Mother of two young kids, Molly Skyar interviews her mother, Dr. Susan Rutherford, a clinical psychologist about how to deal with a manipulative child and how your parenting decisions today may affect your child as an adult.
Dr. Rutherford: That is an interesting question, and I don’t have a definitive answer, but even very young children can see the power they can have over their parents. It’s mostly an issue of patterns.
For instance, if a 2-year-old is crying at night and his parents always pick him up and hold him when he does this, he will actually train himself to wake up to get the comfort. You could call that manipulative behavior, and maybe it is, but I confess that I’m on the fence about using that term here.
Children can learn how to get certain responses from their parents from a very young age. Typically not before 15 months, but some kids can understand this dynamic really quickly, and the parents can tell. They may feel manipulated and resent their child. In this case, they must intervene to change the dynamic. Let’s remember who’s the parent and who’s the child. As a parent, you have to set the tone for the child, and when they attempt to manipulate you, you have to be firm – loving but firm – that it is not going to work.
Supposing you have an older child. You might want to set up some limits around how often they can be on the computer. Then he or she will test you (and they will always test you) by trying to expand beyond the boundaries you have set. You should expect this. You’ll have to intervene right away and say, “Remember how we talked about this: you get to play on your computer for one-half hour a day and now you’re moving into 45 minutes. That’s not okay, and you need to put the computer away. If you can’t follow the rules, you’ll lose your time on the computer tomorrow.”
Kids will test you, and may test to see if they can manipulate you with tears or tantrums, and a parent should be ready to face these behaviors with resolve.
Molly: Are there any long-term consequences for not dealing with this type of manipulative behavior early on?
Dr. Rutherford: Yes, there can be, especially if the pattern sets in and the child learns that the way to get what he wants is to manipulate the parents. Children can actually be quite good at this. That behavior will go on and on at home, and it will expand to include other people like classmates and teachers, or other people that he comes in contact with, like coaches. Nobody likes to feel manipulated and usually people do experience a sense of being manipulated when it happens. What happens if this is left unaddressed in children is they end up forming a kind of character flaw or a negative character aspect that follows them into adulthood and really lasts forever. It’s much more difficult to change your character as an adult.
Molly: What might you see in the workplace?
Dr. Rutherford: You could see all kinds of behaviors in adults who were manipulative children, especially if a person wants to get out of doing a job. He or she might manipulate their boss or with co-workers, sometimes without fully realizing what is happening.
Manipulation can take many forms. Often, people will use shame as the tool to get what they want. They will shame other people to get them to do what they want. The other person knows something’s wrong when this happens, but they often don’t see the complete picture of what it is that is happening.
Molly: What about in relationships, like in marriages or partnerships?
Dr. Rutherford: That’s when you really see this type of character flaw show up, often on a daily basis. A manipulative person might twist things around to make her partner feel as if something is not the manipulator’s fault, and is, in fact, the partner’s fault. It makes the partner very angry and confused. This type of manipulation is often subtle, making it uncomfortably difficult to be in a relationship with someone who behaves this way.
Molly: So the manipulation is there, but it’s not that obvious.
Dr. Rutherford: Right. In children, manipulative behavior is usually pretty obvious, but as the child “perfects the art of manipulation,” they can become much more subtle, leaving people feeling uncomfortable but not quite able to put their finger on what it is that’s making them feel this way.
Molly: If you don’t deal with this type of behavior in childhood, what happens? At what age is it too late to influence character development in a child?
Dr. Rutherford: A lot of psychologists might feel that 10 to 12 years old is getting pretty late in the game to deal with character traits like this one. I don’t know exactly the cutoff age, but I do know that it gets harder and harder to manage as people move into adulthood. Certainly by the time people are in their 20s, I think it’s too late to change something like this.