“I wouldn’t be having these problems if you hadn’t divorced my dad,” declared 15-year-old Lashona during an angry outburst with her mom. There was an uneasy silence followed by mom giving her a big hug and apologizing for the way the divorce has affected the family.
Mom’s reaction was completely understandable but wrong. She was the victim of her daughter’s emotional manipulation.
We all go about our day trying to influence other people to get what we want, and kids do the same thing. Emotional manipulation occurs when someone tries to elicit an emotional reaction from another to divert attention from the real issue. This is like a magician using misdirection, trying to get you to look elsewhere to conceal the magic trick. Kids can be good at such manipulation, taking advantage of parental empathy to escape personal responsibility. Here are the two most common types of misdirection used by kids.
- Guilt. Parents aren’t perfect and often feel badly for not living up to their own unachievable expectations. It’s easy for kids to take advantage of this parental vulnerability. This typically plays itself out when children misattribute their own bad behavior to parental issues such as divorce, poverty, or spending a lot of time at work.
How can you distinguish between real issues and emotional manipulation? The latter occurs when children try to justify their inappropriate behavior as due to the actions of others. It’s fine for kids to talk about the impact of divorce on their family. This becomes manipulative when a youngster uses this to escape personal responsibility by essentially blaming others for her behavior.
- Pity. Growing up isn’t easy. Kids have to learn how to navigate all kinds of tough issues, and it’s normal for a parent to feel badly for some of the stuff their kids experience. It’s hard being bullied at school, failing to make the basketball team, or being overweight. There are times children need our loving presence, gentle hugs, and sympathetic understanding.
However, on other occasions kids need a psychological kick in their butt. They should be reminded that rejection and pain are a normal part of living. They need to develop the resiliency to move on with their lives after some bad event, not flounder in a swamp of self-pity.
How do parents know when to do what? Remember the Law of Moderation. If you avoid extremes in parenting situations, you’re probably doing the right thing. You know there is a problem when your youngster repeatedly uses some bad event to solicit your attention or misdirect you from their bad behavior.
Be confident enough in your own parenting skills that you remain empathic but firm so that you are not victimized by your child’s use of a magician’s trick to avoid responsibility.