Of all behaviors associated with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), lying is one of the more frustrating. My son’s therapist recently reminded me of something important, though. Lying serves a purpose, and punishing our children with mental illness for the lie itself may mean we’re missing the underlying issue all-together.
ADHD and Lying Frustrates Parents
It feels like my son lies constantly. He lies about whether he walked the dog or did his homework. His stimulant medication wears off around bedtime, and then he gets so hungry that he often steals food at night. He then lies about this when confronted with the rotted remnants we find in his room.
It’s incredibly frustrating. After he stole cash from a family member, we’d had it and asked the therapist how to stop the behaviors. This led to contemplating how they began.
ADHD Promotes Lying as a Coping Mechanism
Children with ADHD struggle with everyday tasks, yet we maintain the same expectations for them as we do for other children. When they can’t meet those expectations, they’re punished. Children like my son are aware they can’t do these everyday tasks. This may lead to anxiety and depression. It also leads to lying because that’s one way to meet expectations.
When I tell my son to do his homework, then come back later to ask if it’s done, he’ll immediately say yes–even with incomplete homework sitting in front of him. He says yes because he wants to meet my expectation and doesn’t want to admit that he can’t. He feels shame that his distractibility and disorganization prevent him from completing a “simple” task. It doesn’t help that his younger sister completes her homework in half the time then tries to help him with his.
Lying and Lack of Impulse Control
“Bad” behaviors are easier. My son can earn money by doing chores, but chores don’t get done if he can’t pay attention or organize tasks to even start. When my son saw money lying around, then, stealing it was an easier option. When asked about it later, he said he hadn’t thought about how it would affect the person from whom he stole. He just thought it would be nice to have money to buy snacks.
Lack of executive functioning is a huge part of ADHD. It’s behind poor problem-solving skills. It causes an inability to connect cause with effect or remember past consequences. My son knows he gets punished for lying and stealing but, in the moment, all previous punishments don’t occur to him.
How to Respond to the Lying That Results From ADHD
Disciplining a child with ADHD is complicated. When I punish my son for a symptom outside his control, do I run the risk of him believing he’s punished for being himself? Rather than punishing his lies, I realize it may be better to focus on taking away the motivation to misbehave. Until recently, though, I hadn’t even considered what my son’s motivations might be.
It was a break-through, then, when I finally asked. He’d come down from an angry outburst after getting punished, and I asked what he’d been thinking when he lied. He said he hadn’t been thinking anything. I asked if he’d considered consequences, and he said he hadn’t until after he’d already lied, then he had to keep lying to avoid punishment. This was a relief, in some ways. He’s not a “bad” kid. He’s a kid who struggles with ADHD.
Knowing this hasn’t “cured” the lying, of course, but it did change my emotional response to it. In other words, just as GI Joe would say, “Knowing is half the battle.”*
*I may have just aged myself with that one.