FAQ – My Child is So Controlling and Manipulative! What do I do?!

In a large Facebook parenting group that I was recently asked to help moderate, we see certain questions come up over and over again. One of those questions is some form of the following: “My child wants to be in control of everything,” or, “My child is so manipulative,” or “My child is constantly engaging in control battles with me,” all followed by the query, “What do I do?!?!”

I recently wrote a post for that group in an attempt to provide a broad framework for understanding how to address that question, and I’m sharing the response here more publicly.

There are a couple key points to understanding how to respond and what to do. First – it is worth noting that control, in and of itself, is not generally a need. As one of my co-moderators pointed out, if you look at hierarchies of needs proposed in the field of psychology, “control” is not one of them. For instance, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs lists physiological needs (like food, water, and shelter), safety needs, belongingness and love needs, esteem needs, and finally, self-actualization. Nowhere in there is “control” listed as a need – but rather, it would be understood as a means to pursuing the meeting of those needs.

The obvious and important follow-up question would be: what need is my child attempting to meet by pursuing control? If control is not a need in and of itself, but rather an attempt to meet a need, what is the need our children are trying to meet? We need to be detectives and attempt to find the answer to that question. Our children are precious souls. One of our core values in this group is that, “We believe that every child is precious, infinitely valuable, and worthy of love and respect, regardless of their history or challenges.” Let’s really commit to viewing our children that way. When we tell their stories, even to ourselves, with words like, “My child is a manipulative jerk,” we are not honoring our children or their stories. We can, instead, ask ourselves what underlying need is beneath the behavior, working to view our children in the best light possible and understand them and their stories.

Many of our children have come from hard places. They may have learned, through years of experience, that adults are not reliable. They may have learned that there will not always be enough food. They may have learned that they can trust no one else to provide and care for them. Is it any wonder that they would crave control? It often takes years of consistency in our provision and care, years of building trust, before the strength of the messages we’re trying to send – “I will care for you. You are safe here.” – can truly begin to rival the strength of the messages our kids have internalized from their time before us. Even for children who are not from hard places, their desire for control has sources and reasons – and our job as their parents is to help them figure out what those are.

Then we can acknowledge our children’s fear. We can put words to their feelings. We can empathize with them. As they grow, we can help them to understand why their brains operate in this way.

We can also provide the combination of structure and nurture that begins to combat our kids’ feelings of lack of safety.

An essential part of that is sharing control. Our children need to know that they have a voice. Yes, you are the parent, and you are in charge – of course. But your children need to see that you will listen to them, that you hear them when they communicate what they need. Prioritize your “nos” and give “yeses” when you can. Whenever possible, reserve your “no” for situations in which safety is a true concern; and try to create an environment in which you can minimize the number of “nos” you need to give. Whenever possible, say yes. Yes, you may have that piece of gum. Yes, you may have a snack. Yes, you may choose your own outfit today. Yes, we can play outside. Yes, you may have a compromise. Yes, yes, yes. I am in charge, but I do not need to have sole control over every area of our lives.

As our kids grow, we can challenge them in small ways – set the bar low and begin to build their tolerance for a “no” – but that is always done in the framework of love and wanting to see our children grow, and it’s not the first step. We, as parents, are in a unique position of understanding and building relationships with our children and ultimately teaching them that they can trust, that they can experience safety, and that they can get their needs met without attempting to take control.

Last, and this is HUGE – is the observation that if there are control battles going on between us and our children, that means that we are also fighting to maintain control in these situations. We, as parents, are seeing whatever is happening with our children from a framework of control – and that means it is worth considering whether we ourselves are predisposed to view the world in general through a lens of control. That has nothing to do with our children – it’s about us. If this is true of us, before we can help our children, we need to do some hard work ourselves. How do I know? Because this is me. I crave control. It took a lot of self-reflection, prayer, and counseling to figure out why I like to feel in control, when that tendency is strongest, how to pay attention to my mind and body to notice when I’m feeling that desire for control, and what to do when it happens. In parenting, we have a responsibility for recognizing what we bring to the table and dealing with our own junk. As I do that, I am increasingly able to understand my children’s points of view and share control with them. Let’s let control be another area in which we work with our children, not in opposition to them.

Witnessing the Power of Connection

Matt and I have, for years, embraced the parenting philosophy often known as trust-based relational intervention (TBRI) or, to use more commonplace terminology, parenting with connection. One of the tenets of this philosophy relates to the idea that corrective discipline should be designed to teach, not to punish. That part is easy enough to grasp (though sometimes difficult to practice!), but one element of the philosophy that has taken us longer to really understand – and to implement – has been the importance of the work of relationship-building outside of situations of conflict.

If we want our kids to respect us and be willing to work with us when the heat is on, we have to make the investments in our relationships with them ahead of time – not to mention that relationship investment is just a huge part of loving someone. In some ways, we’ve been doing that from day one. Wanting to have relationships with our children is one of the primary reasons we homeschool, and I obviously have a great deal of time with all of our kids during the day. But the fact is that we’re also very task-oriented during much of that time together. During school time we are, obviously, doing school. I take one child with me each week to go grocery shopping, and we do get some good time together while we’re out, but the focus is still on the task of grocery shopping. Honestly, with four kids, it’s hard to make time for pure, individual relational connection, but we’ve known for a while now that it’s important, and we’ve been trying to make time for it. I’ve been doing some one-on-one dates with kids, and I’ve tried to find other opportunities for individual connection (or connection with smaller groups of kids) throughout the day, and that has been so good. Sometimes it looks like asking a child to go choose a book to read together. Sometimes it looks like playing our Teddy Bear Memory game together. Sometimes it looks like letting a child choose something to make with me in the kitchen.

And it has brought me so much joy recently to see growing moments of connection between Matt and our kids and to witness the fruit of his growing pursuit of them. One night, as he and I discussed ways to cultivate empathy in and connect with our big kids, Matt proposed that we start reading through The Chronicles of Narnia with them, as he remembers reading those books as a touchstone of his childhood. As he reads, Madeleine CaiQun curls up next to him, and both girls are so excited for all four of us to be reading these great books together. They’re really into the stories, and they love that connecting time.

And the other day, one of our kiddos was having a difficult time after really working hard on some challenging math concepts. She was totally dysregulated, unable to play well with the other kids, and uninterested in engaging with me or working on her own in any suggestion I made. Matt asked her to come down to the studio and make some artwork with him. Half an hour later, she emerged, totally regulated, with artwork to distribute to everyone as gifts.

We are seeing more spontaneous affection, more willingness to work through periods of dysregulation – and more connection in general. Those moments of investing in relationships with our kiddos are so precious and so important!

Creative Cake Baking: Making a Love Cake

Yesterday evening, I took a step out of my comfort zone. I really like to know, understand, and, if possible, control what is going on around me, and it’s frustrating for me when I can’t make that happen. I like logic and order. And as you might expect, being a mother to 4 children ages 7 and under, my life could rarely be described as “orderly!”

My oldest daughter, Miranda, is a lot like me, but she also shares some traits with her father, and one of the most beautiful similarities between her and Matt is their creativity and desire to explore. Miranda loves to come up with new ideas and execute them. She loves telling stories and painting and making plans. And another thing she loves is baking.

A few times in the past, she has come to me, carrying a hand-written-and-illustrated recipe, and announced that she wanted to bake something. “That sounds great!” I’d reply. “I was just thinking about making a cake, too! I have this recipe right here; maybe we could combine ours and make one together?” And then we would – surprise, surprise – follow my recipe as we baked together. She always went along with it good-naturedly, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

That all came to an end about a week ago. Miranda came to me with, this time, an entire hand-written-and-illustrated book with her latest cake recipe.

“Mom,” she said. “You know how sometimes we bake together, and we say that we’re combining your recipe and mine? Really we mostly just follow your recipe. I’d really like to make a cake that follows my recipe.”

Inwardly I cringed. My inner control freak whispered to me through its clenched teeth, “That’s because we know my recipe will be edible! If we’re going to spend all that time and use all those ingredients for which we’ve paid good money, shouldn’t we at least make something that we know won’t taste horrible?!?!”

But instead of speaking those words to my precious, earnest daughter, I took a deep breath and said, “Okay, let’s do that. Can you tell me what the ingredients are? Then we can make sure we have them, so we can make your cake.”

She named off flour, sugar, cinnamon, salt, eggs, milk, and butter. I breathed another sigh of relief – at least we were in the right neighborhood for cake ingredients. I asked her whether we needed cow’s milk (which we don’t generally have on hand) or whether almond milk would suffice, and she assured me that almond milk would work great. I told her I was pretty sure that most cakes included at least one of baking powder or baking soda, and I couldn’t remember which or why, but we might want to investigate that to see if one or both were really necessary. She responded that we didn’t need to look it up – we could just include a bit of both.

The one thing we really would need to buy, though, she said, was frosting, unless we were going to make that, too, but she hadn’t come up with a recipe for that yet. She hasn’t had as much experience with making frosting, so I wasn’t sure she’d have a good sense of the ingredients that should be included, and I thought we were probably already pushing our luck with following a 7-year-old’s made up recipe for baking a cake from scratch, so I offered just to buy the frosting.

I picked up a container of frosting in this week’s grocery shopping trip, and so, last night, we set about making our cake. Miranda honestly did almost all of it by herself. I helped her pour some of the ingredients when they were in large or full containers, but she was the one who did most of the work and ensured we were following the recipe. She loved it.

And I tried to hold my tongue and not make a million suggestions 🙂 I reminded myself that this whole thing was about connecting with her and honoring her desire to follow her recipe, to create something she’d designed. I needed to prioritize the connection, not the cake.

I did point out to her that she’d gotten out the bread flour instead of just the regular flour – but she insisted the bread flour was exactly what she wanted to use. And as I was reaching into a high cupboard for some of the baking ingredients for her, I asked if she wanted to add some vanilla (which she did). I really tried to let her take the lead. The only thing I mandated was that we really needed to bake it at a temperature more like 350 or 375 instead of the 151 degrees that she’d written down in her recipe. She assured me that that was really what she’d meant anyway.

We baked the cake during dinner, and after the bigs had taken their baths (and, unfortunately, the littles were already in bed), Miranda and Madeleine CaiQun and I frosted it.

Then the the two big girls and Matt and I tried it.

I was a bit nervous – but honestly, it was good! We all actually enjoyed it, and the girls are excited to share it with the littles and enjoy it as dessert for this week!

Matt asked Miranda what it was called. “A Love Cake,” she responded. How very appropriate <3

I’m so glad that I went along with her desire to create her own recipe and actually follow it and bake her cake, just the way she wanted <3 It was one of the highlights of my weekend. I need to remember, over and over and over again, to prioritize the connection and the relationships with my kids instead of the tasks themselves. These kids of mine make me a better person!

A Sweet Valentine’s Day Project

I’m always looking for fun opportunities to connect with and encourage my kiddos. I’d read recently about a practice some parents have had of making a heart for each kiddo for each day of February and writing on each heart something that they love and appreciate about that child.

I love that idea – except that my kids would absolutely want to keep those hearts. But they are young and do a horrible job of storing and preserving mementos. Within weeks, if not days, I’d be walking down the hallway, stepping on crumpled up hearts saying things like, “Miranda Grace, I love your strength and intensity. They sometimes make life challenging for you, but they are going to serve you well in life, and I appreciate all the work you have put in over the last couple years in learning how to use them well” or, “Madeleine CaiQun, I love your ability to focus on what is important. You have a gift for seeing the big picture and reminding us all about what we should truly prioritize.” And I am in a stage of life in which de-cluttering is a priority. With 4 small children (and 2 sentimental adults), stuff just tends to multiply here, and I’m on a mission to counteract that as much as is possible.

And so I ordered us a collection of notebooks. There were enough for each of us, even Matt and me, to have one. I labelled them and wrote introductory notes on the first page of each about how we are a family – our love is not contingent, but we can still love and appreciate various characteristics of each other, and it’s good to recognize those and encourage each other with sharing about what we see. And then we got to work on filling them!

I have to laugh about the way in which we as a family completed this project. I had grand plans at the beginning – 30 pages per book, so I’d write something in each person’s book each night and also have each child write in 1-2 books per night, and Matt would write when he could, and we’d get it done. We started off pretty strong, the big girls and me doing a good number of entries on the first night. And then we fell off track and ended up needing to spend a lot of time the last couple days finishing up everything – and in fact I realized on February 13 that one child had not written in either of two siblings’ books, so I saved some pages for her to do on the 14th, but otherwise Matt and I stayed up and finished up all of the books late on the night of the 13th – except mine 😉 That’s the life of a mom! Matt will work with the kids to finish it up soon, but his and the kids are all done now. The big girls have been reading theirs, and I’m hoping that these will be encouraging touchstones for them in the years to come. Everyone needs to hear about ways they are loved and appreciated.

Even incomplete, my book is already such an encouragement to me. In fact, I was teary after just the first entry. Madeleine CaiQun was the first to write in my book, and this was what she wrote:

“Mommy, I love you because you love me. Love, MeiMei”

Ah!! My day was made. It continues to be made every time I look at that page. She knows I love her. She rests in that. And that is what, for her, defines our relationship. I’m so thankful.

It took some time. It took some effort. But my kiddos won’t be little forever, and I won’t have the chance to pour into them in the same way forever. I want to take advantage of any opportunities we have to build a sense of love and respect and appreciation within our family. For me, these moments of connection and encouragement are oh so worth it. I’m glad we added this project to our agenda for the month.

Book to be Released Next Week: Confessions of an Adoptive Parent

When I posted this photo on Instagram and Facebook, a number of my friends who are foster or adoptive parents (or preparing to be either of those!) commented that they were interested in what the book was all about.

I heard both Mike and Kristin Berry speak back in October at the Refresh Chicago 2017 Conference and was encouraged by their words and by the conference in general, so when they announced that this book was coming out this year, I was honored to be invited to be part of its launch team (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book and the pre-order bonus materials in exchange for my participation in the launch team.) 

The book has a very similar feel to the Refresh Conference – one of its primary aims is to make sure that foster and adoptive parents understand that they are not alone. Mike tells a number of stories from his own experience as a foster and adoptive parent (while still keeping many details of his children’s stories private), which help to communicate that no matter what a family is experiencing, their struggles are not unique. The Berry family has parented children who behaved in unsafe ways with other children, who became pregnant earlier than planned, who have had to be placed in residential treatment facilities for periods of time, whose experiences of trauma directly play into their behavior, and who are not always respectful, kind, mature individuals. No matter what struggle an adoptive or foster parent is walking through, this book will offer reassurance that they are not the only ones.

It’s also very readable – I carried it with me and read it all over the place 🙂

reading while waiting for Miranda’s swim meet to start!

Some of what I found most helpful from the book were the reminders to press on. Berry writes, “So now we have a choice. We can shake our fists at the heavens and say, ‘This wasn’t part of the deal,’ or we can choose to move forward, love our children through the trials, work to understand trauma, and live to the best of our ability in this new normal” (p. 76-77). Probably all of us parents have had moments of wondering whether this life was really what we signed up for, but I appreciated the encouragement to persevere through the hard times. Berry says, “I’ve found that when I stop dwelling on what I wish would have been, and accept what actually is, I find hope quicker” (p. 77).

Reminding us all that there is hope, no matter what, is another of the main points of this book. Part of that is practical encouragement – Berry tells multiple stories of kids and young adults who were making bad choices but whose paths eventually changed, and he offers the reminder that we are all in process, saying, “I didn’t come from a traumatic situation the way some of my kids did, but I still had to journey to where I am today. Twenty years ago I wasn’t able to do what I do today” (p. 187). And another part of this reminder that hope exists is spiritual. Berry writes, “That’s where I find hope – not in the wreckage of this journey, but in the fact that Jesus has willingly entered into our darkest moments and fights with us and for us in the middle of it” (p. 123). And he says, “You and I need to trust the God who created the universe and gave us life, confident that He holds our broken kids in His mighty hands” (p. 188).

Our children are younger, and we haven’t had all of the experiences that the Berry family has. However, we have had our own struggles as parents, and we do see the effects of trauma in our kids’ lives, and not everyone around us understands why we make the choices we do for our family. It’s encouraging to know that there are others out there who do understand this adoption parenting journey. And I appreciated the reminders to have hope and persevere in loving well, even in the midst of hard situations with our kiddos.

If you’re looking for some encouragement in these areas, I’d absolutely recommend the book! And if you pre-order in the next few days, there are some pretty extensive pre-order bonuses, which you can check out here!