All Kinds of News for March 08, 2017
Manipulation gets a bad rap. Most parents think of manipulation as an undesirable thing… a way for your child to have control over someone else, and to get or do something by using dubious tactics. And of course, it does not feel good to be manipulated, especially when you realize that you’ve “been had," and it's easy to react to that. While many teens know they are manipulating, you might be surprised how often students genuinely don’t know that splitting, begging, or guilt-tripping are manipulative tactics.
Once a student recounted the first time she realized how to get her mother to give her what she wanted. She was five years old. The family had just gotten home from a trip to the grocery store, and her mother had her hands full with groceries, young children, pets, garage doors, car keys and so on. This five-year-old actually thought to herself, “now would be a good time to ask my mom if I can have a friend over because she is probably too distracted to say ‘no’ and she might say 'yes' without even thinking about it.” Not-so-sheepishly she admitted she had been manipulating her mother since then! No doubt those were ten long years for her mom.
But perhaps “manipulation” is not always what it seems. Sometimes, people use controlling or subversive tactics to get their needs met from others when they do not believe that they can be direct. This may be because they are afraid, they may have been punished or belittled for being too needy or demanding, or perhaps they do not feel worthy of getting those needs met.
As adults, we “manipulate” often to get what we want or need. We speak differently to our employer than our spouse, to our kids than our parents, to a telephone salesperson than a college professor or a traffic police officer. We have different relationships with all of those people, but we also want or need different things from them. Is it manipulation to speak to someone in a way that is more likely to lead to the intended outcome?
Why, then, does it bother us so much when our teenagers manipulate us? Maybe reading a situation and utilizing certain tactics to make the most out of that situation is a life skill! Manipulating to try to get what they want and need might be a part of the normal developmental process of individuation, or differentiating themselves from other people, and in particular, YOU.
Still, it is important to realize when your son or daughter is trying to get you to give them something they want indirectly, and I'd like to talk about two typical ways our kids may do that.
As a parent, you wear a button. You might even be wearing it right now. It’s invisible and obvious all at the same time. To your children, it’s big and brightly colored and flashing and impossible to ignore. The button you wear sends a strong message about the VALUES you wish to teach your children. It might say, for example, “Don’t do drugs!” “Don't have sex!" "Get good grades!” “Be honest!” “Find a passion!” “Go to church!” “Be kind to other people!” It is the thing you get on a soapbox about, the thing you’re likely to lecture about, to argue about, to become controlling about. Ironically, when you really look at whether it’s working to wear that button (in other words, to try to “make” your children do what you want them to) it is clear that it does not usually work. But we keep doing it because we are afraid of our kids not adopting our values. Despite your child's actions and attitudes, most of the time, they've absorbed and accepted our values by the time they were six or seven! That explains why the parents of your child's friends sometimes comment on how lovely and well-mannered he or she is.
But there is another way of looking at this button, and it starts with the idea of individuation. A central developmental task during human adolescence is to differentiate ourselves from our families, and in particular, our parents. For the most part, adolescents don’t know who they are yet, but they know who they’re not…and that is YOU. The best way to distinguish themselves from you is to push you away, and one particularly effective way to do that is to reject your most cherished value. I call this “making you dance.” You are wearing this button right there for them to see and they are pushing the button repeatedly to get a reaction from you, and often they succeed. Imagine swimming in a pool and reaching the end of the lane…to go back the other direction you flip and then push off the side of the pool, and the harder you push, the further and faster you go. When your teenager pushes your button, this is what they are doing! They are going further and faster while creating a space (distance) in which they can try on different beliefs, values, peer groups, interests, and so on.
There is a danger in parents taking all of this too personally, or another way to say it is to believe that your children are doing this TO you. This is often not really the case; they’re just pushing you away because they are connected to you and they know they won’t lose you but they have to get some space (please read the excellent piece entitled “The Letter Your Teenager Can’t Write,” by Gretchen Schmelzer, PhD). And yes, in that space, they make mistakes, and they make messes, and it is in those messes that they learn what works for them and what does not. If they did not push you away as parents, they may not do the necessary exploration to go out on their own and start their own life when it is time to.
Just as you have a button, you have a “soft spot," which is the place of your VULNERABILITIES. This is deeper than the button and more hidden. It is a wound you carry as a parent that might create problematic or unhelpful dynamics between you and your kids. Those wounds might be from your own childhood or young adulthood - some trauma or perhaps a negative belief about yourself, life, adults, parents, children, the world or religion and so on. Left unexamined, those wounds are likely to be projected onto our relationships with our children. For example, perhaps your brother died of a drug overdose when he was twenty-four, and since then you have been terribly worried that your daughter would follow the same path. So every time she makes a bad decision, you engage your fear and attempt to clamp down on her choices. Setting boundaries is necessary and important; but to project all of your fears onto your child (about someone she is NOT) is likely to alienate you from her, thus perhaps creating more tension, frustration and acting out.
To manipulate you using vulnerabilities, your child may try to "make" you feel guilty, sad or worried and therefore maneuver you into letting them off the hook or fail to provide structure or guidance. You may feel guilty for sending them away to treatment, sad about their depression, or wounded about what they have been through. To allow your vulnerabilities to sway you into protecting or rescuing your child is to be overly involved in your child's emotional world and perhaps not in charge of your own. You cannot make someone else the center of your world and then feel sane.
So, our children can manipulate us by pushing our "Values" buttons in order to get space or distance. Or they can manipulate by tugging on our heart-strings...our "Vulnerabilities."
What do we do about it? The answer is to become more aware, and to develop an increased understanding of yourself, your values and vulnerabilities. We tend to be very open and even nagging about our values while hiding our vulnerabilities. What if you were to trust that your child has indeed learned your values, and stop talking about them? And, conversely, what if you were to be more open about your vulnerabilities and own it when you've been projecting them?
So don't wonder how or when your child will stop manipulating you. Rather, decide that by being less triggered when your child pushes your buttons and more emotionally honest and present with your own vulnerabilities, you will be more present and more clear with your personal boundaries all at the same time.
And by the way, don't aim for perfection. This whole parenting thing is messy, and to say any one thing "works" or "doesn't work" is overly simplistic. Embrace the messiness if you can, and focus on growing yourself up. You, and your kids, will benefit.
Greta Lutman, LPC (NC, GA), LCAS (NC)
Family Therapy Specialist
Greenbrier Academy for Girls
About Greenbrier AcademyGreenbrier Academy for Girls located in West Virginia is a college preparatory, therapeutic boarding school for females, ages 13-18. The mission of Greenbrier is to emotionally heal and educate students and families, helping them virtuously take care of each other and themselves.