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Lying: a Behavior or a Symptom?

We have all seen the classic picture of the little boy with the baseball bat. Behind him sits a shattered glass window with the perfect outline of a ball. Next comes the classic “I didn’t do it!”. While meant to be comical, this points to a bigger perspective we have when it comes to lying — It is “wrong.” The traditional response to lying is one of punishment, reprimand and consequence. However, despite a parent’s best efforts, children lie. About the big and the small. And come to think of it, we lie too. White lies, big lies, small lies. But all the same, lies. But, what if the case of “I didn’t do it!” actually signaled more than just a behavior to change? Buried underneath the lie is actually the inability to feel sad.

Lying is more than just trying to get out of a possible punishment. A person lying is often a red-flag-clue to the deeper issue of not wanting to feel sad. A six year old lies about taking a toy from the store. A teenager lies about going to a party and a coworker lies about taking the last donut. While different, each one has the same root. I cannot handle feeling sad. Therefore, I will do anything to avoid it. I am not condoning lying by any stretch of the imagination. However, what if when our child lies to us, we see it as a chance to increase their tolerance around feeling sad rather than solely a need for correction?

Sad is difficult for our society. We tend to shun or shut down a person experiencing sadness. So overtime we learn that it is not acceptable to feel sad and, as a result, we get little to no practice with sadness.

As a play therapist, I see this more often than not. A child comes in with symptoms, sometimes including lying, and what’s at the root is an incapability around handling sadness. We lack the understanding of what sad is, how to feel sad, and most importantly…whether or not it’s even ok to feel sad. Cue, lying. A symptom of a bigger obstacle, sad.

A typical response to someone who is sad often boils down to: “please don’t have that feeling near me.” We teach ourselves, each other and our children that if you do something wrong and feel sad then you are wrong and others won’t want to be near you. So, the solution lies in actually moving closer to a child who is lying to help show them they can tell the truth and handle the sad feelings that may come with it. And not only can they handle it, but you will stay in connection with them while they feel sad. Seem like a lofty goal? There are a couple of things that make this possible.

  1. Experiencing your own sad: What do you do when you are sad? Can you name it? Do you allow it to be rather than try to distract with your phone? This take practice! Moving toward the challenge of feeling sad may seem undesirable. However, it will bring you into deeper connection with yourself as well as your child.

  2. Approaching the lie from two sides. First, it does not feel good to be lied to. It feels sad. When someone lies and we find out it feels icky and gross. Similar to how it feels to be the liar. Second, asking the question: What is my child trying to avoid by lying? Usually it is getting in trouble, yes, but underneath that may be sadness around not getting what they want, disappointing you, or feeling not good enough. All bring up the possibility of sad.

Next time your child lies (or an adult for that matter), ask yourself if there is sad lurking somewhere under there. Talk about it. Bring it into the light and allow yourself and your children to experience it. Build connection in the difficulty and teach the brain that sad is not something to be feared and avoided but rather a gateway to greater connection, joy, and happiness. And who doesn’t want that?!

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