisol.

As neuroscience research itself continues to evolve, it appears to support these observed behaviors related to stress. However, neuroscience also encourages us to study the development of the neocortex (the outermost layer of the brain), which is an additional avenue for processing thoughts and a new line of self-defense achieved through language. With complex and advanced language (not available to our primitive ancestors), we have the ability to verbalize both factual and/or fictitious reasoning instantaneously at point of performance, most notably in times of stress and threat.

[Self-Test: Oppositional Defiant Disorder in Children]

As you know, ADHD is a condition of impaired or challenged executive function. Having coached many individuals (some with a diagnosis of ADHD, but all with a challenge of executive function), we have observed this Fib mechanism as a powerful response.

The Fib mechanism protects its maker in a number of ways:

  1. Protection (temporary) from the feeling of having disappointed someone, such as a parent, teacher, coach, or mentor. Fibbing often follows poor academic outcomes, incomplete assignments or projects, and missed appointments or classes.
  2. Deflection (temporary) of parental/ significant other anger and the anticipated consequence.
  3. Extension: This may be caused by a desire to “buy some time” in the momentary absence of information, or information that is not acceptable to the person that is perceived as a threat. This provides the maker with an extension of available processing or thinking time. The consequence of the fib is not planned for.
  4. Self-preservation: Preserving self-esteem and self-efficacy; perceived reduced self- esteem of a “failure” due to an ADHD-related behavior that ended in a negative consequence, leading to shame and embarrassment.

[Free Checklist: Common Executive Function Challenges — and Solutions]

Often, a “fib” or “fabrication” does allow an individual to avert a present danger or threat, at least for the time being. The escape from fear, embarrassment, judgment, guilt, or shame provides a brief but powerful sense of reward (or escape/victory). This is evidenced when an individual lies to lessen the intensity of an inquisition about work completion. He is able to gain relief from what seems like a barrage of questions, while justifying possible completion scenarios in their own mind. “Oh, I’m nearly finished with the essay. I’ve only the quotes to add, but I have the quotes in my notes.” The reality is far different.

What’s more, an individual may lie to him or herself to avoid the fear of the perceived threat of their current situation. An example of this might be delaying a complicated or unpleasant task in order to undertake something more enjoyable.

Examining four key elements of executive functioning (adapted from Russell Barkley, Ph.D.3) and the associated challenges faced by those with ADHD, we can understand how this self-fibbing happens easily and readily:

  1. Weak Inhibition: The inability to stop an action — in this case, the verbal or physical communication — when under pressure for an answer.
  2. Poor Emotional Regulation: Overwhelming fear in the face of the stressful situation.
  3. Faulty Working Memory: Planning for the future consequence of potentially being “found out” in the heat of the current moment does not happen. By not accessing the information of “the relief of now” in contrast to the later unpleasant outcome, the working memory weakness is evident. Also, the inability of “self-talk” to self-soothe and plan a logical way forward.
  4. Inconsistent Attention Regulation: This may be implicated if the subject had succumbed to a dire situation from ineffective regulation of attention or was distracted, causing their inability to achieve success.

So what can we do as parents, coaches, teachers, mentors, or healthcare professionals to identify, support, and alleviate the impact of this stressful situation and the maladaptive fibbing strategy/habit that follows?

  1. Use metacognitive or Socratic questioning techniques, encouraging awareness of the Fib response, and supporting the individual in changing the identified response at the point of performance.
  2. Assist the individual with creating a “space for time” in order to reduce feelings of being overwhelmed.
  3. Create extra, or intermittent accountability opportunities to ensure effective self-monitoring and evaluation.
  4. Encourage the individual to seek assistance or input from others, such as an accountability partner, early in a problem-solving situation.
  5. Implement a perspective of curiosity in place of judgment. Use open-ended questioning to uncover the fear component of a situation. “Is there something you are worried about?”

The evolving and adaptable human brain has undergone significant expansion and modification over millennia as we progress and face new threats to our survival. With the advancement of complex brain regions and neural networks, we are able to access a more complex, self-preserving response beyond Fight, Flight, or Freeze.

The Fib or Fabrication response (while not solely the domain of people with ADHD) is a less successful self-preservation strategy, but that doesn’t make it any less popular. When ADHD is in the mix, challenges with inhibition, emotional regulation (and motivation), attention management, and working memory almost certainly contribute to this phenomenon.

Still, taking a psychological approach may provide an opportunity for caregivers and educators to identify fibbing as a neurological response and one sign of a fractured self-esteem, not as a character flaw.

[Read This Next: How to Stop Anxiety and Panic Triggers]


1Oltmanns, T. and Emery, R. Abnormal Psychology, Eighth Edition. (Great Britain: Pearson Education Limited, 2015), 231.

2Lissy, F. Jarvik, MD, PhD. and Russell, Dan, MA. “Anxiety, Aging, and the Third Emergency Reaction,” Journal of Gerontology. Volume 34, March 1, 1979.

3Barkley, R. Taking Charge of Adult ADHD. (New York: Guilford Press, 2010), 7-12.

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11 Comments & Reviews

  1. Can someone put these suggestions into layman’s terms? I have no idea what using metacognitive or Socratic questioning techniques means – or any of the other ‘helpful suggestions ‘.

    1. I agree with mimi bee above. Would love these suggestions translated to “layman’s” terms.

      This article is one I’ve been looking for for a long time. My ex-husband had undiagnosed ADHD and lied more often than he told the truth. Several times, lied about having jobs that he continued to pretend to go to every day while I arranged expensive child care for our kids. I do understand he must have felt it was self-preservation for his fragile ego, and of course he had no consideration of later consequences, but his lies were huge and elaborate. He’s not my problem anymore, but all 4 of my children have been diagnosed with ADHD, and my 21, 19 and 17 year olds lie all the time. I am extremely merciful as a mother, and so any fear they have of retribution or consequences from me is unfounded. (However, I understand their brains work differently.)

      My 21 year old spent a semester away at college, repeatedly asking me for money for books, fixing a computer, car repairs, paying parking tickets and rent. He pretended to have 2 jobs while at school (only found out that they were fictional when I was preparing taxes). He NEVER paid rent, and was likely using the money to buy beer or weed. I always asked for receipts, and more lies were created to cover the lack of receipts. Because I co-signed for his apartment off-campus, I was liable for 6 months rent. I have since pulled him out of school, and he lives at home and attends community college for the time being. But I’m not even sure that’s happening. Since home, he has gotten and been fired from 2 jobs and then lied about having a third one. I could kick him out but I have no idea how he would survive with no money, which scares me. Oh, and he took himself off ADHD and depression medicines a few years ago and refuses to go back on them. LONG story short, I really want to understand and curb my childrens’ lies. I actually never knew lying was a symptom of ADHD, so thank you for the article!

      1. Hi, I love Dr Ross Greene’s work where he describes “Kids do when if they can” and he talks about – Lagging skills and Unsolved problems. (He has loads on You tube). this is genius as no one wants to wake up in the day and think, “great I am going to lie to my Mom” – I believe that they will mostly do it is to as a preserve measure, to protect something. With ADHD on board, the delay in Executive function skills(the lagging skills that Dr Greene describes) causes problems, which are hard to solve. Coaching communication can be a wonderful approach to this. I think of coaching a LOT like mindfulness, objective and non-judgmental. We may be running a short course for adults with ADHD adolescents soon, this will be one of the topics we discuss. cheers Monica

      2. Oh I just wanted to clarify that “fibbing” isn’t another trait for ADHD. I believe it can happen to anyone with or without ADHD….our point is that we have noticed it in people with ADHD. This is because they may find themselves in that defensive situation more often than those with out ADHD. This may be due to the lagging executive function skills (in child or adulthood). If we can understand the lagging skills, we can fill the gaps so the need for defence is reduced. Barbara and I just happened to notice it because that is who are clients predominantly are. There will be many, many people with ADHD that don’t use this as a fear response. Though I believe many will “fib to themselves” re time management etc.

    2. HI Mimi bee, Socratic questioning is a type of question that someone asks someone else to find out more about “how or what” someone is thinking. It is used to explore complex ideas or to get to the truth. it is the type of question that the Philosopher Socrates would ask his students. He would teach often by asking complex, questions. A question like “what time is it?” is not a Socratic question. “What made you think that”- uncovering an assumption, or “what is the impact of you staying up too late at night?” – analyzing a concept- these are Socratic questions. Whenever you see term “metacognitive, it is simply talking about “thinking about thinking”- a good example of this type of question would be ” “Why did I stay up so late?, -now I feel awful and tired”. When we wrote the article, we didn’t have a lot of room for explaining these concepts. They are helpful and very easy when you know what they are. I hope this answers your excellent question.

  2. Ya, this is like a “duh” moment. I have witnessed this for years. In dealing with it, I usually go with ignore the lie. Parents get so wrapped up into “he lied to me”. They take it personally and never look into the “why” of the lie. You know he lied – ya, that happens. Deal with the “why” of the lie, the problem that caused the lie. I do like #5 as that is important. But deal with the problem.

    1. Hey there, I agree the best way is to deal with the problem. The best way that we an deal with the problem in my opinion is by having the person fibbing in a much less defensive “head space”- when they feel under attack, that is when the “fight, flight or freeze” response kicks in, and the attentional network, the network that gives us access to information that we know, is shut down. This shut down is to fuel the Fight, Flight or Freeze response, leaving only the Fib (as now we have language to also protect us). If we can be curious and derive information, and non-judgmental (the premise of mindfulness practice) and give time to access or process or support working memory, we can have a much more effective communication. Thanks for your input.

      1. Thank you very much, dear monica 1 ! I believe, you brought something into the discussion that’s definetly worth considering/mentioning!

        Specifically, your mentioning the part about the individual’s noteable “melt – downs” due to distressing exterior conditions!

        Ugh. Hmpf. “Great”! Now guess what: *drumroll please*

        I ACTUALLY (IN REAL LIFE!) can’t remember where to ” go” from here anymore,can’t re – capture my own ff – ing POINT so that – hold on, need to check the alarm clock! – as a result roughly 2 hours of “working hours” ~ were effectively wasted pointless… *gnarf*

        So sorry, guys, gotta go! See ya!:-)

  3. I grew up lying all the time as a teenager. Who knows what my reasons were, maybe I was never noticed and wanted some attention as the second child. When I turned 18, I made it a point not to lie, hard but I did it. I married a man that lied during our 10 years today, 9 years married, couldn’t be honest about many things. Our daughter, started lying. she’s now 14 and recently she said to me, it’s so easy to lie then to be honest. I have to say, it’s hard dealing with anyone that lies, figuring out why, I guess that’s another story. I’d rather my kid, be honest, as I trust her and many times I’ve believed her to find out that it was a lie. Oh, well

  4. So true. In thinking about it, I realized how often I do “fib” even though I think of myself as very honest. It’s always in the situations you described: high pressure, intense anxiety and shake over not meeting a deadline because of avoiding the work until the pressure stress helps me focus – and I don’t have enough time. I recently fibbed to buy time to finish an assignment rather than deal with the damage and disappointment of my leader. It’s not going to end well, which made me look to understand what the heck I was doing – it’s unusual to go beyond white lies but still consistent enough. It probably means I’m avoiding the conflict and letdown; after all I realized at least a day ahead that I wasn’t going to make it.

    I wish there were a good way to explain the behavior to a supervisor and get help improving rather than waiting to be embarrassed or fired.

  5. I remember reading a couple of years ago the idea of there being Fight, Flight, Freeze and FAWN reactions. (“Fawning” being a behavior to try to appease an authority figure or an aggressive person.)

    Might the Fib reaction be considered a particular way of Fawning?


    I wonder also whether there might be a correlation between these responses and John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen” of relationships: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling.
    (Criticism = Fight, Contempt = Flight, Stonewalling = Freeze, Defensiveness = Fawn)

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