Lying or Wishful Thinking: Which One Is Your Youngster Doing?

So, you have just caught your child lying to you! Now comes a consequence, right? But wait a minute! Was he really lying, or was it a trait of his or her disorder?

Children with ASD level 1, or  High Functioning Autism (HFA), may puzzle their moms and dads by (a) the quantity and poor quality of their lying and (b) the fact that traditional disciplinary strategies don't seem to change the behavior. For these special needs kids, it may be helpful to think less in terms of “lying” and more in terms of "wishful thinking" (i.e., they often say what they would like to be true, rather than what is clearly and objectively true). This may happen for several reasons:

1. Some HFA children can't predict cause and effect. Your youngster throws a ball and breaks a window. His culpability in the act seems clear-cut to you. But a youngster who has trouble with cause-and-effect thinking may not be able to make the connection between throwing a ball and breaking a window. In his mind, if he didn't intend to do it, he didn't do it.

2. Some children on the autism spectrum don't distinguish between fantasy and reality. What is objective to you may be subjective to your youngster. If one truth is as good as another, your youngster may select the one that seems, in his mind, to best suit the occasion.

3. Some of these children don't know what's true. Kids who behave impulsively may not have a clear awareness of what they have done. Kids who have trouble with language processing may not have understood what was asked or expected. Kids with sensory differences may know only what they feel.

4. Some know that the truth may make you (the parent) angry, and they want to please you. If a youngster has done something wrong -- whether due to impulsivity, compulsive behavior, self-protective behavior, language processing problems, motor planning problems, or other causes related to disability -- he may try to make it right by telling you what he thinks will make you happy.

5. Some children are just trying to get in the conversation. Children with limited life experience or limited vocabulary may want to have something to say - but no true contribution to make. Coming up with a story, however fanciful or false, may seem like the only way to participate.

6. Many of these kids are stressed. If you know that your youngster can't think calmly and clearly when stress levels are high, don't be surprised if you see lots of crazy, stubborn lying in that situation.

7. Most HFA children are telling “their” truth. They often experience the world very, very differently than their mother or father, but that does not make their experience false. If your youngster stubbornly, desperately clings to a declaration that you feel is untrue -- water's too hot, work is too hard, an object can't be found -- ask yourself if it might be only untrue to you.

If your youngster has legitimate special needs that may lead him to tell “wishful thinking” instead of the truth, think carefully before giving consequences for lying. It's important for children to know that they should tell the truth, sure, but if the lying is not deliberate, stiff consequences will teach nothing. When your child engages in “lying behavior,” ask yourself if he is doing so with malice and intent. If not, try these techniques for putting more truth in “wishing”:
  1. Accept remorse as genuine.
  2. Be clear and even-tempered in your expectations.
  3. If the wishful thinking in question requires a response, give a brief, judgment-free time-out.
  4. Leave your youngster unsupervised as little as possible, so you always know the score.
  5. Make sure you have your youngster's attention when you ask a question.
  6. Make sure you tell more truth than fiction yourself.
  7. Respect your youngster's reality, and be open to compromise.
  8. Stay as unemotional as possible when getting to the truth of a situation.
  9. Take "I don't know" as an honest answer.
  10. Tell your youngster what you think happened instead of demanding an explanation.

How can I tell if my child is lying – or simply using wishful thinking?

If you pay careful attention to your youngster's behavior, it will help you tell if he or she is lying. Here’s how:

1. Look at the youngster's facial expression. Kids who are telling the truth have relaxed faces that usually show an emotion that matches what the youngster is saying. If a youngster is lying, however, his face may show anxiety caused by knowing that he is telling a lie.

2. Listen carefully to what the youngster is saying. Stories that are false may contain inconsistencies or elements that don't make sense. The story or parts of it may not sound believable. If you suspect a youngster is lying, ask the youngster to repeat what he just told you. Truthful stories told twice in a row will generally be the same, but stories that contain lies may change dramatically or contain accounts that cannot both be true.

3. Decide whether the youngster's story sounds rehearsed or spontaneous. Kids who are telling the truth will usually tell it "off the cuff"(i.e., the story will sound like a fresh recounting of an actual event). A lie, on the other hand, may sound stilted or rehearsed. Some kids may even repeat the exact same phrases when telling a rehearsed story the second time.

4. Watch your youngster's body language. A youngster who is lying is more likely to appear nervous, defensive or scared. Look for hunched shoulders, a stiff body or face, repeatedly touching the nose or mouth and avoiding eye contact. While some kids are anxious when speaking to grown-ups no matter what they say, kids who can speak comfortably to adults normally, but who are nervous when telling a particular story, may be lying.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

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