Kids' Testing and Manipulation: Who's in Charge at Your House?
You often hear the phrase, “Believe it or not, kids really want limits.” This isn’t quite the case. It is true that in the long run, youngsters are more comfortable in a house where parents have clear, reasonable rules and enforce them consistently and fairly. The kids are more comfortable whether or not they realize the connection. At any one moment, however, children want what they want, and they are angry and disappointed if they don’t get it. This often leads to testing and manipulation.
Testing and Manipulation (T&M) are the efforts of children to get what they want. They don’t want to go to bed, they want candy right before dinner, they don’t want to get up and go to school, they want to hit their sister. In order to get their way and foil their parents' wishes, children automatically tend to test and manipulate from time to time. They can do this in six ways.
Badgering is the "Please, please, please," or "Why, why, why?" routine. The child keeps after you and after you and after you, trying to wear you down with repetition. Just give me what I want and I'll shut up! If the parent attempts to verbally respond to everything the child says every time he says it, Mom and Dad are in for a very long and frustrating session. Many parents continue on an endless wild goose chase looking for the right words or reasons that will make the child be quiet.
Intimidation is an aggressive verbal attack, and often involves temper tantrums. Here the aggravated child may yell at you, accuse you of being a bad parent, or otherwise storm around the house. Older kids sometimes get into swearing. Younger children may throw themselves on the floor, bang their heads, and kick around ferociously.
"I'll never speak to you again!"
"I'm going to kill myself!"
"I'm not eating dinner and I won't do my homework!"
"I'm going to kill the parakeet!"
"I'm running away from home!"
These are all examples of threats. Something bad is going to happen to you unless you cease and desist this ridiculous discipline at once.
Actually not talking (as opposed to simply threatening), not eating dinner, or sitting in the closet for two hours might be examples of martyrdom. The message is, "No one around here loves me anymore!"
Crying, pouting, and looking sad or teary can also be effective. Here, the goal is to get the parent feeling guilty.
The first four tactics—Badgering, Intimidation, Threat, and Martyrdom—share a common, underlying dynamic. The child, in a sense (and without quite knowing what he's doing) is saying: "Look, you're making me uncomfortable by not giving me what I want. I'm making you uncomfortable with my harping, tantrums, ominous statements, and feeling sorry for myself. Now that we're both uncomfortable, I'll make you a deal: You call off your dogs and I'll call off mine.
Sound good? If you do give in, you are almost guaranteed that the T&M will stop immediately. The problem, however, is then who's running your house? It certainly isn't you, it's the kid. All they have to do in a difficult situation is get out their big guns and they've got you.
5. Butter Up
The fifth tactic takes a different tack. Instead of making you feel uncomfortable, the child tries to make you feel good.
"Gee, Mom, you've got the prettiest eyes of anybody on the block." Or, "I think I'll go clean my room. It's been looking kind of messy for the last three and a half years."
Here, something good is going to happen, and this kind of testing sometimes precedes the frustrating event. Have you ever heard a parent say, "The only time he's ever good is when he wants something"? That's probably Butter Up, or what is also called "Sweetness and Light." This type of manipulation is occasionally kind of tricky, because it's hard to tell apart from genuine affection.
6. Physical Tactics
This is perhaps the worst. The frustrated child either physically attacks you, breaks things, or runs away. Children don't usually start doing this all of a sudden. Many of them have a long history of this kind of behavior, and the bigger they get, the scarier it gets.
Our research with parents and teachers has indicated that the three most common tactics are Badgering, Intimidation, and Martyrdom. As you might expect, girls use Martyrdom more than boys, but boys use Intimidation more than girls. Both sexes like Badgering, and the least often used strategies are Butter Up and Physical Tactics.
The Bottom Line
The crux of the matter with Testing and Manipulation is this: If kids are successful in their testing efforts, they will continue to use these tactics in the future. The household will suffer the consequences: prolonged and frequent periods of emotional upset.
What to do? First, accept testing and manipulation as normal. Testing is as old as the hills. Boys and girls in ancient Rome, for example, used the same six strategies on their parents.
Second, when frustrated kids are putting the heat on you, label/identify the tactic they are using. Is it Badgering? Is it Threat? Taking Martyrdom seriously, for example, is a sure-fire way for a parent to get behind the eight ball.
Finally, parents can ignore T&M if it appears in a fairly passive form, such as Butter Up or pouting (Martyrdom). Otherwise, testing is perfect for 1-2-3 Magic's "counting" procedure. How much fun will it be for you to stop whining right in its tracks with a calm-but-decisive, "That's 1!"