Skip to content

Sometimes Denial has Biological Roots

October 14, 2013

Sometimes we intuit things and only a long time later find the name for it, or the research that backs it up. This post of about one of those things: denial. You know, the common, garden variety of denial that we hear almost every day.


Denials are the exculpatory claims people little and big make for themselves:

“I didn’t say that!”

“I didn’t do it!”

And denials are the (also exculpatory) claims others make about us:

“You never said…!”

“You never made a rule about…!”

Any way you slice it, it is still denial, and it is almost always raised in the context of a confrontation with truth. Or at least what those of us with typical executive functioning perceive as truth. That truth is evidence belying the lie: Other people in the room are crying over the words she denies saying. Or he’s standing there clutching the pieces of the thing that 30 seconds ago was whole in his hands but, he insists, he did not break.

How do we respond when confronted with a denial?

For me, it depends in part upon what I believe lies beneath the lie.


In the days when I believed I was at the pinnacle of my parenting game as a Christian mom, the root of all denial was sin –the present-day echo of that moment in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve, having disobeyed God, felt naked and ashamed and tried to artfully cover themselves with shrubbery.

“Did you eat the fruit the fruit I told you not to eat?” God asked in Genesis 3.

Adam and Eve each denied it, casting the blame on someone else, failing to admit responsibility for disobeying God, failing to accept responsibility for their own thoughts and actions.

So God, all-knowing, did for them what they could not do for themselves.  He confronted their sin –their denials –pointing out the ways Adam and Eve had transgressed His law. Then God applied very stiff consequences.

The job of Christian parents, I understood, was to go and do like-wise. Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child. What is more foolish than denying you said or did something when people saw you say or do it?!  But the rod of discipline will drive it far from him. (Proverbs 22:15)

This most basic parenting model assumes that willful choice underlies denial.  That when discipline consistently applied, is sufficiently unpleasant, and the reward for the restoration of right relationship is sufficiently sweet, the child will learn to choose to tell the truth rather than denying it.


But what if the child (or that grown-up who used to be that child) is organically truth-impaired? What if something BIG stands between them and their ability to accurately perceive reality?

Dorothy and I have known each other since before either of us had children, and we both had biological kids before we began adopting. Somewhere along the way we each met our match: a child immune to correction and discipline. A child who seemed incapable of making any connection between behavior and rewards or consequences.

Every child has a learning curve and, in the beginning, we believed our kids just needed time.

But over time, we both concluded that for some kids, traditional discipline could be abusive. They denied and lied as easily as they breathed, whether there was anything to be gained in covering up the truth or not. Even when they might have more easily told the truth.

Were they sinners? Of course; the Bible says all people sin (Romans 3:23) and I believe the Bible is true.

But it would be like me punishing Joy for her stubborn refusal to walk instead of recognizing that her inability is rooted in  organic brain damage.

I do not have the mind of God.  Even though as a Christian mom, I have access to the counsel of the Holy Spirit, my own sin gets in the way of hearing the Spirit’s voice, especially in moments of conflict. That means I cannot accurately discern motives every time.

And when I acted upon my judgment that a denial was sinful, my own hubris sometimes led me to sin against my child.

While it is probably one of the least-cited passages on parenting in the Bible, I Corinthians 8, led me there.

The specific context is a disagreement in the church at Corinth about whether Christians could eat food offered to idols. Some could eat it with a clear conscience while others could not. Paul counseled the Corinthians that food was food; it was okay to eat or to choose not to. But he warned that their attitude about the rightness of their own conviction could lead them to sin against a believer who viewed the question differently.

“Take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block for the weak….and so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, this brother for whom Christ died.  Thus sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat lest I make my brother stumble.” I Corinthians 8: 9, 11-13

What if, in the unique circumstances God gave my child, traditional discipline makes him stumble? Draws him away from Jesus, not closer to Him? Which is the way of love?

I chose to try to err on the side of grace.

Even if it did not  change the bent to deny and to lie.


Last week Dorothy sent me the link to an article that poses the research behind the title of this post: sometimes, denial is rooted in the brain, not in the will. She and I independently intuited it,  but it was difficult to articulate, even to another mom who’d been there.

Gina Pera puts words –and research –to it: “In other words, denial sometimes springs not as much from a refusal to see –a willful action –as an inability to accurately perceive what sits before us.” Or in the words of the title of her article, “The Biology of Denial: Not Unwilling to See, Just Unable.”

Why is it important to discern whether neurobiology is a factor behind the denials of someone we love? Pera, discussing the research as it applies to her specialty, ADHD, observes:

The person might not “see” the problem. This point is critical: What appears obvious to you or other observers might remain invisible or distorted to some people with AD/HD. Until you accept this possibility, you risk becoming even more angry or hurt at the persons “refusal” to acknowledge the obvious. Moreover, you risk being seen, in this person’s eyes, as unreasonable and unsympathetic –perhaps, in fact, the enemy.

Interestingly, the research Pera distills on denial was conducted across a wide range of mental illnesses with a neurobiological component, not just ADHD. The common denominator: impaired executive function.

If this subject strikes close to home for you, you’ll want to read the second half of Pera’s article, too: “Dealing With Denial: Reaching through, under, or over denial with strategies for coping with a loved one’s symptoms.

It will give you something to read while you wait to see if you won Dorothy’s contest for a free copy of Melissa Orlov’s book, The ADHD Effect on Marriage. 🙂

Image credit: Google Images

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 29, 2013 4:05 pm

    Love this! I still have my linking post waiting in the que…but you handled it beautifully here!

    • October 29, 2013 5:38 pm

      Thanks for figuring out the ID problem to comment. And for sending the articles in the first place! Next week I’ll finally be joining you on Facebook :).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: