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!

Reconnecting with my Kiddos

Parenting always has its ebbs and flows, but we’ve had a rough past couple weeks around here, with one of our children in particular. Some of that has been us, I’m sure – when Matt and I are stressed out or focused on other things, we don’t do as good of a job at parenting, and he’s in the middle of his semester, and I’m working hard on accomplishing everything on my pre-adoption to do list. But some of it was definitely her and for no reason we could discern – perhaps the upcoming changes in our family? Perhaps just a phase? Who knows. It’s been hard, though. I called our social worker and asked for her advice. I asked a few friends to pray for me.

And I’ve upped my connected parenting game. I’ve sought opportunities to say yes. I’ve gotten down on my kids’ level to talk with them. I’ve been willing to work with the girls on compromises that help each of us work toward what’s important to us. I’ve proposed outings to the park just because they would be fun.

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I’ve been putting my phone down more. We’ve been role-playing tough situations. We’ve been having a lot of re-dos. I’ve been doing one-on-one dates with each of my girls.

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And the past week or so has been better, and I’ve been encouraged. It’s been hard work, but it’s worth it. I want to be able to help my kids work through conflict and handle their emotions well, and it’s worth the time it takes to help them learn those skills. And I want us to have good, healthy relationships, and it’s worth the time it takes to build those.

Even in the midst of that context, though, I was shocked by an experience we had this morning. A friend of mine, another adoption mama, is spending a week in Texas at a TBRI (trust-based relational intervention) Practitioner Training, and I’ve been following along with her blog and Facebook posts, hoping to glean any pearls of wisdom that might be helpful to me in parenting our kiddos. She posted yesterday about an example of an “I Love You Ritual.” Matt and I have the book but haven’t drawn on it as much as we probably should have. I pulled up the video to which she linked and watched as parents and children sang to each other, to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, about how precious they are:

Twinkle twinkle little star
What a wonderful child you are
With big, bright eyes and nice round cheeks
A talented person from head to feet
Twinkle twinkle little star
What a wonderful child you are

I watched it a couple times with my kids and then told them I wanted to sing it to each of them. I expected them to think it was corny and get bored and run away. Not so. I was blown away by their responses. Atticus is already picking up on the motions. Miranda stared into my eyes, beaming, soaking up the message. Madeleine CaiQun refused to make eye contact at all – it was too much for her. But immediately after I finished singing to her, she crawled into my lap, curled up, and opened up about some of her fears about our upcoming trip to China. This was a holy morning at our house, my friends.

Dr. Karyn Purvis, who truly helped to bring hope and healing to so many adoptive (and non-adoptive) families and who pioneered so much of the research upon which we draw in our parenting, has a quote that is often repeated in adoption circles – “All children need to know that they are precious, unique, and special, but a child who comes from a hard place needs to know it more desperately.”

I have been underestimating the degree to which my children need to hear that message. I do need to be spending time with them, reading to them, taking them out on dates…but I also need to make sure I’m speaking directly to their hearts with my words and telling them exactly how precious and wonderful they are to me. I have a feeling this song is going to get a lot of air time in our house in the coming days and weeks and months, and I’ll be seeking out other methods of reaching out to nurture their hearts, as well.