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Do Your Children Yank Your Chain?

Why do they do it? Because they can.

It happens to the best of parents—even the ones with cool, clear heads, calm voices, and mature attitudes. We often don’t even realize it’s happening. Our doe-eyed, pink-cheeked little girl will take something we just said that she does not like, cleverly scramble our words like a tasty omelet, and regurgitate them back to us totally rearranged. Once we realize what's going on, we realize those words have little resemblance to the original version.

It’s called manipulation. The smarter the kid, the fancier the omelet.

Even though we may not personally recall when we may have mastered this devious behavior-art form, it did start when we were young. We might have innocently said we had eaten only one cookie when we really had four. The dog ate our homework, so we asked the teacher for an extra day to get it done. If you’ve ever watched episodes of the old reality show The Nanny, you know that 3-5 years olds can throw tantrums to get their parents to bend to their will. It’s not rocket science to a kid. Once he or she figures out what works, it’s simple cause-and-effect in its most elementary form. Problem is, many parents don’t realize that permitting their kids to be manipulative is not doing anyone any favors, especially their children later on in life.

While we usually think of manipulation as a way of getting something that is being be denied to us, the mental health community tells us that its true goal is to gain control over anxiety through avoidance. Even the most ethical adult may admit to calling in sick on a day he or she just can’t face what’s going on in the office, claim an emergency root canal when preferring not to attend a family function, or leave out some financial details when telling a spouse about how much they spent on something.

My daughter was good at this, — with teachers, daycare providers, babysitters, and, of course, me, whenever possible. In 4th grade parochial school, she had a guitar-playing universally-loved teacher, but my daughter was patently bored in class, finishing assignments quickly and then trying to find something to do. So sometimes she would get up too often for pencil sharpening, hum as she worked at her desk, or demand bathroom breaks with too much frequency. It was not a great school year.

Fast-forward a year. In 5th grade, my daughter had a veritable army sergeant of a teacher whose retired husband sat in the back of the classroom, keeping an eye on the kids. It was a school year from heaven. I questioned her teacher at a parent-teacher conference before which, in previous years, I felt I had had to self-medicate. “I do not offer her a stage upon which to act,” she said. "If her off-task behavior is grabbing a dictionary off a shelf and reading it while I am trying to teach something, I wouldn’t dream of bothering her.” A decade and a half later, there is a school building named after this teacher.

I can’t claim to have been a great example of parenting prowess. I did try hard to set standards within a fairly dysfunctional household at the time, and there was no doubt that I grounded the hell out of my daughter for things that happened both at school and at home up until her late teens. Did it have any effect at all in the long run? Who knows? Once she left home at age 18, she took a number of idiotic risks. Eventually, however, she took stock of the direction her life was heading and changed course. And perhaps that is the most many of us with strong-willed, limit-bending children can hope for (I do whisper prayers of thanks she turned out okay).

So how does your child yank your proverbial chain? What many parents fail to digest is that they simply can’t “wait out” this kind of behavior hoping maturity and enlightenment will kick in and their kids will magically know how to behave. The havoc manipulative behavior can wreak on family or school life can result in an adult who never learns to accept responsibility for his or her actions, claiming victimhood every time.

In a article, psycho-educator Stephanie Deslauriers warns, “A child who is young and who can control everyone around him quickly becomes very anxious and the more his anxiety rises, the more he tries to control and learns how to manipulate situations around him. The universal role of a child should not be to control his family but to be supported and cared for while we help him develop his independence in a supervised and reassuring environment.”

I liken this to an example of parenting I once heard on a TV talk show about a darkened room. Imagine yourself being blindfolded and led into a room, then seated in a chair. You hear a door close, and you are now free to remove your blindfold. Not a hint of light exists. You can’t even see your hand being held in front of your face. What is your first instinct? Naturally, you get up out of the chair and begin to wave your hands around, looking for anything—especially the walls or the door. Once you discover the nature of your confines, you begin to feel more secure as well as aware of your predicament until you finally find the door and your freedom. Your child is looking to YOU for those walls and ultimately, for the door that leads to adulthood, because up until a certain age, you have offered limits to keep them safe enough to navigate in the outside world. Dang. I have always loved that analogy.

It’s important to identify the reasons your child would resort to this tactic and examine the cause-and-effect he or she thinks this will result in. Having permitted this behavior in the past, you may have already unwittingly given him or her permission to continue this tack. To stop this cycle of being manipulated (and because I am no professional parenting expert), I paraphrase these steps recommended by’s Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC in her article, Manipulative Child Behavior? My Kids Are ‘Too Smart for Their Own Good’.

1. Recognize it’s happening. If you know your child is putting one over on you, you’ll be able to keep yourself from getting sucked in by it. Remember that it’s a survival tactic to get what he or she wants or to avoid having something undesirable happen. Be alert to what could transpire in certain circumstances and in certain settings, and prepare yourself for how you will respond next time you hear them. Having a game plan is half the battle.

2. Know your own triggers. What kinds of behaviors cause you to overreact? Your child is counting on hitting one of them as he or she explores the boundaries you’ve set. Sometimes it’s a tone of voice, a facial expression, or an attitude. Just as my daughter’s 5th grade teacher said, it’s important not to give him or her a stage upon which to act by knowing your own hot buttons and refusing to let them be pressed.

3. Define who you are as a parent. Pincus says, “Manipulative behaviors are designed to throw you off balance and create self doubt.” So what is your bottom line when you find this behavior is happening? “Hold on to yourself by holding on to your parenting principles," says Pincus. "Be careful not to let your children’s emotions drive you. Listen to their feelings so they know you care, but stick to the rules you’ve established.”

4. Anger doesn’t help. How can you blame a kid for going after what he or she wants in life? Just because you’re getting played doesn’t mean you can’t secretly admire your child for trying. It’s important to listen first, not shut yourself down when you see this behavior taking place. I know. It takes a LOT of control. Remember, however, that these are human beings that are not yet fully formed. As soon as your child realizes what doesn’t work and sees you are calm about all of it, reality will start to hit that what has worked in the past doesn’t work any more. When the storm has passed, see if you can sit down with your child and come to an agreement on how you can handle the same issue in the future. Your kid needs honest, reasoned thought from the person/people who care(s) deeply about her.

5. Don’t. Stop. Believing. It’s not just a rock song title from the ‘80s. It's important not to slap a label on your kid and shake your head in disgust, even if this manipulative behavior occurs repeatedly. This is a child, not a criminal. And you are the parent who adored this person as a bouncing baby whatever. As Steve Jobs once said, "If you want to make everyone happy, don't be a leader. Sell ice cream." Do you really WANT a compliant child, or would you want one who can think on his or her feet, someday negotiate a salary with the best of them or fearlessly start a business? Pincus encourages parents to have faith in their children’s good intentions, no matter what. “Believe in him. Understand that kids are works in progress. They might need to learn better ways to manage themselves in life, but they are not bad or malicious. Their intentions are not to 'get us' or make our life miserable. However, if we believe that’s their intention, then we will see them that way. Believing in our children will help them see themselves with all the goodness that is in them and with all their best intentions.”