If you’re worried that your youngster has become a master of manipulation, you’re probably not alone. Manipulation is an effective skill used to achieve a relational goal. According to therapist and author Ty Clement, when manipulation becomes maladaptive, parents can feel pulled in opposing directions, much like a puppet on strings. Understanding manipulation and how to stop it requires a look at the reasons this behavior pattern occurs.
Misconceptions of Manipulation
Although it’s common for parents to complain that their infant is crying to manipulate them, this is a misconception of communication. Pediatrician William Sears believes infants do not have the cognitive ability to actively or consciously manipulate their caregivers. Infants cry to get their needs met; needs can include:
- relief from hunger
Crying serves as an effective form of communication; responding to this communication does not equate being manipulated. Responding to an infants communication is simply attentive and appropriate care-giving.
When a child uses manipulation to get something he wants, it is not usually an entirely conscious behavior. If he finds that one parent says "No" while another usually says "Yes," it makes sense that he would tend to ask the consenting parent instead of the disapproving parent. Psychologist Carla Wills-Brandon feels this is an adaptive skill that the child learns through trial and error 1. If you suspect this type of manipulation, altering responses consciously can teach your child that this type of manipulation isn't as functional as it was before. This tool requires cooperation from all caregivers.
Manipulation as Leverage
If a child feels entitled to something due to a fault in parenting, divorce, or loss of some type, manipulation is a skill used to leverage guilt with privileges. She may be dealing with difficult feelings and not know how to get what she needs emotionally; this inability to express the true need can lead to fulfillment through the empowerment that is felt when she can control her caregivers through manipulation. If your child has experienced something difficult or traumatic, it is important to create opportunities for validated emotional expression, according to Dr. Sears. Giving her understanding instead of goodies when something in life is difficult reduces the need for manipulation.
Manipulation as a Cover
A subtle form of manipulation shows itself in the form of half truths or complete falsehoods. By not offering the full truth, a child withholds absolute control from his caregiver and is able to do things he would not otherwise be allowed to do. If this fits your situation, it may be time to reevaluate priorities with your child. What may have been appropriate last year may no longer fit your child's needs. Ty Clement believes talking with your child may increase trust and reduce dishonest manipulation.
According to Dr. Sears, manipulation is learned. As such, it can also be unlearned. To provide the support needed to learn new skills, it can be important to remove the focus from the manipulation to the skill you wish your child to learn. Reward your child for honesty, clear communication attempts and transparency, instead of punishing for perceived manipulation. Punishing a child for manipulation tends to lead to an undesirable increase in the unwanted behavior.
If your child has experienced something difficult or traumatic, it is important to create opportunities for validated emotional expression, according to Dr. Sears. If a child feels entitled to something due to a fault in parenting, divorce, or loss of some type, manipulation is a skill used to leverage guilt with privileges. Psychologist Carla Wills-Brandon feels this is an adaptive skill that the child learns through trial and error.
- Natural Mental Health; Carla Wills-Brandon; 2007
- The Attachment Parenting Book: A Commonsense Guide to Understanding and Nurturing Your Baby; William Sears, M.D. and Martha Sears, R.N.; 2001
- Natural Family Living: The Mothering Magazine Guide to Parenting; Peggy O'Mara; 2000
- Being Ourself; Ty Clement; 2009
- David Sacks/Photodisc/Getty Images