One of the most common points of frustration for caregivers of children who have attachment wounds is how to respond to lying. All children – in fact, all of us – lie sometimes. But for kids with developmental trauma or disorganized attachment, this is part of survival.

What does it look like?

  • Crazy lying (“No, I didn’t take a cookie!” when it is in the child’s hand).
  • Dishonest expressions of affection.
  • Blaming others for mistakes.
  • Narratives that are full of holes or fantastical.

A child whose brain has learned to live in fight-or-flight may never be able to learn to control that initial response to deceive. But if we only pay attention to language, then caregivers are in danger of going down the rabbit hole and misunderstanding what’s in front of them.

Psychotherapist and neurobiology expert, Stan Tatkin, recommends caregivers look in the spaces and watch for clusters. Focus on the face, eyes, voice and body ‘tells.’

“The face is the primary signal system for emotion. And the body will often back up the emotion.”

A key teller of a lie is the pause, which occurs prior to the untruth. “This is dissociation, which is a marker for disorganized attachment,” says Tatkin. “Resources are being used. We know parts of the brain are resource hogs, and when they are employed the body gets interrupted – fine muscle movement and gross muscle movement gets interrupted.”

Think of your child moving in a chair and then they stop when you ask a question. Know that the child needs to use resources in that moment. This can be an indicator that this is something that needs to be flagged and monitored.

The same goes for jerkiness in facial movements. The jerkiness usually comes a few seconds after the words. It follows arousal, and controls are put on the face or body.

Other somatic (body) indicators include:

  • Too much eye contact.
  • Change in eye direction (looking to the left for ‘safety’).
  • Anchor point movements (body and back within 3-5 seconds).
  • Grooming gestures.
  • Inappropriate smile (it looks like a smirk).
  • Itching in the face (this is caused by shrinking in skin cells).
  • Self-soothing movements (coughing or sighing).
  • Breathing (particularly if it moves from the belly to the chest).
  • Muscle tautness (in the face, the arms and legs; when arousal moves up, muscles tighten, when moving down, muscles droop).
  • Posture changes (for example, legs moving towards the door indicates a need to run).
  • Tone, cadence and sentence structure (higher or lower? quicker or slower? more words or less?) Note: Simple, brief sentences are linked to memory recall. Long sentences and complex language often ‘tell’ a fabrication.

What does it mean to use resources?

Tatkin says if we look at the science we learn that it takes a lot of energy for the higher part of our brain (neocortex) to operate – for language, for mentalisation, for predicting what someone might do, or plan the future.

The lower regions, on the other hand, need very little oxygen and glucose to run. Think for a moment how babies can stay alive for long periods of time in the event of a natural disaster. This is because their brain hasn’t yet developed fully, and it doesn’t require much energy to survive.

However, if we are to look at a fully developed adult, it’s critical that the brain regulate activity and conserve energy, otherwise it would over-heat. “Fortunately, the brain is brilliant at what it won’t do, not what it can do,” says Tatkin. “It uses limiters – switches that turn something off and turn something on – so, everything is not on at the one time.”

Dr. Bruce Perry of the Child Trauma Academy has designed a chart to illustrate which brain systems are on during moments of calm, alert, alarm, fear and terror. For example, if a child feels calm when questioned he can operate out of his higher brain, think and reflect, and has very little regression. However, if a child feels fear when questioned (perhaps he knows he will get in trouble), he moves to the lower brain, reacts instead of thinking, gives nonverbal cues and, overall, the child regresses to infant or toddler behaviour.

Tatkin recommends caregivers learn to notice the smallest shifts in a child’s face and body, before, during or after employment of resources. But, he stresses, these are purely markers that caregivers collect and test over time.

© Fel Stewart, 2019