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Episode 73

What do we do when 
our child is manipulating us?

May 1, 2023

[Kyle]: In today's episode we're going to talk about manipulation. You like being manipulated? You ever felt like you've been manipulated? You ever felt like the kids were doing that to you? I know I did it a lot as a kid, but we're going to talk about how to respond to that when that's going on in the family.


[Kyle]: Hello, and welcome to episode 73 of The Art of Raising Humans podcast. I’m Kyle.

[Sara]: And I’m Sara.

[Kyle]: And we're so happy to join you today and we're going to talk about a subject that comes up a lot in parenting. A lot of people, Sara, that come for parent coaching or for help with their teenagers specifically, but even for littler kids.

[Sara]: Oh yeah, you can start young.

[Kyle]: Yeah. A really big trigger word is manipulation.

[Sara]: Yeah

[Kyle]: Right?

[Sara]: It's a real thing.

[Kyle]: If you're listening this, raise your hand if you like to be manipulated. No hands?

[Sara]: No hands.

[Kyle]: No hands? I didn’t see anybody. I know we're just in our closet, but yeah, I didn't see any hands on that, because you don't like to be manipulated.

[Sara]: No

[Kyle]: Yeah

[Sara]: Nobody does.

[Kyle]: How come you don't like being manipulated?

[Sara]: It feels crummy, people are just toying with you.

[Kyle]: Yeah. Well, it makes me think of that statement “fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me”, right? And I don't want to be manipulated because I don't want to look like a fool, you know?

[Sara]: Yeah

[Kyle]: And so, I think a lot of parents feel like manipulation really kind of taps into them being stupid or them being, you know, taking as suckers.

[Sara]: You’re just being worked.

[Kyle]: Yeah, being worked over, you know? But then there is this weird thing that we've noticed and there are some books, maybe some of you've read these books, but there are some parenting books where they talk about kids as young as like six months manipulating their parents.

[Sara]: Yeah, yeah.

[Kyle]: You know? And so, you hear that and you go “that doesn't make any sense, because the kid actually doesn't have the intelligence or the capability to do that at that age”, you know?

[Sara]: I think-- Yeah, I think we-- You know, the brain is something that matures over time and we have to keep that in mind. The same behavior at six months comes from a different place than it does at six years.

[Kyle]: Well, it's just like survival mode. I mean, they're not-- Anything they're doing is just to keep living, because they're gonna die if you don't help them, you know? But I think manipulation at its core, the reason why it triggers us so much is none of us want to be lied to or taken advantage of, you know?

[Sara]: Used

[Kyle]: Yeah

[Sara]: You feel used.

[Kyle]: And I know I've heard from a lot of parents “I am not going to be manipulated”.

[Sara]: Yeah

[Kyle]: You know, this kind of ultimate-- You can tell it's really strong. “I will not let my kid manipulate me”, you know? And what it does too, when I start thinking about my kid manipulating me, I've noticed, Sara, that it really changes a lot of the conversations with the kid, because the parent they've got their eyes wide open, their ears--

[Sara]: Yes, yes.

[Kyle]: They're looking for any way that this might be a win for the kid. If this is a win for the kid, then that's “the kid is doing it to manipulate me”. I mean, even when I've encouraged-- I've heard this happen and I mean, I'm sure listeners have heard this too, so I don't think this will blow anybody's minds. But I've heard that happen where I'm like, a kid is coming to me, maybe a teenager and I'm telling the kid, you know, “it seems like your parent and you are at odds a lot. I bet if you helped around the house more, that would be very helpful” and the kid's like “you're right, I think it would” and then the kid will do it and then the next session will see the parent and the parent will be like “I think they're doing it to manipulate me”, you know? That “they’re being kind to me” or “today they hugged me a couple times and I think they did that just to get--”

[Sara]: “They're gonna ask for something”.

[Kyle]: Exactly. So, that's a real-- Even in marriage that can be the case too, you know?

[Sara]: Yeah, yeah.

[Kyle]: It's like all of a sudden, you know, you see that in shows where the wife is a little suspicious why the husband bought the flowers and you know, he's about to manipulate and ask something or he's going to admit to something that she would typically be mad about, but he's trying to manipulate her feelings to where she won't do it. So, all of us--

[Sara]: Because manipulation is a real thing. It's there, it exists, lots of people do it.

[Kyle]: Yes. Yeah, and so, none of us like it, none of us want to look foolish and it can look like-- Manipulation can look like being deceived or you're being tricked and I've noticed, Sara, that, you know, perception makes a big difference. If I believe kids are constantly manipulating people to get what they want, then I will always be on edge looking for it.

[Sara]: Yeah, I do think that's true. Sometimes working with a lot of families, you see sometimes like “oh, yes, that definitely looks like manipulation”, but other times I think we get so focused on it, we start to see it everywhere, even places it doesn't exist because we're so worried about it and it puts you at such odds with your kid. It's then, you know, like “oh, I better watch anything they do, because they might be manipulating me”.

[Kyle]: Yeah

[Sara]: Yeah, just what you-- What you're looking for, you're going to see lots of. So, if you're looking for it, you're going to see it in a lot of places.

[Kyle]: Well, I remember even telling a story about Abby one time and it was interesting how my friend at the time reacted to the story. So, I was actually telling the story because I was proud of Abby and the story was, I gotten upset at Abby because she'd woken me up several times that night and the next morning, I was mad at her because I was super tired. I had a lot to get done and I was frustrated with her. So, when she came in the room, I didn't really say anything to her and it was kind of sad, but I was I was kind of being like “yeah, I'm not gonna-- I'm not gonna be my kind loving self this morning because I'm upset at you”, you know? And then when Brennan came in the room, I was like “hey buddy!”. I was like-- And I gave him a big hug and you know, do you see? What I was doing, I was kind of manipulating her, right? Which is interesting. So, I was like, saying “you want this? Don't wake me up at night”, you know?

[Sara]: Yes

[Kyle]: And Abby, I was so proud. She was probably like five or six at this time, maybe six and she comes by and she looks at me really mad and she says “you know, what you are doing right now, you wouldn't teach other parents to do it” and I said “yeah? What is that, Abby?”. She says “you're not being kind and you're not being loving. You're not treating people the way you want to be treated” and she walked off, and when I told my friend this, my friend said “wow, she sure knows how to manipulate” and I was like “what?”. Like, I didn't even-- I didn't even see that at all as manipulation. I saw that as her actually helping me not be a hypocrite.

[Sara]: Uh huh.

[Kyle]: So, I actually was very proud of her in that moment and it was just interesting. I thought “that's interesting how he's seeing that, that by her telling me this, somehow she's manipulating me to do, what? To now be loving towards her in a way that--? I was already manipulating her that way and so, she wasn't trying to get anything at all, she was just expressing how she felt in that moment”, you know? So, I think the perception makes a big difference. There's times where-- I think you and I don't really talk a lot about manipulation in our family, we don't use that word a lot. Not to say it doesn't ever happen, but because like you said, I think it typically puts us on edge, it makes us hyper like, aware of them being against us or something and into kind of trick us.

[Sara]: I just haven’t found it helpful. If I'm watching for it-- Anyway, even rather it's there or not, it's sort of beside the point, right? We might have a situation we need to take care of, but focusing on manipulation and all that, it isn't going to help. I don't see it helpful for a lot of families. You know, having witnessed a lot over the years, I haven't seen it be a very helpful thing to focus on.

[Kyle]: Well, and I think a real classic example that I heard a lot growing up, was the manipulation of-- You know, kid asks one parent if they can do something--

[Sara]: Yeah, definitely.

[Kyle]: And that parent says “no”, so then they go ask the other parent, you know? And then the parents will talk about how you manipulated the situation, you know?

[Sara]: Right

[Kyle]: Is there another way to see that?

[Sara]: This child is very persistent and this path, I have a goal, I want something and this pathway didn't work out. I am a creative intelligent person, I know of another pathway, I'm gonna try that one.

[Kyle]: Yeah. It wouldn't be kind of dumb not to try the other pathway? You know, I mean, I think the kid is saying “I want this thing, it's important to me”.

[Sara]: Yeah, “so I'm gonna go another route”.

[Kyle]: Yeah

[Sara]: Because later in life if they want a certain career and they don't get hired by this company, they might go to another company and try to get-- And you would be like “yes! Don't give up on your dream! There are lots of options, go for it!”.

[Kyle]: Well, and I know I grew up in a home where both parents were working a lot. So, my mom sometimes had two to three jobs, you know? And my mom and dad sometimes even worked for a lot of my life separate schedules, you know? And I knew a lot of my friends their parents similar, that they worked two jobs and lots of us came home to homes where nobody was even home until five or six o'clock at night, and in those homes, we also knew our moms and dads didn't talk, you know? I mean, they talked at times, but we knew they wouldn't communicate.

[Sara]: Yeah, they're so busy.

[Kyle]: Yeah, they just wouldn't have time and so, you could ask one parent and they'd say “no” and you “I don't think the other parent's ever going to know that parent said no” and so, even in that, I always saw that as, just like you said, it just-- It was intelligent, it was on the part of the kid to decide “this is another way to get this done and I know they're not going to talk”. So, it's actually the kids seeing the dance that is in that family.

[Sara]: Yeah

[Kyle]: He's seeing the dynamics; he's seeing the way that system works and he's just using that system to his or her own advantage.

[Sara]: And aside from any emotion, I know manipulation can be real triggering, but if you set that aside for a moment, there is a piece that that is what manipulation is. It is if you look at-- You want your child to be intelligent enough to do that; I think we all hope for very intelligent and creative children, and they're exercising it. Now, before everyone gets all worried, we're not saying “yay! I'm so glad you went and asked the other parent!”.

[Kyle]: “Good for you!”

[Sara]: Right?

[Kyle]: “So, good you've worked it against us”.

[Sara]: Yeah, “go manipulate, kid! I'm so proud of you how smart you are”. But it is important; I think we need to reframe that. If your child is lying or manipulating or doing these manipulative behaviors, it is a sign of their brain is developing and they're getting more creative and they're going after their goals. Even when there's a boundary, they're like “I know a way around that boundary”. That is a skill though misused in these situations sometimes, it is a skill you don't want to kill in your kid.

[Kyle]: Yeah

[Sara]: You want them to carry this into life; we just need to instruct them on how to use it.

[Kyle]: You know, you made me think of a story, Sara. When I worked as a school counselor, there was a teacher there that I encountered. This is the first time-- I've never been a school counselor, so I didn't know what I was doing. This teacher had been teaching there for a long, long time, almost longer than I had been alive at that point. So, it’s an older teacher and I remember that teacher didn't seem to like me, and that teacher was constantly upset about decisions I made or thinking the choices I made were wrong and I spent one year of my first part of that year in that school just upset. Then I came up with a plan and some people might think this plan sounds manipulative, and maybe it is, but the plan was “I need to connect with that teacher. I need to find a way to shift that teacher's feelings about me”.

[Kyle]: And so, what I did, is I knew she loved Oklahoma State. So, I'm an Oklahoma fan, I like the Sooners, but I made sure I knew what happened to the Cowboys every weekend. So, I knew what they did football wise or basketball wise and I came in Monday morning and I started a conversation with her about something she cared about, which was the Oklahoma State Cowboys and so, her and I would connect, we would talk about the plays. Then I had a second idea, Sara, I asked her “how can I help your class? You know, is there anything I can do to help you?”. Because I think she cared about her class and I think she wanted to help the students, even though she didn't seem to like me. So, I thought she maybe if I offered that, so that worked, then she'd say “yeah”. Then the third thing I thought, any idea I have, I'm gonna run it by her first. So, then any idea I present to the staff, will be her idea as much as my idea and I found that made our relationship so much better over the next three to four years. To where by the end, she saw me as like, an apprentice and she was my mentor.

[Sara]: Uh huh.

[Kyle]: And really that-- Some people if you tell that story, it seems like I manipulated her, you know? I manipulated her to be on my side, but really what I did, was I found a way to speak her language, to find out what--

[Sara]: To build relationship.

[Kyle]: Yeah

[Sara]: So, I think that brings a point we do as parents, just take a moment to think “okay, what's being done here? I'm so worried about manipulation, sometimes I'm reading into these situations. I might need to step back and go ‘what's going on here?’” and you know, and if it's real manipulation or hard-- You know, I guess one side-- Sometimes manipulation feels one-sided; true manipulation.

[Kyle]: Yeah, only the kid wins. It looks like it, yeah.

[Sara]: Yeah. So, in that case, that's when if you see it as “Okay. Wow, they're using this skill set, but let's move in and show them we can still hold our boundaries”. We can still-- We can go back, but we can come back and go “that was very creative of you”.

[Kyle]: Yeah, yeah.

[Sara]: Now, “we need to talk about this”.

[Kyle]: Well, even I'm thinking it starts at a really young age, when kids are just doing puppy dog eyes, you know? Everybody knows what that is. When the kid wants something and you say “no” and they do the little puppy dog eyes and like, even I think couples do that sometimes, right?

[Sara]: Yeah, right.

[Kyle]: Like, so, a husband or wife might be going… You know?

[Sara]: Right, it could be playful.

[Kyle]: Yes, and in that moment, you could see it. I've had parents say this “stop manipulating me”, you know? And they see it as the kid trying to work them, when really the kid's just saying “don't I look so cute? Wouldn't you love to bring me joy?” and like, the kid knows the parent does want to bring them joy. The parent does want to do these fun things, they do want to give them ice cream at times, you know? So, I can see it at that early age, is “Oh no. Look. we've already got a kid here who already knows how to work me” or I can say “hey, that's really cute, I love your eyes. If you really want that, here's how I'd rather you ask it”, you know? Or “I've said ‘no’ and I don't want you to keep doing the puppy dog eyes”.

[Sara]: Well, and that's the thing that we need to acknowledge, manipulation is usually triggering for us, because all of a sudden, there's an emotion there or a need or want that they have and we're upset because we suddenly feel the need to make that better, and that's what we're kind of upset about.

[Kyle]: That’s true, yeah.

[Sara]: Because honestly, if someone else's kid comes up and gives me puppy dog eyes or something, you know? I might just be like “oh, you're cute”.

[Kyle]: That’s right! Yes!

[Sara]: Right? It's different because when it's my child--

[Kyle]: That’s good, yes.

[Sara]: But then all of a sudden, I feel like “oh, I've got to make that better” or “they're throwing a temper tantrum” or they're lying [Unintelligible] it's more personal and I feel like, I'm the one who's supposed to do all this. But if I let go of that and I think “oh, you just really want that thing” or “oh, you're just doing this”, then I don't have that-- What's going on inside of me is completely different and I'm not so triggered by that manipulation.

[Kyle]: Yeah. Well, and I'm even thinking along with that too, that's why emotional regulation in a parent is so important, you know? I remember as a kid, I could-- I know I was, I could manipulate my parents, but I was only able to do that because they weren't in charge of their own emotions, you know? That they really were out of control. So, an example I share with many of my clients is, when I was mowing the lawn if it was a hot summer day and I was sick of mowing the loan, if my dad came out to like, monitor me mowing the lawn, I would mow it kind of funky. I would start mowing it, not super funky, but just funky enough to where he would notice it and come over and say “what are you doing? Why are you mowing that way?” and I would just act dumb. “I don't know what you're talking about, dad. Like, I'm trying to mow--” and he'd be like “you're not mowing it straight”; “This looks straight to me” and I knew if I did that, eventually he would grab that mower and he would insist of mowing it himself, because he believed-- Because his emotions were at that he was the only one in that moment who could mow it correctly, you know? And I let him believe it.

[Sara]: Classic manipulation.

[Kyle]: That's right, and I would sit on the side-- I just drink a lemonade and watch my dad show me how to mow it correctly, even though I knew how to mow it correctly. But I was only able to do that, because he wasn't in that moment in charge of his emotions. I'm even thinking a show you and I used to like, was called “The middle” and there's a kid named Axel, who would-- You know, when he was asked to do something, there was one particular episode where the dad needs the sink fixed or something and the grandpa says “oh, me and axel can fix it. Don't worry, you go to work” and he's like “oh, good luck with that” and he remembered all the times he asked Axel to help him with stuff. Whether it's painting the house or whatever, and Axel inevitably would do it in a dumb way or it would act incompetent in some way and the dad would just blow up and be like “oh god” and Axel would walk off smiling, you know? Because he manipulated the situation. He didn't want to do it and he got out of it.

[Kyle]: But what was cool about Grandpa, is whenever he messed up doing the sink, Grandpa wouldn't blow up at him. Grandpa would say “oh, yeah, it's hard. Doing the sink is hard. Oh, yeah, I'll help you, no problem. Yeah, we'll get it together” and what was so cool about it, Sara, was by the end of that show-- I thought that episode did such a great job of, because he couldn't manipulate Grandpa and the reason why he couldn't wasn't because Grandpa outsmarted him, just because Grandpa stayed regulated, stayed calm with him, believed in his ability to do this activity or believed in his ability to accept “no”, right? And then once he did the sink, the smile in Axel's face that he actually could do that thing he was asked to do.

[Sara]: Yeah

[Kyle]: All the other times he tried to get out of it, because he was kind of afraid, he couldn't do it, you know? Or that he would be incompetent at it. So, the fact that he completed something was so fulfilling to him.

[Sara]: Yeah, yeah, that's a good example.

[Kyle]: So, I think it's important that when you're-- If this happens a lot in your family, there's a dialogue-- You know, like if you and I were constantly talking about “Abby's trying to manipulate this or trying to--”. I think we really need to change the conversation; you know? So, how would you change the conversation if that is becoming a regular discourse about one of our kids? How can we shift it to something healthier and more helpful?

[Sara]: Yeah. Honestly, I just would kind of toss out the word manipulation or manipulator. I would just not worry about that, I get to “oh, she is trying this strategy to get something she wants or needs”.

[Kyle]: Yeah

[Sara]: And I would “this is a healthier strategy for her to use” or maybe she can't have that thing and she just needs to-- The skill she needs to learn is emotional regulation, managing disappointment.

[Kyle]: Assertive communication.

[Sara]: Yeah. So, I would more focus on what skill does she need and just working that direction and then, it's not really personal, you know? She's not like she's-- She was just trying a strategy and so, we're going to come in with another strategy to help her get her needs and wants met, to whatever degree they can be or deal with the disappointment of not, you know, being able to go somewhere or get something or whatever it might be.

[Kyle]: Yeah. No, I really like that. So, basically what you're saying, Sara, is you would come back, throw out the word manipulation, because it puts a lot of judgments.

[Sara]: There's just a lot there. Yeah.

[Kyle]: Yeah, it really pits us against the kid. So, we have to-- When you're doing that, it's like you've got to stop the manipulation, instead of guiding her to something better. So, what you were saying is we've got to change that dialogue between each other, we've got to, I think, own the part we're playing in the dance, right?

[Sara]: Yeah, yeah.

[Kyle]: Like, why is--?

[Sara]: That’s what I was saying.

[Kyle]: If we're saying our daughter, why is Abby feeling the need to do this to get what she wants? Right? So, first let's identify what it is she's trying to get or do and then, see this as just the pathway that she's trying to do it, and going back to how we want a parent is, I think this is only a conflict, because I don't want her doing it this way. I'd rather her doing it a healthier way. So, then, we let her know “here's how to ask us” or “here's how we'd rather you do that” and it may still be-- We may still say “no”, you know? And it may be “here's how to accept that ‘no’”, right?

[Sara]: Right

[Kyle]: But maybe this whole process isn't about us being more rigid on our “no”, it's maybe more us coming to an understanding how better to communicate what we want to need and almost, I think 100 times, it's probably there's going to be some misunderstandings happening, you know? Where she assumed it was going to be a “no”, so she thought she had to manipulate to get it, right? So, she didn't even try to ask. I think for a lot of kids I help; they take the manipulation pass because they think “There's no way. If I straight out ask them, they're never saying ‘yes’”.

[Sara]: And along that, I mean, we're kind of getting into a bunch of stuff here. But that so may not feel seen and heard. So, they feel like “you're not going to hear me anywhere, you just think everything I want is bad”.

[Kyle]: “You're going to assume it all”. Yeah, yeah.

[Sara]: There's a lot of judgment in there, so we really got to try to set that judgment aside. You know, whatever they want, I don't care what it is, just set aside the judgment of it being a good or bad want.

[Kyle]: Yeah, yeah, yeah, or whether you should or shouldn't want that.

[Sara]: Yes, yeah-

[Kyle]: Yes. So, we've got to put that aside, right? Because that's part of the dance.

[Sara]: Yes

[Kyle]: Part of the dance is “they assume I'm gonna say ‘no’, because I've already judged it or assumed it's to be bad, so you're never going to really listen to any good. So, I'm not even going to try to present in that way, I'll just try to deceive you to where you eventually say ‘yes’”, okay?

[Sara]: Yeah, yeah.

[Kyle]: So, I think that's fantastic and I kind of want to want to leave it there, but I guess the last statement I would say is, really what we're wanting to have is an interdependent relationship with our kids, where both parties needs and wants are respected and there's this co-mutuality that each of us have needs and wants and they're both important.

[Sara]: Yeah

[Kyle]: And so, how can we both help each other? You know?

[Sara]: We can hear them, we can empathize with each other and yeah, work towards that win-win.

[Kyle]: So, please share this podcast. We'd love for more people to be aware of it. If you give us, you know, five stars, if you give us comments, all that makes us more visible to people around the world. So, we really appreciate you taking the time to listen us today.

[Sara]: Have a great day.

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