Fight, Flight, Freeze, Appease, or Lie

Dear Parents,

The Attach Place

The Attach Place
Center for Strengthening Relationships

Is your child’s lying a sign of pathology or future doom? Is it disrespectful and an indicator that your child is morally bankrupt?  I know you have thoughts, at least, if not outright accusations leveled toward your child of his/her untrustworthiness.  I sure thought worse and said plenty to my children that I regret before I knew what was happening.

There is evolving research that there is a fifth neuro-biologically driven addition to the sympathetic nervous system’s response to perceived threat or danger.  Faced with extreme stress, human’s have four survival modes–fight, flight, freeze, or appease. It seems the new self-protective mechanism is lying–fib your way out.  Can’t run, can’t hit, staring like a deer in the headlights won’t work, better run then with a tall tale.  If it works for even a brief moment, the limbic part of the brain that has just shot into a neuro-cascade of stress hormones–adrenaline and cortisol–now gets a reward to the brain when the lie allows for a momentary reprieve from danger in the form of  a) parental disapproval, b) parental punishment, c) shame feelings, d) lowered self-esteem and self-efficacy.  In essence, lying works to help the child survive a little bit longer physically, emotionally, and socially.  While it is often short-lived and short-sighted, lying works in the moment to lift the threat.  Win/Win on the level of brain function.

What I’ve just described, happens every day in our homes with children from difficult beginnings because Developmental Trauma has impaired the development of the pre-frontal cortex where executive function with higher order thought resides.

There are three functions that lend your child’s brain to lying:

Weak Inhibition: Impulsivity and the inability to stop an action.  Under pressure to respond to a stressful parental question like “Did you do xyz?”,  verbal communication jumps out before logical thought has kicked in.

Poor Emotion Regulation: Extreme overwhelming fear response in the face of a stressful situation–parental punishment, disapproval, rejection, lowered value, shame, past abuse imprints.

Faulty Working Memory: Poor planning for getting “found out” in the heat of the current moment. Inability to apply prior teaching and coaching from the recent past to the present.

Early Imprint: If your child comes home to you after being harmed by any kind of abuse, including neglect, and by the nature of fostering/adoption there is also at least one–if not many–attachment breach, your child’s brain is pre-conditioned and hardwired to distrust parents, even in the absence of evidence that the current parent is untrustworthy.  Chronically projecting the past onto the present is a hallmark of Developmental Trauma.

What is the answer then for caregivers? 

Well, it is not as easy to extinguish lying as it is to understand the neuroscience of it.  Imagine that.

  1.  Use PACE in all your interactions with your child.  This is an attitude of playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy.  This is how we ought to treat all children regardless of their beginnings because it is loving and respectful to their budding humanness.
  2. Use soft, empathic questioning to help prepare your child to tell the truth. Are you worried about getting into big trouble or about my disappointment?  Sweetheart, I know it is hard for you to tell me the truth when you are afraid of getting into trouble and feeling bad.  I understand that and I don’t want you to be in trouble or to be afraid of bad feelings inside or outside.  I am only interested in you being able to tell the truth.  There will be no trouble.  I promise. Parents, be sure to keep that promise if you make it.
  3. Give space for the child to regulate and allow room for a thoughtful response, rather than an impulsive one. So, Let’s take a few minutes to think before we talk.  This is hard for parents to do.  We seem to be impulsive about lying, too.  Did you take that candy from your teacher?  Tell me right now.  Since you already know the answer, don’t bother to ask. Making a demand to tell the truth will definitely set the survival lower brain processes into action. It is a setup for lying.
  4. Regulate with your child.  Admit it, you get dysregulated, too, when your child lies. We parents often feel wildly disrespected by lying.  We also feel intense fear that our child is going to be unsuccessful in life if lying persists into adulthood.  When a child is 8, 9, 10 years old, you can be sure lying is not the precursor for a school to prison pipeline.
  5. Resist the urge to teach by punishing the crime that is being lied about.  Reward the truth with a reprieve from the negative consequences of your disappointment, anger, or loss of stature in your eyes. Withhold punishment of any kind to create felt safety.  Brainstorm a restorative justice response with your child once all the truth is out and the regulation is back to normal. Restorative justice is doing a kindness like a chore for someone wronged.  Or it might be writing a letter of apology.  It could be repairing something broken and paying for the supplies out of birthday money or allowance.

None of this will make lying go away.  It is the last survival behavior to go, so be prepared to regulated over the long haul.  As your child ages into adulthood, you will have instilled a habit of telling the truth.  Isn’t that the point after all?

Love matters,


The Attach Place Upcoming Events Calendar

Trust-based Therapeutic Parenting Class for Parents of Children from Difficult Beginnings by Ce Eshelman, LMFT will be held in November 10, 2018 from 10 am to 4 pmChildcare provided for an additional fee. CALVCB will reimburse this training. Register here or on our website!

AUTISM Support Group:  Monthly Strictly Social Autism Spectrum Disorder Night for Tweens (11 yrs – 16 yrs) at The Attach Place. Open to the public. October 19th, 2018 from 5:30 pm to 7:00 pm.  Gluten-free snacks provided. Please RSVP to so we get enough snacks. This is a  monthly social group for the children; and caregivers will have an opportunity to connect, chat, and chill in a separate space. A donation of $0.00 to $5.00 will be accepted for food and supervision if you are able, but please don’t let that be an attendance barrier because the group is FREE.  ASD kids need a social life and this is a great way to make it happen.

UPCOMING ADOPTION SUPPORT GROUP facilitated by Ce Eshelman, LMFT:  Click Here to join our monthly  Adoptive/Foster Parent Support Group on October 10th, 2018! Open to all parents/caregivers at no cost. Support Group is every 2nd Wednesday of every month from 6 pm to 8 pm at 3336 Bradshaw Road, Ste 175, Sacramento, CA 95827.

GIVE MY BOOK FOR SUPPORT TO A FELLOW ADOPTION ADVENTURER: Drowning With My Hair On Fire: Insanity Relief For Adoptive Parents by Ce Eshelman, LMFT.  Daily inspirational reading for those who sometimes find it hard to keep hope alive. There is hope for healing.  At Amazon or get a discounted copy here.




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