How to respond to a manipulative teenager

How to respond to a manipulative teenager

A screaming teenager is a scary thing.Parents can learn how to talk to a manipulative teenager and stop the habit.  Below are effective responses to verbal manipulation or accusations used by most troubled teens. The right words in the right tone help you regain your authority and model maturity for them.

  • WHAT you say and do depends on your unique situation, your teenager, and what the problem is. There may be ‘magic’ words that work for your child but not others.  You’ll want to experiment and modify them over time because your child naturally changes.  It’s up to you to thoughtfully choose which responses below fit your child’s behavior and improve the relationship.
  • HOW you say it may be as important as what you say, because you must control your tone.  It is a skill you need to be successful. Pulling this off means getting an iron grip on your own feelings and behavior, and stop using words you’ve come to use habitually.

1. Identify what goes wrong

A manipulative teenager will sabotage a dialogue for many different reasons.

As an adult, you know about managing emotions, but your teenager doesn’t have a clue and is too young to articulate what he/she really means or needs anyway–plus they’ve learned that being manipulative works well!  Talking with you makes them anxious and insecure, and they may resent your authority, so here comes the manipulation bomb.

These are techniques a manipulative teenager will use.  Learn to spot them the moment they come up and plan ahead how you’ll respond.

  • Make excuses – It’s not my fault and I shouldn’t get in trouble.
  • Lie – keep secrets, fake an attitude to avoid the conversation or hide something
  • Exaggerate – revise history or express extreme insult or trauma over minor things
  • “Catastrophize” – assume the worst and that it’s going to be forever
  • Entitlement – I’m unique, I’m superior, what you say doesn’t apply to me, I get things my way
  • Hostility – insults and verbal abuse
  • Overconfidence – I’m exceptional, I already know, you don’t know what you’re talking about
  • Self-pity – I’m broken and no one cares
  • Minimize – make light of others’ needs and feelings, deny their actions have consequences
  • Vague – Guess what I’m thinking/feeling. If you’re wrong it means you (don’t love me, don’t care, are stupid).
  • Silent treatment – I plan to make you crazy by ignoring you –or- I can’t handle this and want to disappear.
  • Keep score – I win and it means I get my way (and you’re stupid).
  • Righteousness – I’m an adult and have rights and can make my own decisions.
  • Pet me – Praise me, flatter me, agree with me or I’ll make you regret it
  • Harp – repeatedly bring up a sensitive issue to get you upset, whine about things long resolved

Don’t waste precious energy fretting about your manipulative teenager’s immaturity.  Work with who they are now.

 

2. Prepare yourself emotionally and learn techniques used by therapists

Be more of a witness than a participant

To talk to a manipulative teenager, mentally take off your parent hat and become a neutral observer without emotions or bias from bad memories.  This is absolutely critical because you must be able to remove any negative tone in your voice.  Your child reacts to tone of voice more than what is said.  Your feelings are certainly important, but it’s better to be very cautious about expressing them.

Parent can learn therapy techniques when they talk with their teenager.

  • ‘Channel’ your inner therapist like an actor who gets into character. Faking it works, and may even help you be more effective. [check out YouTube videos].
  • Practice quieting your thoughts, and beliefs, and feelings.
  • Remind yourself you are a good, competent parent; trust yourself and your good intent.
  • See your child’s strengths; pay attention to what’s great about your child
  • Avoid justifying or explaining yourself. A manipulative teenager can pick up on something you say and use it against you.

In these examples, a parent can avoid feeling manipulated and reacting emotionally, such as trying to justify themselves.

Reframe – Present a different point of view of the facts, or reveal details that show the ‘facts’ aren’t what they seem.

Teen:  “If I don’t do well in this class, you’re going to punish me by sending me to stupid summer school because that’s all you care about are grades.”

Parent:  “Last year you had the same concerns at the end of the term, and then I saw you focus and pass the class with a good high grade and be really proud of yourself.  I think you will do this again.”

Paraphrase – Say the same thing you heard using different words.  This helps your child know if they said what they really meant, and gives them the option to clarify and provide details.

Teen: “You stupid effing b1tch, you never care what I think and keep trying to control me and I hate you!”

Parent:  “It sounds like you’re telling me you just want to make more of your own decisions. Is that true?”

Use “I” Statements – Always void saying “you” because your child can interpret it as blame or insult regardless of your intent.  Simply owning your feelings or stating your observations doesn’t impose your view and is hard to argue with.

Teen:  “You said you would help me but all you want to do is see me fail. You could care less about me and even my friends think you’re a bad parent.”

Parent:  “I definitely care; I explained the best I could why I can’t afford the time/money right now.  I am frustrated by this situation too.”

Validate feelings and explore why

Teen:  “You didn’t listen to me when I told you my teacher was picking on me.”

Parent:  “Maybe I misunderstood or didn’t think he was treating you differently than your classmates.  I’m listening now; can you give me more details?”

Check the facts

Teen:  “My friends hate me and I don’t care about them anymore.”

Parent:  “What happened?”

Teen:  “They all went to a movie and I wasn’t invited, and told everyone else what a great time they had.”

Parent:  “Wasn’t that the day you lost your phone charger?  Could they have tried to contact you but your phone was dead and you never got the message?”

Reflect on the bigger picture

Teen:  “School sucks.  It’s never helped me and everyone there is an a55hole and I already know what I need to know anyway.  Don’t try to make me go.”

You:  “OK, school isn’t working for you. Do you have plans if you drop out? a job or a class for a new skill or occupation?  You are growing up and will be on your own someday, and you will want your own money.”

Deescalate a heated moment without placing blame or accepting blame. You might apologize or change the subject or end the communication.

Teen:  “Stop f**king treating me like you’re my therapist!”

Parent:  “I’m sorry that it feels that way.  I’m not your therapist but a parent trying to communicate with their son/daughter the best they can.   I need to check my messages so we’ll talk about this later.  Make yourself some tea and we’ll get back to this later.

Other ways to avoid being triggered by manipulative behavior:

Take a time out so you and your manipulative teenager can calm down and gather your thoughts.

Converse via text, even in the same house, even in the same room.  No talking, only texting.  This works surprisingly well.

Talk to your teenager through a door, you do not need to look at each other, and perhaps your teen feels safer in another room.

 

3. Improving is more realistic than fixing

It helps to lower your expectations of your teenager.

The goal is not to stop your manipulative teenager’s challenging behaviors but teach them how to be appropriate.  How you talk to your difficult teenager only needs to be healthy, which is not necessarily comfortable.

A healthy conversation means both parties:

Feel heard and understood even if there’s disagreement

Feel safe because they expect no emotional assaults

Feel enough trust and to talk again later

 

4.  Pay attention to what improves or wrecks a conversation.

Visualize yourself as a wild animal trainer trying to teach an uncooperative creature to perform a task. You try various techniques and expect the animal to resist.  You keep trying until the resistance diminishes, and then you start supporting with positive feedback.  Some of the techniques below will work; some will fail spectacularly.  When you find those that work, mix them up or your manipulative teenager will catch on and try other tactics.

Let your teenager rant for a while.  Teens often vomit out emotions regardless of how they sound or if they make sense, and parents don’t need to respond at all.  It helps to let them vent.

Ask why and how. Explore the underlying cause by using simple questions that can’t be answered with Yes or No, which may help them identify and articulate what they really mean and need.

Redirect.  Change the subject, or have a pre-planned list of actions for ending a tough dialogue.

  • DEFLECT and redirect a dialogue and avoid feeling triggered emotionally.

“Consciously ignore” (pay attention but mentally or physically withdraw)  – Pretend you didn’t notice when he/she resorted to blaming, demanding, making excuses, etc.

Change the subject – ask what they want from the grocery store; ask if they remember an upcoming event

Escape – excuse yourself for the bathroom.  Say you forgot to call someone back who left an important voicemail.

  • INCLUDE SUPPORTIVE WORDS, which may positively influence anxiety, whining, and obsessive thoughts:

“We’ll get through this together;” “I am looking after you.”

Confidently reassure and point out what’s going well.

Deny false charges against you without explaining, just state the fact.  “I did not say that;” “I am not accusing you…”  Period.

Apologize immediately when guilty.  “You’re right.  That was not the right thing to say and I apologize,” nothing more.  You may be guilt-tripped into apologizing multiple times, so say something like: “I apologized and it was the right thing to do.  I haven’t done it again and won’t apologize again.”

Set simple boundaries like you might for a fussy young child.  “You can get angry and run to your room any tim4 you like.”  Remember that anger is normal, it’s harm that’s not acceptable.  Screaming is normal, but ugly insulting words are not acceptable.  Depression and sadness is normal, but isolating is risky–they need to be in the presence of others.

No offering reasons or giving lessons.  Conflict is not a teachable moment.  Your teen absolutely cannot reason when they’re flooded with emotion and dependent on manipulation which has been working for them.  Trying to teach something can seem patronizing and disinterested in their concerns.

Appeal to a higher self:  During a fight or argument, listen carefully for something your child says (without prompting) that reflects their good values and character, even the tiniest teensiest thing.  Tell them what you heard.  It may trigger anger, but they did hear what you said and will remember in the future.

 

5.  Help your manipulative teenager think about their future

Help your teenager think about their future.

You may have tried to motivate your teenager to think about their future, but ultimately your teenager takes will make the decisions for their life.  Try a technique used by mentors and ask open-ended questions, Mentoring via questions.  If they refuse (likely), offer a list they can read for themselves.  Examples:

  • What do I care most about?
  • How can I feel better when I’m upset?
  • How can I cope with boredom?
  • What am I good at?
  • What are three things I’m most thankful for, why?
  • Who do I trust and why do I trust them?
  • Where do I see myself in 5 years? How will I get there?

Ideally they share their answers with you but this should be optional.  If you do see them, absolutely avoid guiding or correcting their answers even if you think they’re wrong!  The point is to start them pondering and exploring.  If they write “kill myself” or “run away” or “use drugs” —they already know what you think—but they may be reaching out for help with statements like these.  You can ask what they really mean or offer are other options.  For threats of self-harm, see “Use the “S” word:  talk openly with your child about suicide.”

PATIENT PERSISTENCE.  Results aren’t quick so pace yourself for a marathon

Teens are innocent and pure in a way adults are not.  They have standards and values though it rarely seems that way.  Look for evidence of decency and caring of others or self.   Show appreciation for the little things they do even if your praise creates a backlash.  They WILL remember what you said someday.

Parents should know that even a difficult teenager will love them.
Remember this…
Teenagers can make a parent feel like they've been stabbed in the heart, but it's only words..
…when they do this.

 

Good luck.

 


You can find additional practical and common sense approaches to parenting here:  Solid Wisdom For Parents Of Troubled Children And Teens

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