Emotional Extortion: How Adolescents Manipulate Parents
By expressing strong emotion, adolescents can manipulate their parents.
Posted Sep 20, 2009
Little children do it all the time. Powerless when refused what they want by a parent, they may signify displeasure by communicating disappointment, hurt, or outrage. What happens next is formatively important, and in most parent/child relationships this response occurs some of the time.
Faced with the child's sulking, crying, or tantrum, the parent feels regret or remorse for saying "no," or simply seeks relief from the emotional intensity and so relents. "All right, just this once, you can have it (or do it), since it matters so much to you. Just stop making such a fuss!"
Now the child brightens up, and learns how there is persuasive power in the strong expression of emotion, particularly unhappiness. It can be used to get his way.
In fact, one psychologist, John Narciso (see his book "Declare Yourself," 1975) called this category of behaviors "get my way techniques." Another psychologist, Susan Forward, wrote a book about this emotional manipulation ("Emotional Blackmail," 1997.) In one of my early books, "Keys to Single Parenting" (1996) I called it "emotional extortion." In counseling, I still call it by that name.
During adolescence, when getting freedom from parents becomes increasingly important, manipulation of parental authority through lying, pretense, and pressuring becomes more common. Emotional extortion can combine all three.
Thus when pleading and argument fail to win a parent over or back a parent down, the tactics of emotional extortion can come into play. The particular emotions exploited vary according to the emotional susceptibility of the parents, but the objective is always the same—to get parents to give in or change their mind.
Remember, from closely observing these adults who have so much power over their lives, children know their parents far better than parents know their children. Children, and particularly adolescents, are expert in the "pushing the buttons" of emotional susceptibility in parents, often using this knowledge in conflict to win their ways. Many children growing up with a parent who is not safe to be around learn this manipulative behavior to survive and must then unlearn it later on, or else they will afflict a significant adult relationship with emotional extortion to their cost. Consider a few of the forms emotional extortion can take.
If a parent is sensitive to approval, then the teenager will express love through appreciation, affection, or pleasing to soften the mother or father up. This emotional extortion works when the parent feels, "How can I refuse when my teenager, who is usually so hard to get along with, is now acting so nice?"
If a parent is sensitive to rejection, the teenager, loudly or quietly, will express anger through acting offended, injured, or wronged to soften the mother or father up. This emotional extortion works when the parent feels, "I can't stand it when my teenager acts like she doesn't like me."
If a parent is sensitive to inadequacy, the teenager will express criticism through attacking the parent's character, caring, or competence to soften the mother or father up. This emotional extortion works when the parent feels, "I can't stand being judged a failure in my teenager's eyes."
If a parent is sensitive to guilt, the teenager will express suffering through acting unhappy, hurt, or sad to soften the mother or father up. This emotional extortion works when the parent feels, "I can't stand feeling responsible for my teenager's unhappiness."
If a parent is sensitive to pity, the teenager will express helplessness through acting hapless or resigned to soften the mother or father up. This emotional extortion works when the parent feels, "I can't stand feeling sorry for my teenager when she just gives up and acts victimized by whatever decision I've made."
If a parent is sensitive to abandonment, the teenager will express apathy through acting like the relationship doesn't matter anymore and doesn't care in order to soften the mother or father up. This emotional extortion works when the parent feels, "I can't stand the loneliness when my child acts like there's no caring for our relationship."
If a parent is sensitive to intimidation, the teenager may express explosiveness, loudly talking or acting like he's going to lose physical control and threaten harm to soften the mother or father up. This emotional extortion works when the parent feels, "I can't stand being frightened of getting hurt."
To discourage these manipulations, parents must refuse to play along with the extortion. After all, your adolescent cannot emotionally manipulate you without your permission. You must resist your own susceptibilities to rejection, guilt, intimidation and the like and refuse to let these emotional vulnerabilities influence your decisions.
Give in to these tactics, and you will feel badly about yourself, your teenager, and your relationship, and more important may reluctantly allow what you know is unwise that could cause your adolescent to come to harm. "I know I shouldn't have let her go. I didn't want to. But she was so unhappy with me for refusing, I just couldn't say ‘no.' And now look at what has happened!"
Parents must not only hold firm in the face of this emotional manipulation, they must hold the teenager to declarative account. Thus when the teenager uses intense anger or suffering to overcome a parental refusal, the parent needs to be able to say and mean: "Acting emotionally upset is not going to change my mind. However, if you want to tell me specifically about why you are feeling so upset, I certainly want to listen to what you have to say."
Declaration creates understanding, but emotional manipulation creates distrust. At worst, when feelings are expressed for extortionate effect, then the authentic value of those feelings can become corrupted.
For example, the tired parent comes home at the end of the day and the teenager, genuinely wanting to express her love through an act of consideration, has the evening meal all prepared. But the parent, having been softened up by such acts before, is unwilling to act appreciative. Instead, he responds by asking a cynical question: "What do you want this time?" That's one consequence of emotional extortion; it can discredit the value of honest feeling.
Of course, just as the adolescent first learned the power of emotional extortion in childhood, so did you. Therefore, as parents, do not resort to this manipulation with your teenager.
Declare what you want or do not want to have happen in specific terms, then discuss and negotiate the disagreement. Do not use the strong expression of emotion to get your way, or you will encourage that extortion from your teenager by your own bad example.
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, Surviving Your Child's Adolescence (Wiley, 2013).