Children learn and adapt very quickly and are excellent at gauging how we react to their behaviour. Constantly looking for ways to get what they want and get out of what they don’t want.
That goes for mealtimes too. Kicking up a fuss about what you’ve made for dinner, refusing to eat a single morsel, asking for something else, throwing their plate on the floor on purpose. It’s all designed to get a reaction from us.
In this fabulous guest blog post from Parenting Coach, Mette Theilmann, learn about this manipulation behaviour our children are using, what we’re teaching them if we give in, how to react to them and support your child to understand and navigate their frustrations around not getting what they want or having to do (or eat) things they don’t want.
Manipulation behaviours and how we can undo them
Kids are very clever and quick to learn and adapt. They are like small scientists. Curious about everything that goes on around them and always on the lookout for alternatives, options and opportunities. And of course looking for means to get their own way! And that is how it should be.
Therefore, children quickly learn that over time certain behaviours (emotional blackmail, tantrums, screaming, begging, negotiating etc.) will get them what they want, or get them out of what they don’t want to do.
I am sure we have all been there; our child wants more screen time (or to stay up later, have sweets etc.) and we say NO. They beg, they scream, they are like Duracell batteries – going on and on and on. Until WE have run out of energy and patience and scream back OK YOU CAN HAVE IT….you can almost hear and see the child thinking, “YES! I won again!”. Or maybe we feel sorry for them and overcompensate by give in or let them get away with too much. Either way, it is not a good move from our side.
But here is the thing – we have taught them that ‘manipulation behaviours’ DO work, with focus, persistence and consistency from the child.
It has become learned behaviour, taught by us. But here is the good news, the behaviours can be unlearned with focus, persistence and consistency from us!
Let’s start by looking at why manipulation behaviours can be damaging for the child, parent and the overall wellbeing of family life.
- Your kids will consistently ignore you, your request and boundaries.
- They will always want the last word, ‘I have just started watching it’, ‘calm down I am almost done’ ‘in a minute dad’ etc.
- Children can start being disrespectful and rude, ‘are you stupid or what?’ ‘oh yeah what are you going to do, cry?’ Because they know they will get away with it, plus they have lost respect for you.
- They may start using power to bully you to give up or give in.
- It makes your home a place of anger, tension and yelling.
- We make it hard for them to function socially later in life because society WILL NOT accept it when they try to bend rules, manipulate or go back on agreements, or be They will not be invited to other people’s homes. They will not be well received in the workplace and of course there are the police to deal with if they decide later on in life to break laws! So, we NEED to stop this behaviour early on to avoid long term consequences.
They are just doing their job – you need to do yours: In a nutshell – they are constantly manipulating you. And because you have allowed this to happen you have taught them that this approach works! So, in a way we cannot blame our kids; they are just doing what they need to do – which is try to get their way. But we are not doing our job: which is to give fair and respectful guidelines and expectations with clear rules and routines and stick to them, consistently. And not get wound up by their attempts to manipulate us; most importantly we need to stay in control of ourselves and stick to our parenting values, do what we said we would do, and be a predictable parent.
So how can we ‘undo’ these learned ‘manipulation behaviours’.
- It’s never too late. You might think that it is too late to pull back on the rope, but it isn’t – it will just be hard work. But remember, no one said parenting was going to be easy!
- Make sure you all know the rules of the house and your boundaries – maybe even write them up together. Make it clear to them that you are going to stick to them and that you are serious. Also, inform them about the consequences if they CHOOSE to break the rules, ignore the routine or overstep your limiest.
- Things will get worse in the beginning. If they are used to getting what they want or getting away with what they don’t want to do you will find that once you change your approach they will do ANYTHING to get things back to how they were before. If you give in or give up just once you are back to square one. So, it is important that you stick to what you started and keep the long-term goal in mind – to have sociable, respectful and independent kids.
- Prepare yourself for what might lie ahead: if you know that it will create battles and resistance when you have to tell him i.e. to get off the screen. Take a moment to check in with yourself before you engage with your child. Take a deep breath. Prepare yourself for your child’s reaction to what you are about to say and do (i.e. begging, negotiating, mean words, bullying etc.). And remember that their negative reaction is normal and to be expected. Remind yourself, that it’s OK, he CAN have a reaction to my boundaries, my request or my NO. It’s normal and natural that kids ‘grieve’ for what they cannot have or do – that is their job. But it is my job as the parent to stay calm and consistent. Remind yourself WHY you need to stick to your NO or request.
- You can give a warning. ‘Sam in 10 minutes it’s time to get off the screen. Jen in 20 minutes you need to start getting ready for bed’ etc.
- Less is more: say what you have to say, ‘Right Sam, time to get off the screen. Jen, time to get ready for bed’ and so on. If you have taught them that manipulation behaviour has worked in the past they will at this point start the negotiation process. Once you have said what you need to say STOP there. Don’t go into word overflow, because you are in danger of winding yourself up and end up shaming, blaming, criticising or screaming (which we will regret later on). Also, it sounds like we are trying to convince our child about our decision to say NO with too many words – so it’s less convincing.
- Control yourself and master your emotions: I know that our kids’ reactions to our requests and boundaries can bring out big emotions in us that might make us do and say things we regret later on. So make sure you always STOP, BREATHE and check in with yourself and THINK positive coping thoughts: ‘I can do this, I am strong, he is good most of the time, if I don’t do it now it will only get worse etc.’
- You CAN be respectful and still be heard: if your child gets mad about your decision you can still come from a place of listening and understanding. ‘I can hear that you are really angry that you have to stop playing, I totally understand that it upsets you.’ Keep in mind that accepting (how the child feels) is NOT the same as agreeing – and therefore you will not change your mind or decision.
- Go to ignoring: at this point it may be time to ignore the behaviour (not the child). Ignoring is when we aim to stop or diminish a certain behaviour by deliberately withholding our attention while the child engages in a specific difficult behaviour. So instead of increasing, we lessen the behaviour we don’t want to see by paying little attention to it – and we give attention to what we want to see more of.
- Re-engage: as soon as the behaviour has lessened or stopped, connect with your child and give them a chance to show you that they can listen and calm down.
Over time, you will find that your child’s manipulation behaviours get less frequent and less severe and you can start enjoying family life as you hoped it to be.