Manipulation stems from a need to feel control over situations. Children do it all the time when they do not get what they want. They manipulate through throwing tantrums, sulking, and any other action that makes a parent guilty or uncomfortable about saying “no”. Developmentally, parents teach children a lot of things about how to handle disappointment by how they respond to their manipulative behavior.
If left unchecked, manipulative behavior can be carried on to children’s teenage years and even throughout their adult lives. It affects their future careers and relationships because they do not know how to accept “no” as an answer and to handle the disappointments that they will inevitably encounter in life. In the mind of manipulative teens, they are the victims, and this victim mentality subconsciously gives them the license to misbehave and seek out a “balance” according to the outcome that they desire.
The different ways that teens manipulate people
Manipulative teens are very adept at finding ways to manipulate the people around them, especially their parents.
If teens sense that their parents respond to approval (as a kind of validation that they are good parents), they can ply their parents with approval to get what they want. They can act uncharacteristically nice to their parents who long for their teens to treat them this way.
Some parents teach their teens through the kind of arguments they have that their sensitive point is experiencing rejection. Teens use this knowledge by subjecting their parents to displays of anger and offense. Parents will feel manipulated into giving in because they can’t stand the thought that their teens are rejecting them.
For some parents, their weak point is their fear of inadequacy. Teens manipulate their parents by shining a light on their parents’ personal failings, criticising their capabilities, or attacking their parents’ efforts. Parents who can’t stand being a failure in the eyes of their children often capitulate to their manipulations in order to feel better about themselves.
Some parents are sensitive to guilt, and are easily manipulated by teens through looking miserable and emphasizing their suffering. Parents who are sensitive to guilt can easily be guilt-tripped by their teens that they are the source of their unhappiness. These teens may also act helpless and subject their parents to emotional blackmail, playing the victim card so well that they twist their parents’ arms to give in to them in order to stop their teens’ sufferings.
Some parents are sensitive to fear and intimidation, and this teaches teens the very dangerous lesson that they can control their parents (and other people around them) by threatening physical harm on them.
Whatever manipulation teens learn at home, they can always apply to other people (especially authority figures) at school.
Using Bad Behavior for Manipulation
Many children and teens who resort excessively to manipulation feel that life isn’t being fair to them, and since this is the case, then the rules don’t apply to them anymore. Some teens use bad behavior to manipulate their parents because in their minds, this makes sense. For example, one teen can be faced with the dilemma that her parents don’t give her money to buy make up. In her mind she thinks that this isn’t fair, and to change this situation, she resorts to manipulation such as throwing hissy fits, ignoring her parents, or stealing money to buy make up.
To complicate matters, some situations in life really aren’t fair, and if teens know no other coping mechanism than to manipulate their way around unfair situations, this gets them in trouble. It also encourages them to set unrealistic expectations about life.
How can parents help stop their teens’ manipulation?
Parents play a big role in helping their teens have more tools in their arsenal to deal with the frustrations that they experience in life. Here are a few tips for parents:
- Listen but hold the line – It’s important for parents to listen sympathetically to the genuine feelings of frustration their teens want to express. Teens should not be punished for having these feelings, but they should also learn that frustration doesn’t justify breaking the rules.
- Don’t act out of guilt – If you let your guilt be the driving force of your responses to tense situations with your teen, it makes things worse in the long run for both of you.
- Teach your teen how to solve problems – Problem-solving is a skill one has to work on continuously. Talk to your teen about other ways to deal with a frustrating situation. For example, if your teen wants something he/she cannot afford, you can suggest ways for him/her to earn extra money.
- Allow your teen to work through the problem – When frustrating, unfair situations arise outside the home, it’s important for parents to show their teens that they are willing to give their support, but it’s equally important to let teens work through their problems. This strengthens them emotionally and gives them a sense of independence and accomplishment. This teaches teens that when you say “there’s always a better way”, they can find this better way and work it out by themselves too.
Being manipulative is a pattern, as much as enabling manipulation is a pattern. If you realize that your teen has been successfully manipulating you and other people around him/her, it’s never too late to change the way you respond to your teen. If your teen is proving too hard to handle, perhaps individual and family therapy can help.
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