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Is it lying or confabulation—and how should I respond?

“I didn’t do it!”

It’s Saturday afternoon. You hear a loud crash, and seconds later your 12-year-old runs into the living room with his baseball in his hands. You’re pretty sure that he just broke his bedroom window. So you ask what seems like the logical question: “What did you break?”

“Nothing! “I didn’t do anything!”

You go into his room to find the window is broken. With frustration rising, you say, “Did you break the window? What happened?!”

“I said I didn’t do it!” he says.

You say, “You clearly broke the window. You need to tell me the truth when I ask you what happened.”

After a screaming match, he yells, “I didn’t break the window—the ball did!”

You are angry and frustrated, because it feels like your child is lying to you. But sometimes lying is not really lying. It may be a type of distorted thinking called confabulation that’s beyond their control. Confabulation happens when our memories are faulty and our brains fill in the blanks—the result is something that feels like truth to us.

All of us do some amount of confabulation, but it’s particularly common in children who’ve had prenatal exposure to alcohol or who’ve experienced trauma.

What causes confabulation?

As children’s stress and anxiety increase, their ability to reason and remember goes down. This can cause them to confabulate further as their memories become more difficult for them to access and their brains fill in the blanks.

Confabulation is not mean or intentional. Children trust their memory and feel like they are telling the truth. They are likely to be hurt that they are not believed and respond with sadness, anger, or frustration. They may even rage. (It’s important to note that even if a child is intentionally lying, their behavior may escalate if you choose to respond in the moment by trying to take on the lie.)

Being accused of lying hurts children’s self-esteem, especially if they confabulate regularly and are often told they are lying.

You cannot ask a child why they are misleading you, because they do not have the answer to this question. They don’t know why, because they do not know that they are not sharing the truth. A person who is confabulating is telling the truth from their perspective. Even when children are lying on purpose, they usually still won’t be able to answer this question.

How can you help children understand confabulation?

Children and adults will always have trouble understanding what confabulation is and how their brain differences affect thinking and memory.

If your child can understand it, you can explain how we all have to question our own perceptions sometimes. Our brains are trying to help us fill in gaps in our memory. Sometimes, though, that help isn’t so helpful because it puts memories in our head that didn’t actually happen. Emphasize how this happens to everyone, not just to them. Practice checking in with each other to confirm how an event unfolded. Be ready to support them through what can be a scary thought—that they can’t always trust their own memory.

What are some positive strategies you can use when your child isn’t telling the truth?

  • Focus on reducing stress and anxiety and preventing upset. A child that feels safe and secure is better able to remember things and think through a problem.
  • Don’t address the fact that their memory of events is wrong. Focus on making a plan to move forward.
  • Remind yourself why your child confabulates and that it’s not on purpose.

Back to our opening scenario….

What are all the things affecting the child’s behavior at the moment he is explaining to you that he is not guilty of breaking the window?

  • Stress or anxiety.
  • Avoiding being in trouble—taking care of himself.
  • Cognitive distortions or limitations—he feels like he’s telling the truth, the ball did break the window.
  • Hurt or anger that his parent doesn’t believe him.
  • Hopelessness that there is no right answer, no right thing to say or do.

How might you respond in this situation?

  • Start with safety and security: “Are you OK? Are you hurt?”
  • Maintain a calm voice and affect.
  • Think about what you need to know right now. Is it actually important to learn exactly what happened in the moment? If you don’t ask “what happened,” your child may remain calmer. Depending on the child and the situation, you may choose to ask your child about it later instead.

In this case, the parent made assumptions in the way that they ask their questions. “What did you break?” puts the child on the defensive and causes stress. Also, the parent knows something broke and knows it was probably caused by the child without asking any questions at all. Many of the questions are unnecessary and only serve to agitate the child.

Bottom line

For many children who have experienced trauma, loss, abuse, or neglect, lying and confabulating are survival skills that can take a very long time to unlearn. Consistently calm and nonjudgmental responses to these behaviors are incredibly important to our children’s success.