I have never met an adult who hasn’t told a lie, usually within that same hour. It happens. We might fib because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or call in sick when we just want to sleep in, but could it be possible that children with ADHD are habitual liars? I know this feels true in my own home.

Our son is six, and he has been diagnosed as severe ADHD-combined, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Twice Exceptional, and Sensory Processing Disorder. So, while we know him to be a loving, thoughtful, rambunctious little guy, depending on the day, he can make you see red quicker than a traffic jam on the morning of a big presentation at work. It feels like he lies about everything.

“Honey, did you just hit your sister?”

“No.”

“But I just watched you do it.”

“Nope. That wasn’t me.”

“Briggs, there is literally no one else in the house right now.”

“I didn’t do it!” (Cue rage episode.)

Friends, we have gone over The Boy Who Cried Wolf scenario so many times that I feel like the wolf actually lives next door, but nothing seems to phase our son. We aren’t talking about your everyday, run-of-the-mill white lie here. It has become so difficult to believe even simple things he tells us because he almost never tells the truth, even when the truth seems easier than making up a story.

Full transparency, our son has told the following stories in such complete, impeccable detail that my husband and I had to think twice to make sure we were the ones on the side of the truth:

  1. We told him that going to his room on punishment meant that he couldn’t eat or drink anything for an entire day.
  2. We told him we were going to have another baby after his little sister and it would definitely be a boy this time.
  3. He convinced another boy on the bus that Michael Jackson was not only alive and well, but also his older brother.
  4. He told us that, when they behaved, the teacher let them pull a rope to the roof of his elementary school that made a giant dinosaur head roar.
  5. He and a neighbor boy found a killer groundhog with a hook in its mouth, which we were later told was put there when the neighborhood boy “caught him while fishing but let him go.”

Y’all, I can’t make this stuff up.

What we are finding is that our son sincerely wants to tell the truth. The lies spring from his inability to manage some of the symptoms from his ADHD behaviors such as trouble with memory, inability to manage tasks to completion, aversion to boring assignments, and impulsivity.

Inability To Balance Multiple Tasks
Let me paint a picture for you: We are running around to get out the door for school and work. I tell our son he needs to wear his black jacket to school today because his favorite Ninja Turtle coat is in the wash from yesterday’s mud puddle jumping session. He nods as he crams his breakfast bar in his mouth and ties his shoes. Moments later, I am in an epic tug of war with my then five-year-old who incessantly swears I never told him that, but that I said he could choose his jacket today.

Did he lie? Did I lie? Seriously, it happens so often it makes me question my own sanity.

Neither of us is at fault. I thought I was preparing him for a change in the routine that might throw him off, but I did so while he was already attempting to finish two other tasks: eat breakfast, and tie his shoes. He nodded and seemed to acknowledge my directive, but he never actually processed the words I spoke.

This is typical behavior for a child with ADHD. We must slow down, speak to them while they are giving us their undivided attention, and prioritize tasks so they accomplish what is most important, leaving the less important items to fall by the wayside.

Avoiding the Mundane
Another way kids with behavior diagnosis tend to tell mis-truths is when they make something up to avoid tasks they’d rather not do. Our son is a grand master negotiator. I am telling you he could make millions as a defense attorney by age eight. If he tells us that he needs to do XYZ before he takes out the bathroom trash (one of his typical chores that we always do on Saturday mornings), then his behavior needs to be addressed. We cannot excuse made up tasks to avoid what he finds mundane.

However, a best practices approach to managing ADHD behavior might be to explain why his story will not be acceptable in our home because we each pitch in around the house as that is the responsibility of any family member. We should then allow him time if he needs to calm down, and go on to explain a fun way to accomplish the task he is trying to avoid. This might mean  shooting the tightly closed trash bags into the can like a basketball outside or seeing if he can finish his tasks in an allotted timeframe to race against mom and dad. Making the boring more fun is the key to undoing the storylines of distraction.

Finishing What He Starts
On what planet is it acceptable to have no less than 17 projects or tasks launched but zero finished? Welcome to our house. It is ongoing dialogue in our home to remind Briggs to pick something up before he gets something else out, or to finish doing this thing before you start that other thing over there. It isn’t a problem of irresponsibility as much as it is his insatiable attraction to distraction. If he is in the middle of completing a Lego build outside for a roadschooling lesson and he sees something shiny near our pond, forget it! He is gone.

These kinds of distraction-impulsivity dances that occur by the minute at times tend to breed some of his most whopper stories of dishonesty.

“Did you finish putting your trucks away outside, buddy?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure, because I can see at least three of them sitting in the driveway right now,” I say as I look at them out the window. “I also see all of your swords and dress up clothes beside the trucks. What happened? You were just supposed to clean up the trucks.”

“Oh well, I started to do it but then this bald eagle flew down (we live in Ohio, not Alaska), and it tried to steal one of my dump trucks. I think it was going to take it to a secret lair where its nest is! So I had to defend it. I got my sword out and stabbed it but it flew away. I put on my costumes to scare it away because I love you, Mommy. I was defending you.”

Really!? Yes. Hand to the Lord Himself, these stories happen on the regular in our home.

Our son’s imagination is never looking for material. However, his ability to complete simple tasks is dire because of this wildly creative imagination. Is he really lying? I am not convinced. Sometimes, I feel like he may believe what he is pitching to us in the moment. Regardless, it is important for us to break down large tasks for him into simple to follow steps. He works better when he is monitored, but not micro-managed. So this requires us to work near him without lording over him. A bonus here is that he thrives on positive reinforcement so we are at the ready to dish that out as he finishes each small step toward the end goal of each assignment.

Memory Trouble
My husband and I are totally guilty of this, too. This is why my planner is riddled with Post-it notes and my phone with alarm reminders! The ability to mentally prioritize reminders is almost nonexistent for most people with ADHD. Their lack of focus tends to make them scatterbrained and requires them to set reminders or write things down. Since our son is only six, it puts that burden on us.

If I ask my son before leaving for work in the morning, “Baby, be sure that you brush your teeth, clean up your toys, and finish your homework with daddy today,” he can hug me and give me the smile that convinces me he has got it this time. In truth, he may have only heard one thing I said.

Children with ADHD don’t benefit (at least in our experiences) as much from reward charts as they do from interactive lists. So, much like how I totally add “grocery shopping” to my adult to-do list just so I can check it off since I already did it yesterday, he needs this interaction too.

In our house, we use a chore chart that has pictures and magnets he can move. This allows him to feel accomplished when he is able to move tasks from the “to-do” side to the “finished” side as well as allowing him to take ownership in negotiating the daily list with us before it is completed. He then feels responsible for the tasks and is more likely to remember them. Otherwise, we will end up with the common scenario of, “Mom, you never told me to do that.” Or, “No, Dad, I remember you said to clean up my toys, but you didn’t mention homework so I’m NOT DOING IT!” And we have a meltdown on our hands.

Nothing can hinder the beautiful bond between parents and child or put as much strain on a marriage as the issue of discipline and consistent consequences, especially with regard to honesty. So, here are some rules we live by that have helped us “mend the fences,” so-to-speak, and really make headway with our boy.

Strategies for Consequences:

1. Set Up Boundaries Ahead of Time
Our son knows what to expect before we arrive somewhere, before he is expected to clean things up, even before his regular bedtime each night. This simple step allows us to navigate difficult transitions more peacefully. It also gives him some ownership over his own behavior.

Be aware that time boundaries don’t mean much to kids too young to fully grasp the concept of time, so be sure to set boundaries they will understand such as, “We will be leaving the park in five minutes. That is enough time for you to go down the slide four more times.” Be sure they are looking at you, processing what you are telling them, and are able to repeat it back to you. Trust me on this. It will save you a lifetime of meltdowns!

2. Admit When YOU Are Wrong
This one step goes a loooonnnnggg way! Our kids need to see that adults make mistakes, too. And, not only that, but that it is OK to mess up—encouraged, even. Kids with ADHD feel like they spend more time being ridiculed and told they are wrong than anything else. It can be very encouraging to see that we are on their side. They aren’t the only ones.

It is also important to apologize publicly if the infraction was made publicly. If I correct my son for something and find out later I was wrong, I will be sure he hears my apology in front of the people he was chastised in front of. It is our hope that our son will feel less pressure when he messes up and feel like he can count on his parents to tell the truth even when it is difficult.

3. Be Consistent
It is so unbelievably important to be on the same page for discipline with your spouse or partner. Even if this person is your ex or someone whose household you are not a part of, including in laws or others who are a part of the village who raise your kids. If you want something enforced one way, everyone should be onboard. Otherwise, you are setting yourself up for the, “Well, daddy doesn’t make me . . . ” Um, no thank you, sir.

Have conversation often about consequences and what you are and are not comfortable with because these things will ebb and flow over time. Be sure to talk to your significant other before allowing or disallowing your kids to do something major so you didn’t get “mommy-daddied” as we call it; the infamous “Dad says no so I go ask Mom” trick. Dishonesty is a huge factor here as our son will flat-out lie to one of us if it means manipulating his way to what he wants. Be sure to always ask the other adult first.

4. Don’t EVER Threaten What You Won’t Follow Through With
This is crucial with kids who have ADHD. Our son also has ODD so it may be the most important parenting decision we ever make in a day. We can’t say to him, “Well then just go find a new family to live with if you don’t like it,” because our son will first exit our home and begin hoofing it to said new family, and two, he will never let us forget it.

It is so important to only offer consequences that you are capable of following through with—so think it through, moms and dads. If you are a TV household, you may want to rethink the “No TV” rule if it will actually punish you more than them. Our son thrives on attention from others, so sending him to his room is like a death sentence. That is something simple to follow through with and effective for him, individually.

5. Praise Honest Behavior
 As I mentioned before, reward charts are pointless for our son, specifically. Because of the combination of ADHD and ODD, you can offer him the world or threaten to take it all away and his reaction will likely be the same. However, he absolutely lives for kind, heartfelt recognition from the people he loves. It is so critical for us to notice when he does something kind or honest and pour on the compliments. These are things he will remember and we want him to strive for those in the future as well.

Conversely, the scary truth is that kids with our son’s diagnosis are up to 80 percent more likely to suffer from depression, substance abuse, and suicide. So, investing in our kids at a young age, showing them our own humble honesty and vulnerability, and pouring on the praise at every opportunity could make all the difference in the long term.

6. Talk It Out, Always
 This is important for our kids to see us model. If I have an issue with my husband—especially with regards to behavior—our son should see that it is healthy for adults to disagree, but that we do not resort to things like lying, yelling, throwing things, etc. to solve our concerns. Allowing our kids to see us peacefully settle disagreements is so important.

Likewise, our son should experience us approaching him to talk about situations after the dust settles. It makes no sense for me to try to rationalize with our son when he is at level five of a four-level meltdown. You don’t approach an alcoholic to talk about his addiction while he is at the bar. Too late, captain! We wait for the calm after the storm and then approach him kindly and calmly. It is imperative that our son understands his actions, the consequences that follow, as well as why we did whatever it was we felt necessary at that time. He should know that we love him no matter what and that we are in this thing together.

Parenting is messy and hard and doesn’t come with a one-size-fits-all instruction manual. However, the dishonesty train is parked in our station far too often. It is important that we, as parents, unite so we know we aren’t in this crazy journey alone. Our kid lies, too . . . a lot. However, because of his different needs, it will serve our sanity well to understand the why behind his struggles, and the motivation behind his storytelling, so we can craft a better approach from our end the next time.

Brynn Burger

I am a wife, a mother, a teacher, a friend, a writer, a lover of all things outdoors, and sometimes a shell of my former self. Parenting a child with behavior disabilities has become both my prison and my passion. I write so I can breathe. This is my therapy. I hope that my violent vulnerability and use of humor will help you to power through this with me. It is the only way I know.