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Is your teen manipulating you?

By Kim Giles and Nicole Cunningham, KSL.com Contributors  |  Posted Nov 14th, 2016 @ 6:59am



SALT LAKE CITY — In this edition of LIFEadvice, coaches Kim and Nicole explain the games your teen might be playing to manipulate you. Once you see them, you can start parenting from a stronger and more loving place.


My teenage daughter rules the house, and if she’s not happy, no one is happy. She is so difficult when she doesn’t get her way, it’s sometimes easier to just give in and not ask too much of her. I choose my battles and don’t let her walk on me about the big stuff, but I think I’ve become a doormat on the little stuff. She knows how to manipulate me with guilt to get what she wants. I hate it, but I don’t know how to change the pattern. Any advice?


Most teens use a great deal of manipulative and attention-seeking behavior on their parents, and many parents, due to their fears of failure and loss, get played.

When your fears of failing as a parent or losing your child get triggered, it’s hard to see the situation clearly and respond in a way that really serves your child. Instead, you may find yourself giving in, reducing your boundaries or even allowing yourself to be manipulated into doing or purchasing things in order to feel safe.

(Obviously, there will be some of you who feel very comfortable enforcing strict boundaries and saying no to their teens. This article is directed at the parents who get walked on or manipulated and may not see it.)

We often see a cycle of guilt and fear in our Parenting Bootcamps where parents subconsciously create and contribute to cycles of manipulative behavior as a result of their fear. Coaching these parents to function in a fearless state stops this over-compensation and enables them to put well-thought-out, balanced and productive boundaries in place. These boundaries enable them to love and support their children without drama or being sucked into psychological games.

Dr. Eric Berne published an interesting book in 1964 called "Games People Play." In it he describes the subconscious games people use to make themselves feel better or get what they want. All parents should be familiar with these maneuvers teens (or adults) may use.

Watch for these games in your home in your children and in yourself:

(You may be where they learned it.)

1. The shame and blame game. This is where you are critical or judgmental towards other people and project your shame (your fear of not being good enough) onto others because if you can cast them as the bad guy, then you must be the good guy. At least that is what it feels like in the moment. In reality, putting other people down only makes you feel better temporarily, because focusing on their shame doesn’t really take yours away.

If you have teens who are critical and/or complain about everything and everyone, they may be having a self-esteem crisis, and they may need professional help to change the way they determine their own value. When they are more secure, they will be less critical.

2. The self-pity card game: This happens when someone calls you on your bad behavior and you immediately play the self-pity card and talk about how bad you have it. You are really asking people to excuse your bad behavior and feel sorry for you instead of being mad at you. You may say things like, “I’m sorry, but everything is going so wrong for me right now, I’m having a horrible day, I have no friends, or I’m just so depressed. That's why I behaved badly.” Such people use self-pity to manipulate their way out of being responsible for their behavior.

This is a favorite of “drama-prone” teens and works well on loving, caring parents. You must watch for this and validate their hard time, but do not remove their responsibility for their behavior. You can’t let this game work or you will encourage more of it.

3. The sympathy card game: This happens when they constantly talk about how bad they have it or how terrible and/or worthless they are. This is a game to get validation from other people. People play this game on Facebook when they leave posts like “Worst Day Ever” but they don’t leave an explanation about what happened. They do this because they are subconsciously fishing for validation. This game is a subtle and immature way to get attention.

If you see this in teens, it is a sign they need some help with their self-esteem though, and trust us, you cannot fix this with compliments or praise. It’s a deeper issue and may require some professional help to change the way they value all people and themselves.

Ask Coach Kim
Do you have a question for Coach Kim, or maybe a topic you'd like her to address?
Email her at kim@lifeadviceradio.com.

4. It’s their fault that I can’t … This is about blaming others for making it impossible for you to do something you should be doing. Teens often blame the teachers for their bad grades, their parents for their bad attitude and their friends for their sadness. The payoff here is they aren’t responsible for anything.

You must insist that your teens be responsible for everything they do, think or say, and for every situation they have created in their lives. If you don’t, they will become powerless victims and spend their entire lives there. Again, this may require professional help (or someone other than you) to show them the truth or teach you how to handle being the bad guy.

5. You don’t love me: This is a common game with teens, as it is really good for manipulating parents. Parents feel guilty (especially if they have been working long hours and already feel like they are letting their family down) so they have to give the teen what they want, to prove their love. If you are seeing this in your home, don’t give in on this one, but show an increase of love and attention in a healthy way somewhere else.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to make sure you have healthy boundaries and a healthy connection with your teen:

  • Are you able to process your own fears and emotions in a healthy way so you can respond with clarity, strength and love when problems arise? We have a Worksheet for Frustrated Parents on our website that might help. We also highly recommend some professional help if your anger, frustration or fear are ruining your connection.
  • Are you holding teens accountable for their responsibilities or do you allow them to blame others or make excuses? Can you insist they be personally responsible, but do it in a loving way? If you don’t know how, you may need to upskill and learn how. They didn't teach this stuff in school, so you may never have had the chance to learn it.
  • Are you available to listen and give advice to your teen? Ensure you are available to talk with and hold the space for teens as they work through their problems. Ask lots of questions and help them figure out healthy solutions on their own. Good communication is the key to good relationships.
  • Do you feel you are equipping your teens with skills and tools to solve their problems? Being a teen now is tough, and the problems are not the same ones you faced at their age. Recruit a friend, a person in leadership or an expert who can give them needed skills and tools and rework their self-esteem.

A teen who is rebellious, in crisis or rejects you and the family creates a lot of fear for parents. You may be afraid they will turn away from you permanently, they will get in with the wrong crowd, or make bad decisions with significant consequences. When these fears come up, don’t let your fear trigger anger or an emotional response. Stay in trust that God is watching over both of you and this experience is needed for some reason and is your (and your teens') perfect classroom. Remembering this helps you calm down enough to think clearly and respond with wisdom and love.

When you don’t know what to do, just ask questions and listen. Don’t say anything but, “Tell me more. Help me to understand what you are feeling.” If you haven’t created a safe place or listened well in the past, you may have to apologize for that and promise to just listen now. Then validate your child’s feelings, while at the same time enforcing strong boundaries as to how you and the family must be treated and what behavior is appropriate.

Good communication, trust and mutual respect (and seeking professional help early on) are the keys to a healthy relationship with your teen.

You can do this.

Last week's LIFEadvice:

Kimberly Giles is the CEO of claritypointcoaching.com and an executive coach. Nicole Cunningham is a master coach who specializes in working with teens.

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