When our kids struggle with mental health, they can behave in some appalling and unattractive ways. One of those ways is being manipulative. It’s infuriating when someone we love more than life itself deliberately betrays us to get what they want.
It’s disrespectful and unbecoming.
And completely logical when we can gain some elevation and look at the big picture.
Here’s a real life example. Susie is a 14 year old teen who is struggling to regulate her emotions and resorts to vaping, obsessing over her smartphone, self-harming, and binge eating to cope. Her parents are really worried about her and want her to find healthier behaviors.
Susie tends to isolate in her bedroom anytime she is home. Her parents decided to intervene and ask their daughter to come join the family. An argument ensued and her parents physically took her phone and left her room. The parents felt justified in taking the phone and showing their daughter they won’t tolerate the constant isolation and smartphone use.
Much to their dismay, Susie reported an over exaggerated story about her parents to the counselor at school. Being a mandatory reporter, the counselor reported the parents to protective services. Understandably, the parents are livid! Not only are they at their wits end with Susie, but now there are local resources being consumed by their family over a fake story Susie concocted to manipulate her parents.
By the time I had a session with these parents, they had already thrown their hands in the air. They felt angry, disheartened, and hopeless.
When they had finished sharing what was going on in their world, I asked them to then consider Susie. What might be going on with her? Could we put ourselves in her shoes and see how this makes sense?
These questions are not meant to discount or in any way step over Susie’s actions. They are a way of determining how to navigate what is next for all of them. When they could see that their daughter uses her phone to numb her intense emotions, it made sense that Susie would go to extreme lengths to get the phone back. Susie manipulates because it’s working for her.
Well, we all know the story of the little boy who cried wolf. Eventually manipulation doesn’t work. People wise up to these tactics. Her parents could see that manipulation is how Susie’s brain solves her emotional distress. They understand that their job isn’t to address the manipulation. Instead, it’s to teach and guide Susie in getting her needs met without destroying relationships.
By the end of the session, we agreed that the protective services incident was simply static. If they get hooked by Susie’s antics, then Susie will feel emboldened to continue to manipulate. If they respond calmly and rationally, then Susie won’t get what she wants. The parents have to help to bankrupt Susie’s payoff from manipulating people.
Believe me, even admitting that the protective services stunt was just background noise was difficult. I wanted to yell at Susie myself, and she’s not even my kid. It’s easy to become irked and self-righteous, but that doesn’t help Susie. If she doesn’t connect with her parents, then they will be unable to have any influence in her life. Therefore, her parents have chosen not to be offended by Susie’s actions. They have chosen to understand how things went this way. They have chosen to continue to show up for their daughter even after she behaved so egregiously.
She will also face consequences of her actions, but they come secondary to the primary focus of connecting and healing the relationship. In fact, what I like to do is combine the consequence with the healing if possible. For this family, it might look like committing to eating dinner together every night for two weeks, or sharing an “I feel” statement at least once a day with each other.
When we can deal with our own “stuff” without putting the responsibility on our kid, then we can create space for ALL of us to see our own contributions. When I place the blame on my kid for my own distress, my kid becomes defensive and disconnects. He cannot see his own part because he’s put up a wall and then justifies why it’s there. If I can own that I would have preferred to handle things differently after the fact, then there is space for him to own something too. It doesn’t guarantee that he will, only increases the likelihood.
How might you create space for your kid to own their part? How can you see their manipulation as symptomatic of deeper issues?