Cultivate Honesty by Creating Felt Safety

Honesty is hard.

Both kids and adults struggle with this practice. We avoid conflict because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or make someone angry. We tell little white lies to get ourselves out of trouble. We say things we don’t really mean in order to look good in front of other people. We take credit for things that aren’t ours to claim. How’s that for a happy opening?

Our girls struggle with honesty just like many other kids. It isn’t necessarily just because they arrived in our family through foster care and adoption.

But one of the things we’ve learned in parenting them, is that more pressure or persistence on our part to find the truth can lead to the exact opposite behavior that we’re aiming to cultivate. While we want them to want to be honest because we’re a family and it’s healthy and it’s the way it should be, those reasons are not enough to convince a child whose come from a hard place to let their guard down and trust that things will be ok if they tell the truth.

And truth be told, forced honesty can be the worst. In our home, threatening consequences does little good and lots of bad. And while I was the kid who was afraid of what my parents would think if I lied to them, our girls are afraid of what we might do if they’re honest with us.

They’re afraid of what we might do even though we’ve tried to show them that we’re safe. 

We’ve been in seasons with our girls where lying seemed to be the biggest behavior we were dealing with, and honestly, we were TERRIBLE at dealing with it in a healthy way. I’m sure some of this comes down to our personalities, our own upbringings, and our high value on honesty.

Everything we did to combat lying seemed to fall flat, causing our girls (especially one of them) to pull back and go within herself. No matter how many times I’d say, “We know that’s not the truth. Just tell us what happened,” it seemed to have the exact opposite effect we were going for. She’d make up a different story or change a small detail. We’d inch by inch coax the whole story out of her, and sometimes by the end still not know if the story was fully true. While we wanted her full transparency, all she wanted was for us to stop asking her questions.

So, after much failure, tears on everyone’s part, and some research to understand what the heck was happening, we began to change our tactics.

Because our girls came from an environment in which they weren’t being taken care of well, they didn’t learn to trust their caregivers. And who could blame them? When needs aren’t being met by the one in charge of meeting needs, of course their brains develop coping mechanisms. They become self-sufficient and find strategies to get their own needs met, even if those methods are often unhealthy. They needed to depend on someone, so they learned to depend only on themselves.

So our invitation, as their parents, is to establish felt safety. The trick here, is that felt safety isn’t the same as safety. Caregivers may absolutely be certain that their kids are safe. The doors are locked. Everything is child-proof. There’s always food in the refrigerator, clothes to wear, and a warm bed at night. We don’t use corporal punishment of any kind. They won’t get hurt for telling the truth.

But our kids, whose body and brain knows all too well what it felt like to be unsafe, are easily sent back into survival mode – fight, flight or freeze.

So how do you know when your kid has gone into that mode when you’re trying to discover the truth in a situation? You start noticing your kids’ behavior changes. When she thinks she’s done something wrong, what does she tend to do? Does she start to clam up, hide in a corner, or lash out? 

And then, the real work begins. You regulate yourself. You remain calm and patient instead of trying to convince her that she should feel safe. You offer food or water to remind her that you’ll meet her needs. You notice that you’ve hit one of her buttons, that she no longer feels like you’re on the same team, and you find any way you can to show her that you are for her and with her. You go to her instead of calling her to come to you. You start with connection if at all possible.

And you pull her onto your lap, because you’ve learned through experience, that this is often the key.

You know she wants to push you away and to flee the situation when it starts feeling hard, but you resist asking another question about what happened and you just hold her. You remind her, through your actions and your words, that she’s precious, safe, and loved. And when she finally calms down enough, when her brain has reset a bit and she’s able to access her reasoning skills and get out of survival mode, you can start again, slowly and gently.

This is the hard work of creating felt safety.

This practice goes against almost everything that I want to do. I want to push. I want to convince. I want to use logic and reasoning to get her to be honest. But you know what? It NEVER works.

Even if I get her to finally break down and tell me what really happened, all I’ve done is wear her down and hurt our long-term relationship. I’ve shown her that I’m the boss, she needs to comply, and that’s just the way it will be.

So sometimes, on my good days, I stop. I let go of my expectations for her to just comply because she “should”, and I see that sweet girl sitting across from me. I notice her hiding within herself wishing she could come out. We sit together first, then talk calmly. She still struggles, and so do I. It’s difficult to break habits and learn new ways to handle ourselves.

But when we do, I can visibly see the difference in her. She leaves our conversation feeling relieved and settled. She often ends up singing just a few minutes later. I assume she sings because she feels lightness and freedom by being able to show up as her full self and be accepted and loved.

As our girls grow older, honesty is going to be even more important. Right now I can control a lot of what happens in our day-to-day life. I’m making some decisions for them about who they spend their time with and where they go. But soon enough, they’ll be doing more of those things on their own. Sure, I want to trust their decision-making skills, but most importantly, I want to be trusted by them. I want to be their safe place, not the ones they avoid when things are hard.

When something goes wrong, when they make a choice with consequences they didn’t anticipate, or when things they thought they could handle on their own get out of control, I don’t want their instinct to be, “I hope Mom and Dad don’t find out.” Instead, my prayer is that they’ll immediately think, “I really need to call Mom and Dad.”

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