Children who Lie = Adults who Lie

Generally lying is seen as a bad trait, bad in children to develop and even worse in adults.

Yes we all do tell lies.

Yes we all need to admit that.

So are some lies better than others, and are some lies not really lies, perhaps they represent something more intrinsic to our wellbeing than a lie?

Do we like or trust people who tell lies?

Generally the answer to that one is no, but perhaps we need to be a little more generous, a little more compassionate and forgiving.

We find it easier to overlook the small socially acceptable lies that are often intended to be tactful and smooth over social awkwardness. We accept these kinds of lies as harmless. Yet they are the foundation of all types of lying.

Where is the boundary between social lying and deep dishonesty? It is only when we explore this more deeply for ourselves that we can begin to understand the mechanism of lying properly. To understand all is to forgive all.

Self preservation

We have the well known fight or flight but we also have freeze and — possibly deceive. It is a form of camouflage for the sense of self.

Many children use lying to protect themselves from criticism, punishment, rejection. These are all negative experiences which may not be fully understood by their developing paradigms of how life works. They are clearly threatening in ways which may be more terrifying to a child, than to those imposing that regime onto the child. After all if as an adult we can see why something is wrong, the tendency is to impart that understanding with some force to attempt to instil a sense of importance in the child. We may be getting it very wrong indeed.

What if instead we merely frighten them, they learn nothing and instead finds ways to defend themselves, lying even more deviously being an obvious one?

I grew up with very limited parents whose only method of parenting was emotional blackmail and authoritarian discipline which included shame, physical violence and disappointment which frequently led to rejection and retraction of love. What is more threatening to a child than a regime like that. So I learned to lie. I also had a marvellous role model in that my mother lied in the most astonishing ways imaginable, about everything. When caught out she went into ardent denial.

As an adult I have turned against all forms of dishonesty and crave absolute clarity and brutal honesty in reaction to the lies I lived with for so many years. I am also pretty open and blunt but those who love me respect and appreciate that in me. Lying gets too complicated and you have to deal with how often it backfires, which makes it all far worse. I found it all too awful to continue to live with on any level.

The human brain has split seconds in which to decide how to defend its organism and often fight or flight are not options, so what is left is freeze or deceive. It is after all a well-known defence mechanisms in the animal kingdom. Think of how many species use deception to escape their predators, playing dead, using camouflage and even changing colour and shape at times. The human version would seem to be defence through deception by lying.

Types of lying

We all lie to ourselves often, procrastination is a form of dishonesty linked to the amygdala, especially enlarged ones that develop in children brought up in stressful situations, so they are on alert more than they are relaxed or at rest, self defence again. Procrastination is a form of lying in which we justify our behaviour in putting off doing something that we are supposed to do. It is a slightly convoluted form of lying but nevertheless we are fooling ourselves in some way. But what we are really doing in this lying process is soothing the amygdala from the anxiety that clusters around the tasks we are putting off, and the lying is soothing our sense of conscience, our sense of integrity to ourselves. In other words it is defensive. It has a goal of protecting the organism — us — which is its job.

Procrastination is only one example of lying. It takes place in numerous circumstances and essentially has two main forms, an active form which is to actively reconstruct an alternative account, and passive which is to simply deny involvement or knowledge of said act.

The neuro-biology of lying

The amygdale is part of the limbic system, the region of the brain tasked with an immediate response to threat, a self defensive reaction which takes place before the frontal cortex has been aware of the threat.

So there is no chance of us getting a conscious choice of behaviour in front of that response. Hence our lying may well be beyond our conscious reach.

But the conscious self will be aware of the defensive mechanism as not being socially acceptable, and thus the sense of threat is doubly increased, the need to protect the organism is doubled so a further lie will quite probably be required to protect the initial one. And the body is now flooded with stress hormones cortisol, which is linked with many forms of stress related diseases.

It is our outer cortex, the neo-cortex or new brain which has the answer. If we can recognise the damage that lying does to us, and the complex mechanisms involved in maintaining lies, which in the end are never infinitely supported, we can start to negate these stress related processes. By accepting our defences and recognising them for what they are we can start to give ourselves or our children alternatives to lying which are threat free.

How to heal the damaged child who lies (and adults who do also).

This would include mindfulness training in self awareness, a regime of acceptance and forgiveness and encouragement to develop humility in messing up.

Getting things wrong should be a source of celebration in all ages, as a crucial stage in learning how to work things at the optimum. We need to learn why things don’t work in order to be able to understand how they might in other ways. All failures are stages on the way to success.

We all need to understand that messing up is ok to happen, we should never be made to feel worthless or inadequate for making mistakes but instead learn how to develop mistakes into a process of experimentation in life that will lead to a far more adventurous and fearless young adult.

So to summarise

Lying must not be punished but explored as a defence mechanism that is counter productive to the organism it is seeking to protect.

It should not be seen as a character defect but instead a defence response to a hostile environment for children to develop in.

As parents and adults we should take that latter point very seriously.

IF a child is taught that to please the adults in its life is its only value, then they will work at that with all their power, and if subterfuge works once it will be used repeatedly, leading to a string of stressful lies that will eventually collapse anyway,

But the potential health damage of this is equally significant when you consider how much premature death is caused by stress related disease, depression and mental health issues, and I do wonder how much of that is based on this fear of failure, fear of being wrong and lying as a defence mechanism.

This is a food for thought article and not supposed to be the final word, but I am curious about how this approach may work out for children in the future and their long term health and happiness.


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Sylvia Clare MSc. Psychol

Mindfulness teacher, poet, advocate for mental health and compassionate living, author of ‘No Visible Injuries’, ‘Living Well and Loving ADHD’ and many others