Emotional Trauma and Misbehaving

Something that plagues me is the way church and families view bad behavior. Especially when we’re talking about kids in foster care and adoption. Kids who’ve lived through intense trauma and find desperate ways to cope.

It’s easy to lump everything wrong as willful sin. But, for foster kids, a lot of behavior is emotional crutches and learned responses.

Before you jump to conclusions, I think reading my story might clarify what I mean. (And as a fair warning, this story includes reference to childhood abuse)

trauma and bad kids

I was a professional liar at a pretty early age. I don’t remember the first time I lied, but I certainly remember many of the lies I told.

Common lies

I didn’t get a chocolate bar (I did)

I went to sleep during the trip (I pretended to be asleep while I listened to their gossip)

I’ve done my homework (The math pages still stuffed in the bottom of my backpack)

But I also remember the uncommon lies – the stories I had to tell.

The time my third grade teacher gently asked if someone was hurting me. My instant reply – Everything’s fine.

I wanted, I desperately wanted to tell her that everything was most certainly not fine.

But I had to tell this lie. Telling the truth wasn’t even a possibility.

Or the times my aunt insisted I did something. Ridiculous false accusations. Glared too long at my cousin, stole candy at church, seduced her son.

I didn’t do any of those things. I was trying to not look at my cousin, I was an angel at church, and no one ever asks to be abused.

But I couldn’t say that. I couldn’t say anything when the accusations rained down.

I would stubbornly stand before her, mouth set tight. My bedtime came and went, I could hear a clock ticking. My uncle went to bed, he had to drive to the air base at some ungodly early hour.

But still I stubbornly refused to say what she wanted.

Then I started wavering. My body beginning to crumble. Heavy eyes, my balance constantly shifting. My aunt would take away my glasses. Now just fuzzy darkness. I couldn’t make out my aunt’s face, the wall, or the hands on the clock.

And sometime after midnight, I gave in. Yes, I did it.
A lie for sleep. And a punishment tomorrow. But at least I could sleep.

Lying didn’t stop when I moved in with the M&Ms. It was my shield, my armor. You didn’t give up the one thing you could control.

I had no say over what I wore, what I played, what I ate.

But I could control what I said.

And truth was alien to me.

The lying constantly frustrated my parents. It ate away any harmony we tried to create.

A week of bliss, one lie, a month of misery.

It wasn’t always intentional. But I couldn’t handle admitting I’d done something. Anything. Telling my new family when I messed up was far too vulnerable.

This pattern of relentless lying went on for years. It controlled my life. And I hated myself, because now I had lost control. I knew the lying controlled me, more than I it.

And then I discovered food. Not just food served at the table, but food I chose. Chocolate Coconut granola bars. Stacked away for my dad’s lunch.

Out of reach. Not just physically, but mentally. They were dad’s. His favorite. Special. Not an option.

But the impossibility enticed me. Elusive. Secretive.

I snuck one once. I was terrified, but I got away with it.

One a month. Then one a week. Then once daily.

My parents didn’t mean to be controlling. But that’s how life happens. Adopted children are often less mature, more emotionally fractured. They can’t make choices like other kids their age.

I was behind in school, failing woefully at algebra.

I was close to my 15th birthday. Other teenagers were getting summer jobs, talking about driving.

And I was barely able to finish a day of school.

Lying through my homework. Lying about getting chores done. Lying about lying. A relentless cycle; I don’t remember ever telling the truth.

I built my life around my lies. My parents expected it. They never trusted me. I felt worthless. I couldn’t even trust myself.

So I had to choose those stupidly enticing coconut bars. I would fret, think through ways to sneak one away for myself.

If the box was running low, I would panic, worrying mom wouldn’t buy more. I couldn’t really stand the other flavors, simply because they weren’t chocolate coconut.

At night, if I missed getting a candy bar, I wouldn’t be able to sleep, debating sneaking out of bed just to have one.

A candy bar each day. A lie each hour. Week long grounding, month long fighting.

Traumatized kids have behavioral problems. I tell this story, not because I enjoy remembering my emotional attachment to lying and chocolate coconut candy bars, but because I think there’s a misperception about ‘bad’ kids.

Was I a bad kid? Are troubled kids bad? Can getting ‘saved’ fix these issues?

You see, I claimed to be ‘saved’ shortly after I was adopted. That’s why my lying was so frustrating to my parents. They held me, everyone held me, to the same standard as a normal, Christian child.

But I was going through intense emotional trauma and recovery. That doesn’t change overnight.

And the trauma was compounded because I never felt safe to tell the truth. Once I lied, admitting I lied was even more painful. Now I had two sins to atone for, the original infraction and the lie.

The lying was such an automatic response, a flight or fight instinct. I couldn’t fight my way out of abuse, so I tried lying out of it. My brain was hardwired for it through intense trauma.

Trauma isn’t fixed by changing location. Or the supposed safety of the new location.

What I needed was the space to tell the truth. Instead of being browbeaten for lying, I needed loving truth. Anger, frustration, depression, those responses frightened me away from the truth. I needed a pattern of open arms for the truth.

Punishing me only motivated me to lie more. And more. I grew more afraid of the punishments, so the lying again became a protective game. And my parents increased the punishments, hoping it would encourage me to stop.

That just created resentment. I couldn’t explain why I lied, but I couldn’t physically stop. I hated myself, and viewed myself as a failure.

And when the lying became too much for me to handle emotionally, I began to steal and fight for control of something else. If I couldn’t control even my own lying, at least I could control a stupid candy bar. I could choose at least that much.

It wasn’t until after I truly met God when I was 16 that I began to unravel years and years of lying.
And it was hard. I remember the time or two I still lied. I remember crying, because I couldn’t bear to share the truth. It was still far too vulnerable to be open with the truth.

But time, and love, have helped. Sometimes I try to skirt around the truth. It’s not just about stealing coconut bars anymore. It’s about big things like relationships and work.

I have to remind myself that my family loves me. My friends support me. And I must believe with all my heart, that lying will hurt me more than the truth.

Was my lying wilful sin? Was it all learned behavior? Excellent question, and I don’t have an answer. I just have my story. I have the consequences of broken relationships, the years of work it’s taken to restore relationships with my parents.

I don’t want to see other kids hurt, because people don’t recognize trauma induced behaviors. That’s why I wrote this post. Why I tried to be as brutally frank as possible. Why I’m willing to talk about it, even when I’m kind of nervous about being controversial. 🙂

Commonly Asked Questions

How do I know if a behavior is trauma induced?

My rule of thumb would be to look at the child’s response to punishment. Does the behavior continue regularly, almost without pause, after proper, loving correction?

Then it is probably trauma induced. I wouldn’t try harsher punishments – that only leads to resentment and frustration.



  1. November 11, 2017 / 10:25 am

    I agree that misbehavior is too readily accepted as willful sinning. Even with toddlers!

    My daughter has a chronic pain consider. At four, she still tantrums. Especially when she is overtired. I’ve had a relative tell me that I should, “Beat her butt.” And while I don’t let her get her way for whatever she is tantruming for, I can see that she desperately just wants some control. She has very little control over her body and how it hurts and aches.

    I have started giving her more age appropriate chores that she is in charge of. I let her have complete control over it. I let her fold the washclothes however she would like or stack the cups however she would like. Something to give her a feeling of being in control. It has helped tremendously but we still have our moments. I am definitely not going to, “beat her butt,” for being overtired and struggling to gain some control over her life.

    Children need to be guided. Not mistrusted and treated like little devils.

    • November 11, 2017 / 11:49 am

      I really like how you sum up your thoughts in your last sentence – ‘guided, not mistrusted and treated like little devils’
      How you treat a child often leads to what a child becomes. I’m grieved when I see children treat their children as second class citizens in their own home, and then they wonder why kids struggle.
      I read one parent who said they were challenged to love their children, not just as an authority, but as Jesus said, To love everyone as they love themselves.
      I’m not a parent, but I hope when I’m given the chance to raise children, that I’ll not take them for granted. That I would love them for who they are, and not just as extensions of me.

Drop some knowledge!

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