What to Do When Adoptees Lie and Steal

Whether it’s taking food from a friend’s house or money from your wallet, it’s important to be measured in how you respond if your child steals something.(Getty Images)

There is a false assumption that antisocial behaviors only occur in older children who were adopted out of the foster care system after suffering neglect or abuse. In fact, time and again I hear from distressed parents of children adopted at all ages that their children have been lying and stealing – and that they don’t know what to do about it.

Parents of children adopted as newborns or young babies are often bewildered and caught by surprise if their child hoards food, steals money and tells falsehoods. “I could understand if he had a history of hunger and trauma,” one mother explained. “But my son has never been deprived of food or love. I brought him home with me when he was 4 days old. Why is he constantly stealing money from my wallet and sneaking food from other people’s houses?”

The possibility that an adopted child may have an increased tendency to lie or steal is something that is not discussed enough in pre-adoption consultations, nor in online comment threads, because nobody wants to be attacked for perpetuating the stereotype of the “troubled adoptee” or the “bad parent.”

In a society that is quick to shame parents, it is scary to acknowledge and openly talk about a child’s behavioral struggles. The key is to move away from judgment and learn that what is happening is actually an understandable adaptive behavior by a child in psychological pain.

In talking with older adoptees who are better able to understand their emotions, I’ve learned that many adoptees feel as if they have been “stolen” from their biological families. Even the most loving, open, nurturing parents cannot take away the reality that some adoptees feel like they are living a false identity.

If children look and feel very different from their adoptive families – while being told that they completely belong and are exactly the same as non-adopted children – they feel secretly confused and conflicted. They may feel as if the world has been lying to them from the time they were babies, and that they can lie, too.

This can happen to any adopted child under any adoption circumstances, not just children who were adopted at an older age. Even if you have openness and contact with your child’s biological family, your child may feel lost, lied to and rejected. Often, these feelings are stuffed down so deeply that the child isn’t aware of them, other than knowing something doesn’t feel right.

For adoptive parents, the first instinct can be to take their emotions as a personal rejection. What is more helpful is to find the space in your heart to accept that this is a natural response by some children to being adopted.

Not all children will feel this way, of course. But some will. And if your children do feel this way, acknowledging it will help you understand many of their antisocial behaviors. They are doing the best they can to cope with huge, confusing feelings, and they turn to a variety of coping strategies to push the feelings away. Sometimes these coping strategies include disruptive behaviors such as lying, stealing, taking food and engaging in self-harm.

As you help your child cope with maladaptive behaviors, try to avoid labeling the child. If your child frequently tells lies, explain that “lying is not acceptable,” but do not call the child a “liar.” If your child hoards food or steals money, discuss how it’s “not OK to steal,” but remember not to call the child a “thief.”

One reason not to use labels is that when children identify themselves as liars or thieves, it is harder for them to see the behaviors as changeable. We want to foster a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset, and we want our children to believe that antisocial behaviors can eventually change. Many children deeply fear that they are incapable of change, that they are inherently broken. This is not true!

A second reason to avoid labels is that your child’s identity encompasses many wonderful qualities in addition to the troubling behaviors. Children who lie and steal need to be reminded that they are so much more than that – they may be talented at drawing, singing, playing sports, writing stories, building Lego towers and baking desserts, and have numerous other amazing abilities.

Teaching a child to develop healthy social-emotional skills will take time and hard work, endless patience and oodles of empathy. Your child has spent years building up scary, uncomfortable feelings, and if you expect to handle stealing and lying with a simple behavior chart or a six-week course of talk therapy, you will feel despair when your child has a slip-up. This is a nonlinear process; it’s back-and-forth learning about how to cope in the world without defaulting to maladaptive behaviors. Those behaviors that are so clearly morally wrong to you may feel safe and comforting to your child.

A child who frequently lies can slip into a habit in which their default mode is to tell lies. Whereas a truth-teller automatically tells truths, a child who lies often will tell lies without even thinking about it. Often, these lies are meaningless, and you may be wondering why the child would even bother lying about something so unimportant. And then sometimes you may be blindsided by a lie that has devastating, ongoing consequences. In both cases, your child likely did not think through the impact and potential consequences before telling the lies.

Traditional or authoritarian parenting approaches with punishments and zero tolerance policies often exacerbate the situation. Adoptees may express little care for the consequences. If you take away a prized possession, the child may say, “I don’t care. Take whatever you want.” The key is to pair consequences with restorative actions and empathetic discussions about why the behavior happened. Your child needs to practice making decisions by weighing the pros and cons of impulsive actions before acting.

When you suspect that your child has stolen something or is telling lies, do not try to “catch” the child in the act or “trick” him or her into revealing the truth. This only leads to more deception and deep shame when you prove you were right. Instead, in a matter-of-fact tone, state that you know what your child told you wasn’t true, and share what you know the truth to be, and if possible, include the natural consequences.

Leave judgment of their character out of it, and point out how their behavior affects other people. Help your child identify all the possible people impacted by the action, and explore what needs to be done to make the situation better. The only way to ease a child’s secret shame is to help provide a way to repair the harm.

For example, if your child sneaks into the kitchen late at night and eats most of the cupcakes you prepared for a special class party at school the next day, do not bother asking, “Did you eat the cupcakes?” Instead, you could say, “I noticed that you ate most of the cupcakes. I prepared them last night because we need to bring them to school this morning. I don’t have time to start over with new cupcakes before I leave for work. Your teacher and classmates are counting on us to bring those cupcakes, because I said I would, so I need to stop at the store and buy some more before I drop you off at school. What can you do to make sure you are ready to leave 20 minutes early today? We can use part of your allowance to pay for the new cupcakes, unless you have another idea of how to help.”

Do not let the child steer the conversation into how you know the truth. Tell the child, “How I know isn’t important. Let’s focus on the behavior and why it might have happened. How were you feeling when you ate the cupcakes?”

The reality is that many children do not initially know why they engage in these behaviors. It requires a level of emotional intelligence that even many adults lack (and usually years of therapy) for a child to be able to say, “I have an empty feeling inside. I don’t know why. It makes me want to shove cupcakes in my mouth, and I was hoping you wouldn’t notice.”

The goal is for you, the parent, to understand what the child does not know how to articulate. After each incident of stealing or lying, remind yourself to take a deep breath and move forward. It can be scary if your child displays no outward signs of remorse, but that does not mean your child has no conscience. More likely, the regret and shame are so unbearable that the child has disconnected from those emotions and buried them under a facade of indifference.

In the short term, your child will grow angry at you. Kids who steal and lie would prefer you to just ignore it or cover for them. Processing the behavior can be exhausting for both of you. In the long term, however, you will give your child an immeasurable gift: learning how to replace negative coping behaviors with healthy ones. Your child can become a productive, functional member of society.

If you are an adoptee who struggles with lying, give yourself grace and patience. You are not a bad person. You have had to cope with difficult circumstances that were outside of your control. You are someone who needs to change a behavior that doesn’t work well in the world. It’s OK.

You are not alone. We all have behaviors that could stand to be changed. We all have good and bad days. If you mess up and tell a lie or steal from someone, do your best to repair the damage to anyone who was harmed, and then remind yourself that each day is a new day. You never run out of chances to be the person you want to be.

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Carrie Goldman, Contributor

Carrie Goldman began writing for U.S. News in 2018, covering bullying prevention, conflict reso…  Read moreCarrie Goldman began writing for U.S. News in 2018, covering bullying prevention, conflict resolution and restorative justice. She also focuses on parenting issues such as adoption and foster care. Carrie’s book “Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear” has received a National Parenting Publication Award and a Mom’s Choice Award, both at the gold medal level, for excellence in educational skills and tools. Carrie has written for The New York Times, CNN, Psychology Today, HuffPost and Brain Child Magazine. She has been featured on NPR, BBC, MSNBC, CNN Headline News and Fox. Born in Tampa, Carrie received her B.S. from Northwestern University and her MBA from the Kellogg School of Management. She lives in Illinois with her husband and three daughters, and travels often to speak and facilitate workshops. To learn more about Carrie, you can visit her website or connect with her on Linkedin.

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