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why do people lie?

What Do I Do When She Lies to My Face?

Question:  Our son’s birth mom has been telling lies about what happens at visits. She said we didn’t let our our 3 year-old open his Christmas gifts from her. He opened them right in front of her! (He was running around not really focusing on any one present). She also lied and said that we’ve cancelled previous visits and came up with excuses for not seeing her, neither of which are true.

This has become a nightmare. She’s cut us off, which is fine with us because we’re not crazy about having contact with someone who lies to our face. This isn’t what we thought open adoption would be. 

  — Jessica

why do people lie?

Jessica’s initial message led to further email conversations.

Take Out The Adoption Charge

Hi, Jessica. I’m curious. How would you handle a similar situation if this behavior were coming from your sister or mother-in-law? If you think of it this way, you can distill your response to her behavior from the any emotions you may have around your connection with her via adoption (which can be highly-charged).

Jessica: If it were someone in our families I would try to find out why and work it out.  I asked our our son’s birth mom why she felt the need to lie to us and she had NO interest in explaining why, she just shut down. How can we possibly stay in a relationship with her?

Lori: For starters, if you KNOW you haven’t cancelled visits or made excuses for not seeing her, be okay with that knowing. It’s pointless to try to convince her otherwise. Just decide not to let these attempts at manipulation get a rise from you (I know there’s no “just” to this, but try to aim in that direction).

Not reacting to the behavior takes away the reinforcement of it.

Lying as a Weapon vs Lying as a Tool

Jessica: But I’m so frustrated with her. Why would she tell blatant lies and be just fine with that?

Lori: I know that being lied to feels so disrespectful — the ultimate diss. I’m betting your son’s birth mom has learned to lie as a maladaptive way of getting her needs met. Through her past experience, she has learned that lying is a more reliable way to get others to meet her needs than being direct is.

It may feel to you like she’s using the strategy of lying as a weapon to hurt you. But to her, it may simply be a tool, one that has gotten her needs met in the past.

So your question becomes “What can I do to reverse this?” As often as you can, meet her needs when she makes them in an above-board way. She needs to learn that being direct and honest is more effective with you than lying is. When you catch her in a lie, you can gently point it out — not in an in-your-face way, but rather in a saving face way. Something like, We’re so glad Joey got to open his presents in front of you. It means a lot that you got them for him. Do you remember that happening — when he ran around the room like a crazy man?

It’s a long process to give her a new pattern of interaction, and you won’t see results immediately and you will have setbacks. Above all, remember that you’re teaching her how to treat you rather than punishing her for lying. Meet her reasonable needs whenever you can to help her build trust in you and in an alternate way for her to get her needs met.

Jessica: That sounds like a VERY long process.

Lori: It probably will be. But you entered into adoptive parenting for the long haul, right? And you’d go to the ends of the earth to give your son all that he needs to integrate all his parts, even if doing so can be inconvenient, annoying, and frustrating, right?

Jessica: I didn’t know it would mean raising her, too!

Lori: You’re not raising her, but you are showing your son how to treat people with respect, even when they fall short of your expectations. And that you won’t throw someone overboard for making mistakes.

Jessica: If she comes back into contact with us, I will try to remember that she’s not trying to hurt me, and give this strategy a go — to aim to be less triggered and more understanding of where she’s coming from.

Lori: That’s what is within your power to do — be mindful of your own interpretation and reaction.

See also:

Dear Readers, how do you deal with a liar?

[Note: For those of you following the saga of my son’s freak accident, I’m pleased to report he is home from the hospital and we are back in our routine. Thanks for all your well-wishes. We now return to our regularly scheduled adoption advice post.]


About this Open Adoption Advice Column

  • I may occasionally call on others to help with answers, to tap into group wisdom.
  • I am not a therapist. Please do not rely on words in this space to make your own major or minor decisions.
  • Readers are encouraged to weigh in thoughtfully and respectfully. I ask everyone to remember that this is a teaching endeavor rather than a shaming endeavor, and that we aim to bring light rather than heat. It’s my belief that people do the best they can with what they have to work with, and our goal is to give folks more to work with.

Send in your own open adoption question. I’ll either offer an answer or find someone who can address your issue.

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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30 Responses

  1. “You’re teaching her how to treat you rather than punishing her for lying. ” Excellent point. There is always a reason behind behavior. Seek to determine what drives the lying. What is she trying to accomplish or avoid? How else might her goal be accomplished in a way that works for both/all of you?

  2. Echoing what Gayle said. The big thing is to approach this with curiosity. Why is the lying occurring? What is the motivation behind this behavior? It’s also possible she’s struggling with milestones and holidays, so lying about how these events occurred allows her to regain some control over a situation she feels powerless in. Regardless, trying to understand why this behavior is occurring will help you better navigate the situation.

    Wishing you all the best moving forward.

    1. I completely agree!

      Also, try to assume everyone is doing their best though their ‘best’ might not always be on display…

      I love my son’s birth mother as I love him: unconditionally & without reservations or limits. She feels the same way about me. I think it makes the emotional, sometimes turbulent waters of adoption a bit easier to navigate.

      Above all, we both have ‘our’ son’s front & center.

  3. This is so fantastic, and not just for this situation. While I am not an adoptive parent this is such wonderful advice when dealing with anyones behaviour, my kids, my friends, strangers. Thank you for this grounding, sound advice.

  4. This is great advice. But since this Birth Mom cut the family off, further contact with her is not likely, unless a very important situation comes up. Perhaps contact thorough the agency is best. If the child requests direct contact later in life, his parents will need to figure out what to do at that point. Not an easy situation to navigate. Good Luck!

  5. One of the adoption training phrases I still remember decades later is “behavior is the language of children.” It’s a message and a means–however sometimes aggravating and dysfunctional–to a end. It has helped me ever since, not just with children who are too young to analyze and verbalize their own emotions, but with the teenagers I taught and with adults.

    Lori’s advice and perspective is great. If the birthmother is in a place to learn a different way of relating and see it get results, it’s a huge plus for everyone. If she’s not, her son has seen a model of practical compassion that may help him as he builds his own picture of his background.

    It’s also necessary to keep in mind that a birthparent who lies to you in these situations may very well also lie to your child about you. We were advised by our children’s extended family not to have contact with their birthmother for this reason. As she never responded to our messages and updates when the children were young, I don’t know how how we would have handled the prospect of visits. When our children did establish contact as young adults, they found those warnings were borne out. She went as far as to impersonate other family members on social media to try to disrupt relationships. As one of my kids said, “she fights like a middle schooler.”

    Luckily for my children, they were mature enough and thoughtful enough by then both to feel compassion and establish boundaries, so their lifelong bonds with their other relatives have not been broken and they don’t blame themselves for her actions and reactions. They feel sad for her as well as regret for the relationship that it seems will never be. But it’s been hard for everyone.

  6. Lori, this is great advice that I unfortunately have a great opportunity to put to use. And glad to hear he’s home from the hospital!!

  7. Am I the only one who sees this situation as a way for the birth mother to set up to exit from the relationship and save face for herself with friends and family?

    If she puts it out there as her being blocked from the relationship then its not her fault if it ends. I imagine open adoption is a hard emotional path for many.

  8. First, I am so glad that your son is home and things are somewhat back to normal! Second, what a powerful post. I love the dialogue between you and Jessica, and the way that you frame your advice. I love that this is clearly advice that is not easy to implement, and that you don’t make any bones about the fact that in theory it’s a lot easier than practice. (Thank you for your “Just” comment.) I read this post several times, and each time I felt like should this situation come up in my own future relationship, I would be better prepared to thoughtfully frame things in such a way that doesn’t punish but teaches better treatment, and models that for your child. It sounds like such a tough situation, but hopefully one that can be left with at least knowing that you, as the adoptive parent, did everything possible to preserve everyone’s dignity, while knowing that you cannot change someone else’s behavior. You can only change how you react and deal with that behavior and pass those lessons on to your child.

  9. What is your child’s birth mother’s emotional reality? It sounds like she may be misrepresenting events in order to express a deeper emotional experience. Have you said no to some of her requests? Have you set limits or boundaries? Were those limits fair (from her point of view)? Often I think when people lie it is because the lie is part of the story they have about what they experience, i.e. they feel left out, hurt, abandoned, etc. So they exaggerate in order to get ‘evidence’ to support how they feel. But feelings are just that…feelings. If she feels hurt by you, she may be stretching the facts to support her right to feel hurt. Giving up her child is a huge loss. It is understandable to me that she would feel hurt. I’d encourage you to think about it from her point of view.

  10. Lori,
    I am so happy your son is okay!

    Being a member of the first family in an extremely contentious kinship adoption, I’ve been accused of lying about pretty much everything and anything to do with my granddaughter’s adoption and my daughter’s feelings and opinions of things that occur when she visits her daughter. My daughter tells me and her father how she truly feels and her observations because she is scared to tell her uncle (her daughter’s adoptive father) the truth about anything. My husband and I are not afraid to tell the truth of our opinions about the side of the situation we are allowed to observe. As a consequence we are accused of lying.
    There are as many opinions of an event or situation as there are observers. One particular observation does not make it the truth or a lie. I partially agree with what Liz said about people lying because it is a part of their experience, but I wouldn’t call it lying. Just because you believe someone is exaggerating doesn’t mean you can discount their experience and/or call it a lie. When you are in pain or in a stressful situation, your emotions are going to be amplified. Your observations may be different, and you may easily miss something.
    What is clear to me is she doesn’t trust you. She isn’t going to discuss anything with you when you accuse her of lying. That kind of conversation would end up spiraling out of control, and obviously she is mature enough to recognize that. You may believe you’ve given her no reason not to trust you, but there is some reason why she doesn’t.
    It is rarely only one persons fault when a relationship falls apart. Usually everyone has contributed fairly equally to the problems. I understand it would be so much easier to end the relationship, but where does that leave your son?
    My biggest fear for my granddaughter’s future is she will walk away from all of us, her adoptive family and first family, and believe no one cared enough about HER to solve their issues.

    1. Kellie: As is usually the situation, the truth is not absolute. You’ve shared a light that opens our eyes to how complicated relationships can be and how challenging it can be to weave solutions that meet the needs of so many vulnerable and hurting people. Emotions operate as powerful filters that skew how we experience situations.

  11. The lesson to be learned by everyone is to be honest. No one accidentally says things that they know didn’t happen unless they have a serious mental defect, which this birth mom clearly has. This family graciously set up visits and she stabbed them in the back. Good for them for knowing when to cut ties.
    My Mom’s friend recently became upset with the parish priest and started telling people that he left the priesthood and had a girlfriend in another state. Both of which are not true. I was watching “The Doctors” today and they said that being honest improves one’s health in various ways.

    1. I agree with you, Lisa, that honesty is a good policy.

      But unless you are a mental health professional personally assessing someone (which would mean not disclosing your findings publicly), I think that using words like “mental defect” are hurtful and inflammatory and run counter to healing the situation.

  12. Luz: I disagree with you analysis of the situation. The birthmom most like is mentally I’ll which is why she lies. Most people don’t like liers,thiefs or hypocrite s,so why should the amom putup with someone who is a pier just because she adopted the person’s child? So many times I have read aparents telling otheir a parents to”put up with it” as if they “owe” the birth parents which,isn’t true becuase without the a parents where would the bparents and child be?

    1. Amina, I am wondering what your qualifications are to make a mental health diagnosis from what you’ve read here. No one is suggesting that the adoptive mom put up with lying; just that she look beyond for why this strategy is being used. Discarding the birth mom, if that’s what Jessica decides to do, will have profound consequences on her son, even if it seems, at first glance, justified.

      The owing dynamic that you mention can be detrimental to all, and “putting up with” is a simplistic solution. One could turn around your last phrase and say, instead, “without the birth parent and child, where would the adoptive parents be?”

      The situation is too complex to be reduced to simple duality. Lying or truthing. Adoptive parents or birth parents. Keep the birth mom in or don’t (or the birth mom choosing to stay in — or out). It’s the in-betweens where we find solutions that will benefit the adoptee and help them heal the adoption split.

  13. Luz: we as parents don’t know if maintains a relationship with anyone may be in anyone’s best interest. Just like no parent really knows if the adoptee will/has felt a loss about being adopted? Children are placed for adoption for many reason, and if the child’s birth family cannot/ do not want to help the bparents keep and raise the child, then what does that say about the dynamics of the biofamily? So one has to ask, was it really a loss?

    1. Yes.

      I maintain this: that which integrates leads to gain; that which divides leads to loss.

      To the degree we can treat the others in our adoption constellation with empathy and compassion rather than with judgment and derision, the better chance the adoptee will have to gather and integrate all his parts.

    2. Amina,

      Thank you very much for insulting my family, my daughter in particular. She is actually hailed as a “hero” in some circles. You know “hero” before relinquishment; Liar, hypocrite and thief after relinquishment.
      One of the things adoptive parents complain about SO much is how people insult the way they build their families yet they fail to see how they insult their children’s biological families. The fact is you REALLY insulted my husband’s extended family which happens to have been partially built by adoption. My husband’s mother is an adoptee, and his sister is an adoptive parent of 2 children. Of course, now his brother (because he has my granddaughter) is an adoptive parent as well. His mother’s overwhelmingly positive view of adoption did influence our beliefs. She now claims she had a horrible childhood because of her adoption. I guess it’s okay to spill that now that both of her a-parents have passed (her a-mother passed earlier this year). Sucks for us she couldn’t be honest from the start. So, the insinuated messed up “family dynamic” you talk about is pretty much due to adoption.
      It’s beliefs and attitudes like yours that give adoption a bad reputation among first parents and their families. You perpetuate the divide Lori tries so hard to close. A comment I made this morning to some other adoptive parents; Stop blaming your children’s biological families for being victims of the very institution you profited from. And yes, you are blaming and trying to shame us. I am not ashamed nor will I allow you to shame any other biological family without standing up to you. It’s too bad more ADOPTIVE parents don’t do the same. Silence is consent….or cowardice….take your pick.

      1. Kellie:

        I’m sorry but I stand by my opinion. It’s a fact that minus youth ( the age of the bioparents,)if there’s no one on both sides of the bioparents families that will help the bioparents keep and raise the child it says a lot about the dynamics of both families. Think about it, why wouldn’t one help their child with an unplanned pregnancy, if they could? Again, I can see if the bioparents are young and the families are busy raising other children and cannot afford to raise the grandchild and the other children ( totally understood). But if your child is an grown adult, who is able to work and can raise a child, why not help?

        1. I feel like we are walking different worlds, Amina/a. Timons.

          It sounds from what you say like your world is black and white. People are either good or bad. Good people help and bad people don’t. Good people tell the truth and bad people lie.

          In my own world, I sometimes don’t tell the truth. I don’t always help when I can (and I rarely help when I can’t). Am I a bad person or a good person? Probably both, neither, one or the other at different times.

          Do you see that you made sweeping judgments about countless people that you don’t even know? That there are nuances in each one of those stories that might challenge your black and white world view?

        2. a. Timons,

          My husband and I did offer to help our daughter multiple times before and after our granddaughter’s birth. Even though it is none of your business, we did/do not have financial issues that would have kept us from being able to help her.

          What does anyone’s financial situation have to do with my comment? I can only conclude it was meant to be patronizing. Put me in my place, right? Well, we probably make more a year than many adoptive parents. We wouldn’t need a fund raiser or garage sale to adopt a child if we were so inclined. However, I know my financial situation does not make me better, or worse, than anyone else in this world. It does not define who I am, and other people’s wealth, or lack thereof, does not define who they are. I believe most parents, no matter how much money they did or didn’t have, would not risk their children’s and grandchildren’s futures and happiness no matter how difficult it was to help them if they were given all the information about adoption and the issues it can cause.

          Shaming people for not knowing what you think they should have known or not doing what you think they should have done usually indicates you are ashamed of something about your own situation. “It’s the biological family’s fault they didn’t research enough, read enough, seek the right counselor etc..etc..etc…” “Their family was dysfunctional.” “They didn’t communicate.” “They had financial difficulties.” “They are mentally ill.” They didn’t do whatever it is you think they should have done so they are at fault and you are justified in treating them with disdain. Amina went so far as to say if biological families didn’t do everything she thinks they should have, any loss they feel must be in their imagination. What she said was cruel. It belittles first parents and families and adoptees yet you chose to try and shame me for being insulted and challenging her statement.

          1. Ladies I am the same person ( the “a” in a. timons stands for “Amina”).

            First, I have to say that I meant no harm in saying what I said. However, I do stand by my opinion. There are many reasons why women place their children ( youth, mental illness, drug/alcohol addiction, finances or the desire not to parent) . If a woman feels that someone else( a stranger)is better situated to raise her child/children, than she or her family, what does that tell you? And no, I didn’t believe the agencies coherst these women into placing by casting self-doubt ( it’s usually her parents, church elders or boyfriend/husband who does that). I have read where family members offered to help them keep and raise the child, but they declined because the family is so dysfunctional and they don’t want the child growing-up in the same environment as they did ( and, no, Kellie I am not saying this is you). I’ve also read where sometimes it’s the husband/boyfriend who doesn’t want the responsibility of raising a child, or another one, and gives her an ultimatum: ” It’s either me or the kid!” Now, do you think it’s healthy for a child to be exposed to any of these situations? Situations where there is dysfunction, addiction, or other poor lifestyle choices? Do you think adoptees really suffer a loss not growing-up within a bio-family where chaos is a way of life? Usually when a person is facing a crisis, family is there to help them through it.

  14. Amina,

    You wrote:

    “Now, do you think it’s healthy for a child to be exposed to any of these situations? Situations where there is dysfunction, addiction, or other poor lifestyle choices? Do you think adoptees really suffer a loss not growing-up within a bio-family where chaos is a way of life?”

    I am searching for common ground here, so let me say that no, I don’t think children should grow up within a family where chaos is a way of life. And yes, I would be remiss to drop my children off for the weekend into a birthfamily, or any family, full of addicts.

    But yes, I think adoptees really suffer a loss. Every child who has lost a parent, for whatever reason, loses something important. The quality of the parenting or the situation of the family at the time of relinquishment does not in anyway erase that loss. What it may do is make adoption the best choice available. Nor does the (presumed) functionality of the adoptive family erase the loss of the first one.

    Neither does dysfunction (and I am not assuming that all relinquishing families are dysfunctional) in one circumstance, at one moment in time, mean much in the big picture. If it did, there would be precious few families anywhere who “deserve” contact with children. Most of us are a mess at least sometimes in our time as parents. Most of us either have (or are) a black sheep in our families who can cause chaos. And pretty much everyone lies sometimes. That hardly means we should be blacklisted as a lifelong danger to our kids.

    You say that usually family is available to help someone through a crisis. I see so many circumstances where that’s not the case. Many of us do not have the kind of extended family support would make it possible to help raise an unexpected child. I don’t think my family could have done it. At the time I was of the age where I might have had an unintended pregnancy I couldn’t handle on my own, I had no siblings, no grandparents, one alcoholic uncle, and my parents were ill. Would that circumstance have made me no great loss to my child? That’s a harsh judgment to make on limited evidence.

    I can absolutely imagine that Jessica may be relieved to have a break from contact with her son’s birth mother. It makes sense to me that she would want to monitor their interactions carefully if they resume visits. I would hope she can learn more about the cause of the lying. But writing off the entire birthfamily as “no loss” seems just wrong.

  15. Came across this gem through your Pinterest page && I’m grateful for it.

    Being a birth mom and learning my own emotional scars and how I learned to act because of them. Reading this has brought a little more awareness of how my actions have hurt those closest to me. And vise versa, they have emotional scars that have caused them to behave in certain ways.

    Thank you Jessica for sharing && thank you Lori for your emotionally aware and tactful perspective .

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