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 advantage).
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.
And there’s another thing, which is that until about four most kids don’t understand that we aren’t all part of the same thinking. If they want a cookie it doesn’t make sense to them that this want has anything to do with anyone but them. They don’t understand that parents want other things like kids to have room in their bellies for dinner. So when they whine to get their way they simply aren’t developmentally capable — they don’t have the brain capacity — to know that whining makes you crazy. They just know it works.
And as long as it works, kids will keep on whining or fake crying or telling fibs to get what they want. This is not because they’re awful people; it’s because they haven’t learned that other people’s feelings matter as much as their own. This is also not because their parents are awful people; it’s because this is all really hard stuff and it’s harder for some kids to learn than for others and it’s harder for some parents to teach than for 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.
When a parent uses the term “manipulative” to describe their child to me 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 with me until they’re at their wit’s end. Without needing to hear anything else I know this family needs help. I know the child needs help to build those empathy skills and I know the parent needs help feeling understood and supported.
Still need help? Give me a call. Or check to see which parenting classes are coming up in the next few months and see if any of them fit the bill for what you’re hoping to learn.
The holidays bring a lot of this up for people because they’re seeing family of origin more or they’re confronting “what might have been” grief and loss. People find themselves revisiting difficult memories or trying to ignore intrusive thoughts about their self worth or worries. Plus with all of the running around and high expectations of this time of year, it can be even more difficult to stop and breathe or to take care of yourself.
But if you’re serious about breaking the chain, then a first step is letting go of how you think things ought to be and taking measure of the way things are. The holidays are a good time to take stock because it’s so out-sized that underground feelings tend to make themselves known.
People who grow up in chaos react to chaos in one of two ways: they either crave it and go towards it; or they shut down as soon as they see it coming. (Sometimes they have a little bit of both — the chaos feels lousy but it also feels familiar and we tend to be drawn to the things that feel familiar.) Notice when you’re inviting chaos in and notice how it affects you.
Are you over scheduling yourself because it feels somehow right to run yourself into the ground during the holidays? It might feel like your duty or like you have no choice. But is it good for you?
Self care isn’t selfish. For those who grew up in homes that were less nurturing than they ought to have been, self care is part of what’s going to break that chain. When you feel calm and cared for then you will have the capacity to be calm and care for other people.
So how do you start to do things differently?
- Acknowledge that this can be a difficult season because validating your own feelings is an essential part of healing.
- Say no to what you can say no to.
- Say yes only when you really want to say yes.
- If you have to power through a painful visit, schedule time with a loving friend after (even if it’s just a phone call or a quick check-in by text).
- Set boundaries and create breaks. Long visits can be broken up by running errands, walking the dog alone or otherwise giving yourself time away to regroup.
- Less is more during the holidays. We tend to get caught up in continuing traditions that may be more of a burden than a pleasure; it’s fine to take an easier way out. Don’t fret about doing elf on the shelf AND gingerbread houses AND caroling AND a white elephant exchange AND latkes for the neighborhood AND AND AND. More passive traditions are fine like using holiday glasses at dinner during the month or serving peppermint tea before bedtime.
I have been thinking about family legacies of trauma (I’m working on a longer blog post about that) and one of the things I’ve been thinking about is that when a family knows that the worst things can happen, hope can become a dangerous thing. Not every family that experiences trauma is like this, obviously, but it’s common because people want to be safe. If you’re too hopeful, you might take risks and you might fail.
I think about this when I hear parents dialing down their kids’ big plans.
“Don’t expect to hit a home run right away, kiddo.”
“Don’t be disappointed if you don’t get the lead.”
“Not everyone is going to get an award for this, you know.”
We don’t want our kids to be disappointed when they fail so we prepare them for failure.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” we say. But isn’t that what hope is for?
It’s true that we need our kids to be realistic but reality will do that for them. Telling them not to be excited doesn’t protect them from failure; it just adds an ugly sheen to the excited times before.
I get it, I do. There is nothing more heartbreaking than watching your child’s dreams get dashed. Ugh. Like a dagger to your own heart, I know. Our urge to mitigate that possible disappointment comes from a loving place but it’s spoils the fun and dampens the spirit.
Imagine if we did this with other things like, “Sooner or later you’re going to take a swig of milk and realize it’s gone bad so I think you should just prepare yourself for sour milk every time you drink it. I think you should mistrust the anticipation you have that the milk will be good.”
(Substitute some other example if you are dairy-free. Like apples with bruises or when your salad has the lettuce core in it. Or when your pancakes have those bitter lumps of baking soda.)
Nobody wants to live their life expecting disappointment.
So why not be hopeful? Why not get excited? And then if things don’t work out, we can hug the heck out of each other. It’ll be OK.
If you don’t do this with your kids, you might do this with yourself. You might find yourself gearing up by tearing yourself down. Whose voice is in your ear telling you to be careful? Not to aim too high? Who’s telling you to dial down your dreaming?
And here is Mel Brooks singing Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst, because Mel Brooks can make everything funny including the Judaic legacy of trauma (oh boy does this ring familiar and not just because my dad does a killer Yiddish accent):
I’ve been thinking about middle school girls and I’ve been thinking about middle school boys and what a mess it all is to be 12 or 13 and trying to figure this whole thing out, this boy/girl thing and this masculinity/femininity thing. (My youngest just started middle school and the social life of middle schoolers has become the center of our dinner table conversation.) It’s not that those issues aren’t always pressing and aren’t always confusing but it seems like middle school is this outlandish, cartoonish landscape where the cultural expectations are out-sized and ridiculous. The discussion doesn’t stop in middle school but it becomes visible to parental eyes somewhere around there and sometimes it gets stuck there.
The middle school kids I know in my personal and professional life are doing their best to navigate who they are and who they want to be and the expectations of being grown, which are confusing. They are vulnerable, these kids, as they’re looking all around them trying to figure out how to manage gender roles and relationships, which means that media messages in particular hit them hard. Sometimes they make a mess of it. They think they are more sophisticated than they are. They think we can’t possibly understand.
Sometimes when I’m sitting with a young woman in my office who is really hurting I think about the drumbeat that ran in my own head at that age, “If a girl falls in the forest and there’s no one there to see, is she still pretty?”
In a culture that places tremendous value not just on looks but on sex appeal, getting sexual attention can seem both empowering and demoralizing. When I was about 13 I remember this one lipstick commercial where a woman gets out of the car and men are literally bowled over by her beauty. The valet opening her door falls down, the valet standing by the booth falls down and some random passing guy falls down because she is so beautiful and I wanted to be that beautiful, too.
My friend T and I would sometimes meet at the corner between our two houses. We lived in the suburbs but this particular corner was busy and when we’d meet there we noticed that sometimes guys would honk at us. That felt really good. The next best thing to men actually falling at our feet seemed like men compelled to honk and holler at us. We were socialized to think that a performative demonstration of our appeal was the only kind that mattered so no, a girl who falls alone in the forest would NOT be pretty but if there was a guy there to catch her and then to gaze lovestruck into her (perfectly made up) eyes then she would be.
We were not sophisticated enough to know (and no one had told us) that cat calling is attention but it’s not good or safe attention. I mean, random men who drive by and honk at girls (clearly) barely into their teens are not winners but we’d internalized the message that without male attention we didn’t actually exist. Not that this was necessarily the kind of male attention we wanted because in the commercial the super handsome bystander gets up and takes the woman’s hand and presumably falls in love and the guys who honked at us just kept driving, leering out the window as they passed.
We’d stand there and see how many honks we could get before one of us had to head home for dinner and the attention felt good but it also felt yucky so it was this mish-mash of feelings, which I hear from the kids in my office, too. This mish-mash of wanting to be pretty but wanting to be valued for ourselves, too, and feeling guilty and discouraged and defensive about it all.
I titled this post the way I did because I think we need to support girls in caring less about what boys think, sure, but I also think we need to humanize boys when we talk about them since I think often we set girls up with a “who cares what boys think!” message when the truth is, they may actually care what boys think. So then we need to start building expectations that help them understand that boys are people and what they’re thinking at that age is also generally a mess of insecurity and worry and longing.
I know there are boys out there who only want “one thing” but I don’t think that’s all boys or even most boys. I think the cultural narrative they’re getting is just as ugly and complicated and as hard to navigate as what girls are getting. And girls need to know that, that the rigid gender expectation are no good for anyone and that there are a lot of boys who feel trapped in hyper masculinity the way that girls feel trapped in hyper femininity. (See this.)
We can also normalize that want for attention that many girls have. If a girl came to my office and said, “I like to stand on the corner and see how many honks I can get” I’d want to acknowledge that need to feel seen before I start criticizing her behavior. I’m not gong to get anywhere if I lead with criticism so I start by saying I understand. Only when I know she trusts me are we going to be able to talk to her about being safe.
Because that’s the biggest concern here, right? How do we help our girls stay safe? How do we help them understand that wanting attention does not mean she has it coming to her if she ends up getting hurt?
We do this by letting her know that we understand her want to be attractive and to have that attractiveness acknowledged. Well meaning feminist moms sometimes come so hard with the “Looks don’t matter” message that we send that conversation underground, which is a lost opportunity to have a discussion that’s more complex and nuanced.
This is not an easy fix and for many women, it’s a lifelong process to unpack our relationship to the male gaze for many reasons both cultural and individual. No wonder then that so many of us struggle in how we talk to our daughters. My advice? Listen first, listen long, have patience and compassion. Adolescence is a tough time to be a kid but it’s also a tough time to be a parent so give yourself that same patience and compassion.
Want to talk further? Hit me up.
As a bonus, I couldn’t find the commercial I’m remembering but this one has the same gist.
Babies need loving, responsive adults to make them whole. This is best illustrated by watching the still face study, which was created by Ed Tronick, a developmental psychologist. This version is done with dads (a great reminder that it’s parents — not just moms – who matter to babies). (You can see a version with older kids here.)
When the baby becomes upset, that’s dysregulation. When parents tune back in, the babies are able to regulate. Babies (and toddlers and children) learn to regulate on their own over time but only with our help.
Now before you start feeling bad about the times you’re on your phone or reading a book or cooking a dinner and your baby is melting down, the important thing is the reconnection. You step away, you come back. They fall apart, you help them come back together. Some frustration is fine because in that frustration are important lessons about trust. Dad comes back. Mom returns. You are not alone. (The second video I linked explains this more.)
Eventually baby’s tolerance increases. As children get older they need less reflection from us and they are able to carry that sense of being seen within themselves. But there will be times when they will need our help even when they’re great big kids. After all, we adults sometimes need someone to hold our hands, too, so we won’t fall to pieces.
“There’s no such thing as an infant,” wrote D. W. Winnicott, famed British child psychiatrist. “If you show me a baby you certainly show me also someone caring for a baby.”
A baby alone is a baby unfinished.
Now imagine what happens if a baby lives alone in dysregulation for a long time or very often. Imagine if a baby does not have someone to complete them. This is what happens to children who are neglected or institutionalized. They don’t learn to self regulate; they’ve never been given the tools to do it. As you can see from the video, some babies shut down and others fall apart. This is where they will go as they get older even if they have help later. Those early experiences leave deep impressions on young hearts and minds.
Now think of yourself. Some adults watch the still face videos and they have a visceral reaction. Tears come to their eyes. They become upset for the seemingly abandoned infant. Perhaps it reminds us of being left to our own dysregulation too often. Perhaps it reminds us of early experiences of fear and loneliness.
Parenting our children can bring up some of these deep seated losses. Sometimes giving to our children what we didn’t have is healing and sometimes it can bring us grief we don’t understand and don’t know how to manage.
So what do we need then? Where can we find connection to regulate? Perhaps it’s from our partner. Perhaps it’s through meditation to connect us to our feelings so we can attend to them. And perhaps it’s in the office of a trusted counselor.