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The Manipulation Myth

Will kids try to get their way by any means at their disposal? Of course! But it isn't the kind of emotional manipulation we adults sometimes attribute to them. It is true that children will absolutely repeat behavior that has resulted in their environment (us) responding in the past in a way that met their needs. That’s a good thing! It shows adaptability, intelligence and in some situations, a survival skill. When those behaviors clearly indicate their reluctance or refusal to do as asked or when our sweet angel maddeningly persists in attempts to postpone the inevitable or negotiate the non-negotiable, we can feel as if our clever child is diabolically painting us into a corner - manipulating us. Watching a four year old pull out all the stops to avoid bedtime can even lead to friction among family members who declare that the parents must be permissive. Fear not: your pride and joy is not a Machiavelli in the making. Developmentally, a young child is incapable of the planning and control necessary to consciously manipulate others in the way adults use the word, nor are they inclined to do so. While their behavior may raise anything from annoyance, to guilt, to rage in us, our child is not trying to ‘pull one over on us’ or make us miserable.

Sadly, our knee-jerk response to what we perceive as manipulation, depending on other factors (like how burnt out we are or our own experience as children) may be to assume malicious intent; to feel controlled, persecuted, defiant, angry. These triggering feelings often lead to a parent assigning character traits or even naming the child as sneaky, spoiled, manipulative, or conniving. Adults may respond by physically and angrily forcing the child to comply with their expectation or withdrawing affection and attention. These responses may result in obedience in the short term, but there is a heavy price, often an escalation of the unwanted behavior.

So what can parents do when those behaviors are unacceptable or unhealthy? We do not want to encourage wheedling, tantrums, lying, or saying things that threaten relationship like, “I hate you” or “You’re the worst Dad ever!” Fortunately there are ways to simultaneously maintain our own boundaries, have our reasonable expectations met, respect our child’s personhood, and meet their legitimate needs.

As with virtually everything in parenting, the responsibility for the interaction lies with us. One of the first tasks for us is to be aware of how we or other adults may be unwittingly manipulating others, especially our child; for example insinuating they are responsible for our mood, guilting them for disappointing or embarrassing us, bribing them to get them to do as we ask, yelling or otherwise losing our cool, giving the silent treatment or banishing them from our presence. Even though unintentional, if a child is subjected to these tactics, we cannot be shocked to see them mimic them. Teenagers, now equipped with more developed social skills and control, can be apt pupils of emotional control tactics they see utilized by others, but they also respond when presented with more evolved alternatives.

It is our responsibility to acknowledge and understand our own responses to our children’s behavior and learn to respond in ways that encourage growth and model healthy relationship skills. When faced with triggering behavior from our child how do we model those skills?

  1. Focus on your own emotional triggers. What about the situation is upsetting to you? Are you tired, rushed, feeling unappreciated, unheard, disrespected? Acknowledge and give yourself some grace here. You have legitimate needs and you deserve to have them met - by you and other caring adults.

  2. Find your calm. Do not take your child’s behavior personally. Sometimes, repeating “My child is not giving me a hard time. My child is having a hard time” can help us separate our feelings from the situation at hand. If you are feeling depleted, your child may even sense that he needs to ‘up the ante’ in order to be heard. When you recognize what is causing your discomfort (sensory overload, fear of losing your child’s affection, fear of a partner’s disapproval) we can avoid either ‘caving’ just to make the discomfort stop or being insensitive, punitive and authoritarian to force obedience.

  3. Clarify your boundaries. Remind yourself of what your boundaries or expectations are and why. We may need more information about our child’s development so that we are sure our expectations are reasonable, but more than likely your requests are reasonable and founded in your child’s health, safety and emotional well being. If they are, then be confident in that. If this is simply your desire in the moment, accept that too. It does not necessarily mean it is not real or reasonable. It does mean your child may have a more difficult time responding to something he perceives as ‘out of the blue’, just as we would.

  4. Try to separate the need from the want. Children’s behavior is communication of needs. In most cases there is a very real emotional need underlying the child’s behavior or the expressed want. Begging for toys, clothes or activities may be simply responding to advertising or it may express a need to feel accepted or avoid teasing by peers. Avoiding bedtime can be triggered by being overtired and unable to identify the source of the agitation they feel, or it could be a real need for reassurance of your connection and presence. When we approach the situation in this way it is much more likely we can find compassion, less likely we will feel threatened, and less tempted to dismiss and over simplify their behavior as just “trying to get their own way”.

  5. Acknowledge and empathize with their feelings first. Let them feel that you are with them in their discomfort for a minute. “I can see you are really wishing you could play with your toys longer. It has been a fun day, hasn’t it.” “I understand you wanting to hang out with your friends who go to the skate park after dark. It sounds exciting and you don’t want to miss out.” If a child is old enough to articulate feelings, be sure they feel safe in examining and expressing them with you. You may be surprised how much that alone will diffuse and de-escalate the situation.

  6. Be their Lighthouse guiding them to safe harbor. Children thrive when they can relax, knowing adults are in control. Calmly, clearly and respectfully communicate your boundaries and expectations. Be consistent, but also be willing to adjust if there are special circumstances. Assure them that you are willing to help them respect your boundary or comply with your expectation, if needed. If that means gently but physically directing them, allow them their tears with compassion. These are tears of futility. When we can respond to these tears with tenderness and compassion, it actually helps the child deal with their emotions better and strengthens the parent child bond.

  7. See the best in your child. It helps to remember that children want to be ‘good’. The prevailing attitude in Western society is based on an ancient belief that children are inherently bad, wild, uncivilized, and that it is necessary for parents to rein them in against their will. Contrary to the running joke that our kids live to make our lives difficult, however, our children are highly motivated to please us. It may mean their survival. Many traditional parenting practices actually exploit that need, extracting compliance by the implied threat of withdrawal/abandonment. We want our children to know that our love is unconditional, not something that we will withhold at the first sign they have needs and wants separate from our own.

  8. Model healthy conflict resolution skills. When an opportunity arises, perhaps the next day when both of you are calm, talk about the situation that gave rise to the unwanted behavior. The temptation may be to let things go or we may be fearful that bringing up a tense situation will make things worse. This is not an opportunity to assign blame or hammer home our 'point'. Children need to see that it is safe to talk about feelings and if there has been a rift in the relationship, to chance to reconnect. Let them know that you respect their feelings, that you will work with them to understand and meet their needs and genuinely consider their wants. Give them a clear path to your attention. Ask them for alternative approaches and collaborate on next steps. When we show in our own actions how to approach a conflict and work toward consensus, it teaches them valuable relationship skills and builds trust.

When we can acknowledge our own emotional state, believe in the inherent desire of our children to be in sync with us, act with compassion for their needs, and work with them to help them meet our expectations - without resorting to emotionally controlling tactics - we model the kind of behavior we hope to nurture in our children.

A Wisdom Season Parenting parenting class or coaching session is a practical way to find support in your peaceful parenting practice. See our Services section to find a support that meets your family's unique needs.

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