Does My Son Know He’s Lying?

Q: My 9-year-old son is now in his fourth school. He has issues with impulse control, and also lacks, to a very great extent, an understanding of social cues. For example, when he talks to someone he can be two inches away from their face.

He’s been tested a few times, and some evaluators say that he is on the autism spectrum, but that hasn’t been a definitive diagnosis.

He’s in a special school now, where they use many behavior modification techniques, but he just seems to have become more competitive with his peers. He is a sore loser in group sports games, and it’s gotten to the point that he lies in order to “save face.”

He complains that other classmates “bully” him (that’s the term he uses), but he doesn’t seem to remember when he did the same to them, and he can be cruel to the other boys.

Sometimes when I talk to him I feel like I’m talking to the wall. It’s hard for me to know if he really knows he’s lying, or if he actually believes what he’s saying. If I knew that he was trying to deceive others, I would focus on dealing with his manipulation. But sometimes I have to spend a lot time just trying to explain to him his part in the problem. That often doesn’t help anyway, because he just continues to defend himself, again and again. He’s a very black-and-white thinker, and finds it hard to get past his limited understanding of things.

When a teacher doesn’t agree with him, he can just walk out of the classroom! At home, my husband and I try to be as concrete as possible with him — dealing with his black-and-white thinking — to avoid his lack of understanding and difficulty in picking up nuances.

My son’s Rebbi is putting a lot of effort into working on classmates getting along with each other. He gives rewards to talmidim who refrain from name-calling and fighting, and I myself see how certain children are putting effort into ignoring my son’s annoying behaviors.

I know that there are no easy answers to my son’s problematic behavior, but what is the general direction we should go in?

A: As you say, no one can diagnose a person through written descriptions. What can be suggested, however, are just attempts to work with your son’s problematic behaviors.

Perhaps a helpful way to deal with your son’s lies is just the ambivalent way, in which you describe it. There are times that he is aware that he is not speaking the truth, and there are other times when his subjective reality actually believes the non-truths. When human beings can’t accept their limitations, they often resort to self-deception, in a variety of ways. Perhaps your son is pained to think that he can’t always win, and can’t get others to like his company. He’d rather emphasize the role of the other in a problematic relationship — even if their part is minimal compared to his own.

On any given day, instead of entering into a power struggle or continually focusing on his lying (or not lying), it is better to focus on his positive actions. If he is unable to receive direct compliments, indirect comments such as, “You can’t fool me — I saw how you were so kind to Shloimi when it was hard to share your new game.”

Focusing on how no one wins all the time, is a way to break the need to be perfect.

Giving examples of when you or your husband dealt with “losing” with dignity — or when “losing” actually brought out a preferred outcome, is another approach to take.

As your son is in a special school, I would guess that they are working on the issue of spatial awareness with him. If this is dealt with in the classroom, it will improve your son’s relationships with his peers.

If you are confronted with a lie reflecting his embarrassment at his own imperfections (or reflecting your son’s self-deception when the pain is too great for him), you can smile, hug him and say how you love him even with his mistakes. (Of course, if the lie is of a serious nature, this is not an appropriate response!)

Hatzlachah in this most challenging endeavor.