The Truth About Manipulative Kids

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First of all I want to be clear that manipulative kids are not bad kids. They are children who have learned inappropriate behavior to get the things that they want and need.

I just plugged “manipulate” into Google and the defintion I got was this:

1. handle or control (a tool, mechanism, etc.), typically in a skillful manner. “he manipulated the dials of the set” synonyms: operate, work;
2. control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly, unfairly, or unscrupulously. “the masses were deceived and manipulated by a tiny group” synonyms: control, influence, use/turn to one’s advantage, exploit, maneuver, engineer, steer, direct, gerrymander; twist someone around one’s little finger “the government tried to manipulate the situation”

All behavior serves a purpose. All behavior is a means to an end. We do things because we want things and because we need things. We need understanding. We need love. We need to express understanding and love. We also might want stuff like toys and new clothes and later bedtimes. As we get older, we become (one hopes) more skillful in using our ability to communicate and so less manipulative according to definition number two.

However getting to definition number one (handling in a skillful manner) necessitates a developmental trek through definition number two (turn to one’s advantange).

When I was 13 I started babysitting a little girl who was 2-years old. She used to cry when things didn’t go her way and I suspected she was making herself cry deliberately. So one day I asked her if she could make herself cry. Yes, she said and she proceeded to show me exactly how she did it.

“Do you ever make yourself cry to get cookies?” I asked. She affirmed that yes indeed she did. Aha! Busted! Only she wasn’t being sneaky at all; she was just doing what made sense to get cookies.

Kids are learning how the world works. They are not born with an instinctive understanding of subtle expectations and so they must learn our rules by trying them out and running up against them. We teach kids to say “please” to get cookies and they obediently say “please.” Sometimes, without meaning to, we also teach them to cry to get cookies and they obediently cry.

The 2-year old in my charge understood that crying got attention, which is a terrific and important developmental milestone and next she needed to learn the more subtle art of communicating appropriately. She didn’t know that crying — in the adult or the teen babysitter mind — is a last resort, a desperate measure. She didn’t know that we expected her to start using her words and to accept our limits. She was just beginning to learn that.

To learn that she needed to learn two things:

  • Limits. We caregivers had to start sticking to “no” even in the face of her adorable, heart-melting tears.
  • Empathy. She had to start the long journey of understanding that her needs and wants weren’t always going to take precedence.

If she didn’t understand those things, why would she stop? To her, crying — false or not — got her needs met. Why shouldn’t she want to get her needs met? Just as she happily said “please” so she happily scrunched up her face and sobbed. Both worked. How was she supposed to know that we really only approved of one?

So limits are super important.

But empathy is super important, too.

No child can put other people’s feelings above his own until he trusts that his needs will get met and until he believes that other people’s needs are just as important — and sometimes more important — than his own.

Those are really big lessons. Those are really hard lessons.

Some kids take longer to learn them because they just don’t have the developmental capacity yet. (Remember, child development follows a predictable path but every child’s path is their own, and sometimes their development can be uneven.) Some kids may not have learned it because their parents haven’t taught it to them yet. Or at least not taught it to them in a consistent manner that they can understand.

As long as it works, kids will keep on fake crying or telling fibs to get what they want. This is not because they’re awful people; it’s because they are still learning. This is also not because they’re parents are awful people; it’s because this is all really hard stuff and it’s harder for some kids than others and it’s harder for some parents than others.

Let’s talk about the parent piece a little bit. A parent who is very sensitive to their child’s feelings or a parent who has had trouble getting his or her own needs met or a parent who is feeling overwhelmed because of other life situations may be especially vulnerable to this struggle. (You know, a parent who is trying not to be her mother, for example, may struggle more with boundaries.)

Let’s take Hansel and Gretel (you know I like to use fairy tales in my examples). When Hansel grows up, he may have trouble saying no to his kids. His own experience of being hungry and abandoned may color his empathetic response to his kids. If his daughter says, “But Daddy, don’t you love me?” He might have an especially hard time sticking to his limits. So she learns to whine and cajole and he grows increasingly frustrated with her. She whines harder, cries louder and he gets more distressed and hollers then gives in. So the cycle continues.

This is why there is no better mirror to our own unaddressed struggles than parenting; it’s the ultimate trigger.

I am not blaming parents here, remember I think worrying about who created the problem is a useless exercise. I’m saying that sometimes you get this child and that parent and together there is conflict. Such is the dance of parenting. Such is the dance of childhood.

When a parent uses the term “manipulative” to describe their child I know that this means that they’re getting frustrated, angry and discouraged. Manipulative is such a negative term that parents generally don’t use it until they’re at their wit’s end. I know the child needs help to build those empathy skills and I know the parent needs help feeling understood and supported.

This is exactly the kind of topic we tackle in the membership site. I’d love to see you there so check it out and see what you think!

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