How We Begin To Believe We’re Bad—The Myth of The Manipulative Child

I’ve always loved working with the “bad” kids.  They make sense to me.  They are an inspiration.  They are so very strong- so very real.  So it has come as no surprise that many of the clients who have found me since I started my practice identify themselves as “bad” people-- “broken” people. They believe that it is something within them that is faulty and must be fixed—and that it has always been that way.  While each of my clients is truly unique, the core of their stories is hauntingly similar.  And these stories can teach us a great deal, not just about parenting, but about how we view emotional needs in our society.

“He’s just doing that to get attention” is a phrase I hear all too often from parents, teachers or grandparents.  “She just wants to control us” or “He’s just trying to get his way”.  These phrases are usually followed up by “Just ignore her” or “Don’t give him what he wants.”  It’s common parenting talk—so common that we are often shamed as parents if we actually take time to listen to our children when they are acting out—heaven forbid we spoil our children.  So common that I have adults who come in to my office, filled with shame, saying things like “I’m manipulative” or “I’m selfish”.  These phrases we said when our kids were two are now so much a part of their identity that they live in shame every time they try to get their needs met.

Every time I hear one of those phrases I want to scream as loud as I can “OF COURSE HE WANTS YOUR ATTENTION—WHAT IN THE WORLD IS WRONG WITH THAT?”  Of course your child wants to feel in control of his environment—who doesn’t?  Of course your child wants to get those things that bring her pleasure—who doesn’t?  We all want for connection in a meaningful way with those we love.  We all want to feel like our world makes sense and that we have some control over how it goes.  We all want to have access to things that bring us pleasure.  These needs are real, indisputable and totally normal and healthy. So why is it a manipulation to try to get these needs met?

Think about the last time someone questioned your motives or assumed they knew your intentions without asking.  For most people, this is one of the most triggering experiences they have.  It’s a violation because they are assuming they know your inner world better than you do.  It’s shaming because it assigns dark motives to your behavior and, therefore, character.  And it’s disconnecting because we feel utterly misunderstood.  That feeling is so intense that just remembering a time when it happened can cause a visceral reaction.  And yet, we do this to our kids every day.  Probably because it was done to us our whole life.

In our society, we are taught that needs are a sign of weakness.  If we need for connection, we are “needy”.  If we need for pleasure, we don’t have will power.  If we need for consistency, we are rigid.  If we need for recognition, we are egocentric.  If we need to feel seen and heard we are unstable.  We are taught that the ideal is to be completely independent.  But we aren’t a completely independent species!  We are wired for connection and interdependence.  From an evolutionary standpoint, a sense of belonging is almost as important as food and water.  There was a time, not so long ago in human history, when not belonging was a death sentence.  And in some situations, this is still the case.  When we don’t feel as if we belong, we become very anxious—just as we would if we didn’t have access to food.  We need each other and our bodies and psyche respond accordingly.

When we don’t get these needs for connection met, we act out or we self-punish.  When we feel shame, we act out or we self-punish.  When we are young, that looks like tantrums, defiance or isolation.  When we are adults, it sometimes looks like extreme mood swings or high anxiety.  Sometimes it looks like hurting or even killing others.  Sometimes it looks like self-harm or having an affair.  Sometimes it looks passive aggressive.  Sometimes it looks abusive.  At a time in our history where we are seeking hard for an answer to hate and violence, I oftentimes wonder why we aren’t looking at the way our society deals with vulnerable emotions and the expression of needs.

So, what can we do about this? 

·      First, we can make a decision—right here and right now—to stop seeing our own needs as wrong or bad.  Our needs are our needs…there aren’t right or wrong needs, there are simply needs.  From there, we can begin to figure out a healthy way to get those needs met.  Because our parents often wired us for shame around our needs, it is often helpful to do this work in therapy. 

·      Second, we can stop shaming others for their needs.  Notice when we are questioning the motives of others and stop.  It’s not your job to ever assume what another person is thinking, feeling, wanting or needing and it’s not your job to judge that.  It’s your job to set boundaries when people aren’t safe for you—but not to assume you know what’s going on for them. 

·      And finally—we must start listening to our children’s behaviors as needs and validate the need.  From there we can teach them how to get their needs met and how to sooth themselves when life doesn’t give them those things.  Validation of feelings and needs is not the same as condoning the behavior.  In fact, it’s the only thing that will allow for enough safety in the relationship to learn new behaviors to get the needs met or soothe the disappointments of the world.