Liar, Liar: Looking Beyond the Lie

 
Almost every week, I get an email, phone call or facilitate a workshop/training where a foster parent or social worker tells a story about a youth in their care who has lied.  Whenever they start the story, I can hear their frustration from their first words. When I let them go on, others usually join in with comments like “These kids have no respect and need to learn that they can’t lie” or something similar. I’ve learned over the years to let it go and let them talk. I’ve learned if I interrupt they will never hear the words of experience I have to share. I let them continue. Sometimes, it feels the story and examples of the lies will never end.  I wait for that moment; where they take a breath while trying to find another example to point out to me.

 

Lying in its most general terms is defined as an intentionally false statement.  Whenever a parent, social worker or advocate brings up the topic of lying, I try to be as direct as possible.

 “How many of us have lied?” 

You think everyone would raise his or her hands. It is usually only me and maybe one or two others. They all sit there, shaking their heads that they don’t lie.  I switch to a different approach.

I ask, “How many of you where asked ‘how are you doing today?’ and answered with ‘fine’ knowing it was a lie?”

Generally, I get a few more hands. I give more examples. The truth is all of us lie about little things and big things all of the time.  Sometimes when we lie it is a conditioned response, like answering, “I’m fine”.

All of us know we are lying, but we forgive ourselves and move on. So why then when a child lies about something do we take it so personally? Earlier I supplied the definition of lying as an intentional act. The argument could be made that answering, “I’m fine” isn’t intentional, but rather just good etiquette.

I propose we consider when a child is raised in dysfunctional and traumatic surroundings lying can become a way to stay safe.   I can absolutely point to several instances throughout my own childhood that if I would have told the truth, I may not have survived.  I can point to instances where I was coached and told by my parents that lying was essential to our well-being.

If my brain has developed in a way that makes it wired to believe that lying is essential for my survival, then why when I am removed from that situation wouldn’t I just stop? Simple, my brain hasn’t developed new pathways, and my brain hasn’t decided that you are a safe person.

Somewhere in the child welfare system, we have decided that a child should just “know” that when they are removed they are safe. But when I ask adults around the country how long it would take for them to feel comfortable if they went to live at a stranger’s house, the room usually goes silent. Trust doesn’t just happen, and new pathways in the brain have to be configured to overcome the previous trauma.

Instead of focusing on the lie, what if we step back and ask, “What’s behind the lie?” “Why would this person lie about this?” The reason behind the lie is much more important than the lie itself.

We need to ask ourselves, what does the lie provide? Is it tied to emotional or physical safety? Instead of focusing on the lie we need to focus on what in my support or care is missing. What am I missing?

When we remove a child from a home it is our job to first and foremost provide physical and emotional safety. When a child is removed, the State is telling that child that we can do better to keep them safe. It is not easy to provide emotional safety. It takes time and patience.

Shenandoah Chefalo is a former foster youth, and advocate. She is the author of the memoir, Garbage Bag Suitcase, and co-founder of Good Harbor Institute an organization focused on translating evidence based research on trauma into skills that can be used immediately by individuals and organizations. You can learn more about her and her work at www.garbagebagsuitcase.com or www.goodharborinst.com

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Elizabeth Fitzgerald posted:

Thank you.

Congratulations on your book! Your story is amazing and your courage to share it is inspiring.

Thanks Elizabeth. I'm working on the next one, Hiking for Stillness, which will take a deep dive into how we turn the lens on ourselves to unravel our own trauma and move forward so we can hold space for others to do the same. 

Elizabeth Fitzgerald posted:

As part of a 4 hour training I wrote on the principles and practices of trauma informed care I include the story of Pinocchio; a classic, though not widely recognized tale of dysfunctional family dynamics and how lying is used as a form of protection in the absence of self-efficacy and relational safety.  Gheppeto, as with all kinds of parents, literally had strings attached to the 'love' he was offering the son he'd crafted. The message Pinocchio received was 'be who I need you to be' all the while hearing how much Gheppeto wanted "a real boy". It's a very confusing message; meet my needs but be authentic in a way that serves me best? Lying became the form of self protection you describe in your article. When lying wasn't enough of an escape Pinocchio turned to addiction (Pleasure Island-let's numb out with video games and drinking-which turn him into a donkey) His stint with addiction leads to finding himself alone in 'the belly of the whale'; a symbolic stage of change from Joseph Campbell's model of The Hero's Journey. For children in unsafe, dysfunctional or unhealthy families the 'belly of the whale' is often some department within our system of public services. For adults, it's often rehab or jail. As children we may feel or notice things in our relationships that we're reacting to but don't yet have language for; emotional incest, parental expectations we feel unable or unwilling to meet or a sense of perceived rejection we're unable to 'prove'. Or a child may have very healthy foster parents but fear too greatly that their authenticity will be unlovable so lying, as your article states, feel like the safer choice, until there is some organic 'belly of the whale' moment where a child is able to trust the security of their new placement and emerge as their new self which is hopefully a happy adopted kid. Sometimes these successes happen.

You make helpful observations and good suggestions. How much do we love the trauma-informed lens?

As to the question you present about the general population not having knowledge about ACEs I'm beginning to wonder if our aversion/avoidance is parallel to other  social inequities we've had to for; civil rights, LQBTQAI, poverty. We tend to avoid discussing or addressing the ways we've hurt each other until we can identify manageable solutions. We tend to blame or shame the victim or hurt person when a problem is very big, scary or overwhelming for fear of owning our part and not feeling able to make an appropriate amends. As I've offered trainings I continue to hear requests for skills, easy 1,2,3 solutions or ways to 'fix it'. I tell groups there is no curriculum for love but lots of great ideas for helping to create safe, accepting, inclusive environments which support the restoration of power to students, staff or whomever we're serving. I think we make ACEs approachable by presenting with love.

Elizabeth-You should have written this blog. I hadn't thought of Pinocchio in awhile, and your parallels are a great way to understand the connection. 

I think the trauma-informed lens in an important one. I think we tend to shy away, because if we really look at it, we have to also look at our own trauma and adversity, and, let's be honest, that is painful work that most people try and avoid. And that, I think at the core is why it becomes such difficult work. Most of the trainings I see focus on someone else's trauma/adversity, but truthfully we have to each understand our own, so we can see why some things make us so upset and others not so much. 

Our lens affects our perspectives, and until we do the self work, the rest becomes very cloudy and very muddy. It is so much easier to believe that it is someone else who needs to do the work. When I was coaching with clients, I would always tell them that it was self-serving work. If my clients did their work, it made it easier for me to do my own work. If they were truly happy and successful, it was much easier for me to be. That's because when you are surrounded with people who have addressed their trauma, they are usually willing to hold space for your to address yours, and they are no longer looking through a fuzzy filter, subconsciously trying to get their own needs met. 

ACEs absolutely has to be presented by love. But, we also have to be willing to come back to it, time and time again. When you react in trauma brain, you can't expect to make a correction on the first time. It could take hundreds of times. And, if we are going to be the stable adults to make that happen, we need to be sure we are addressing our own stuff, so that we can continue to hold that space. 

As part of a 4 hour training I wrote on the principles and practices of trauma informed care I include the story of Pinocchio; a classic, though not widely recognized tale of dysfunctional family dynamics and how lying is used as a form of protection in the absence of self-efficacy and relational safety.  Gheppeto, as with all kinds of parents, literally had strings attached to the 'love' he was offering the son he'd crafted. The message Pinocchio received was 'be who I need you to be' all the while hearing how much Gheppeto wanted "a real boy". It's a very confusing message; meet my needs but be authentic in a way that serves me best? Lying became the form of self protection you describe in your article. When lying wasn't enough of an escape Pinocchio turned to addiction (Pleasure Island-let's numb out with video games and drinking-which turn him into a donkey) His stint with addiction leads to finding himself alone in 'the belly of the whale'; a symbolic stage of change from Joseph Campbell's model of The Hero's Journey. For children in unsafe, dysfunctional or unhealthy families the 'belly of the whale' is often some department within our system of public services. For adults, it's often rehab or jail. As children we may feel or notice things in our relationships that we're reacting to but don't yet have language for; emotional incest, parental expectations we feel unable or unwilling to meet or a sense of perceived rejection we're unable to 'prove'. Or a child may have very healthy foster parents but fear too greatly that their authenticity will be unlovable so lying, as your article states, feel like the safer choice, until there is some organic 'belly of the whale' moment where a child is able to trust the security of their new placement and emerge as their new self which is hopefully a happy adopted kid. Sometimes these successes happen.

You make helpful observations and good suggestions. How much do we love the trauma-informed lens?

As to the question you present about the general population not having knowledge about ACEs I'm beginning to wonder if our aversion/avoidance is parallel to other  social inequities we've had to for; civil rights, LQBTQAI, poverty. We tend to avoid discussing or addressing the ways we've hurt each other until we can identify manageable solutions. We tend to blame or shame the victim or hurt person when a problem is very big, scary or overwhelming for fear of owning our part and not feeling able to make an appropriate amends. As I've offered trainings I continue to hear requests for skills, easy 1,2,3 solutions or ways to 'fix it'. I tell groups there is no curriculum for love but lots of great ideas for helping to create safe, accepting, inclusive environments which support the restoration of power to students, staff or whomever we're serving. I think we make ACEs approachable by presenting with love.

Rene Howitt posted:

The problem is, the general public isn't even aware of ACEs. We must find ways to make this a common topic of conversation so that all understand how we are impacted by our childhood, both good and bad. 

Agreed! I think we have to find the pain points for the general population. It is why I try to talk about these feelings, emotions and other things that are sometimes difficult to discuss so we can begin the conversation on not just ACE's but also Resilience. 

The problem is, the general public isn't even aware of ACEs. We must find ways to make this a common topic of conversation so that all understand how we are impacted by our childhood, both good and bad. 

Rene Howitt posted:

Great advice. Fostering is such a hard job. Sometimes we hold these kids to a higher standard than our biological children or other children in our life. The reality is...all children lie. We have to teach them to be honest. This is a hard concept for some children even when they haven't been traumatized. Adding trauma to a child's life just makes this a harder concept to teach. Some children have trouble learning to count change or tell time. We don't simply stop and say they are slow or stupid. We, the adult, have to change tactics to teach the concept. When it appears the process is slow it doesn't mean the child isn't learning. 

Rene-Your are correct. EVERYONE lies! This has been something we are seeing everyday in the news. . . adults who lie. I contend that even in those situations, that we need to hold the actual "lie" to the side, and look at what's behind it. What has happened to someone to make them "lie" ? Are they functioning in trauma brain? IF so, why? And how do we help them to build resilience to take new steps to build new pathways. 

Great advice. Fostering is such a hard job. Sometimes we hold these kids to a higher standard than our biological children or other children in our life. The reality is...all children lie. We have to teach them to be honest. This is a hard concept for some children even when they haven't been traumatized. Adding trauma to a child's life just makes this a harder concept to teach. Some children have trouble learning to count change or tell time. We don't simply stop and say they are slow or stupid. We, the adult, have to change tactics to teach the concept. When it appears the process is slow it doesn't mean the child isn't learning. 

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