Children learn to manipulate even before they learn to walk or talk. It begins as the innocent but magnificent discovery that they can control the world! By screaming, I can make everyone look. By throwing Cheerios on the floor I can make mommy bend over and stand up again. By holding a Vienna sausage toward Spot, I can get him to walk over and lick my fingers. We all have a very real need to be able manipulate, or move, things and people in our lives in order to achieve a sense of control and mastery.
As children, this kind of manipulation is experimental. As adults, hopefully, our manipulation is flexible—we learn to balance our desire to control our environment with the needs of others and with the reality that not all things can or should be controlled. For adolescents, however, their developmentally-driven quest for independence can make manipulation a disruptive and deceitful modus operandi. In these cases, their desire for control is not balanced with a mature sense of the needs of others. In their awkward but hormonally and neurologically driven quest for a new level of autonomy, they want complete control of their world, and that world includes you!
The teenager’s drive for independence is often at odds with a parent’s desire to control and manage the child’s behavior. This stark difference in agendas can escalate manipulation from the relatively innocent pleading or pouting of childhood to the splitting, lying, and triangulation of adolescence. In most cases, fortunately, the impact of even highly manipulative behavior can be mitigated with some simple strategies. When a personality disorder or other mental illness is a part of a teen’s manipulative behaviors, however, these strategies should be implemented with the support of a mental health professional.
Open communication helps make you someone your teen has to and—and wants to—navigate through rather than around. Making yourself a passageway instead of just an obstacle will encourage your adolescent to engage rather than manipulate. Good communication throughout your whole family system can also prevent triangulation, lying and splitting by ensuring that everyone is on the same page and has the same information. Strategies for encouraging communication include:
In the case of manipulation, it’s best not to fight fire with fire. Good old water—in this case honesty—does the trick. One of the biggest mistakes parents make with children is offering empty threats in an attempt to end an argument, win a power struggle or scare a child out of misbehavior. We make irrational threats that we’re really in no position to enforce; threats we won’t or can’t follow through on. This is bound to backfire quickly, teaching the child that we simply don’t mean what we say.
When dishonesty is viewed broadly as the expression of anything we don’t fully feel, intend or believe, most of us come to realize that we’re dishonest with some frequency. Even so-called “mild” forms of dishonesty can powerfully undermine your effectiveness as a parent or caregiver with an adolescent. Many adolescents have a heightened, almost black and white moral sensitivity—especially when it comes to others! While their own internal world is in profound chemical, neurological and physical chaos, they desperately look for things outside of themselves that are reliable and predictable and secure. The extent that you able to unconditionally meet those criteria is the extent to which you are likely to retain some level of authority with your adolescent. Fostering trust and connection during a time of such internal disruption can go a long way with a teen.
To some extent, this ties into the point about honesty. If you don’t mean it, don’t say it—especially when it comes to “if-then” threats of consequences. A lack of follow through creates a sense of insecurity in the already chaotic world of a teen. That provides a reason—in the mind of an adolescent—to dismiss you and work around you through manipulation. In order to follow through effectively, it’s critical to articulate plans that are realistic and sensible.
During a parent/child conflict, it’s tempting to construct consequences on the fly in the heat of the moment. This is usually more an attempt to end the fight by winning it than to actually articulate appropriate consequences. In these instances, we often escalate our threat of consequences in direct reaction to our child’s escalating behavior during the argument. Adolescents learn to manipulate this escalation by provoking us to promise much more than we can deliver—“you’re grounded for a year!” When this happens, teens learn that it’s unlikely we’ll follow through with a consequence of any kind.
Setting consequences in advance can help you avoid expressing intentions you can’t follow through on. Another strategy is to give yourself some time and space after a conflict. Saying, “I’m not sure what to do here. I need some time to think through how to respond to this behavior,” is an honest way to buy yourself some time to create an appropriate response you can follow through with. Following through consistently with articulated plans and consequences can increase your credibility and decrease manipulation.
Being an adolescent is a little like taking your driver’s training course in a Ferrari. Adolescents suddenly have new, high-performance neurological and emotional equipment but no idea how to use it! When they press the emotional gas pedal, it’s zero to sixty in four seconds. Turn the wheel a little and they’re spinning. Adolescents suddenly have the equipment to think and feel in new ways, but they don’t have enough practice to control it. This can make processing social information a bit erratic and confusing for all involved. Sometimes when you think your adolescent is just being difficult or intentionally misunderstanding you, she is! Other times, though, she’s just confused. Fortunately, the same strategies can help in either case, since clarity is a good antidote for both manipulation and confusion.