Look Here, You Little S#!%.
“That’s a nice custody agreement you have there. Sure would be a shame if something happened to it,” implied the 13 year old that stares across the kitchen table after a rather difficult conversation about why they cannot get the newest iPhone. After all, the silence hanging in the air whispers to you, what’s $1,000 in the face of your loneliness and guilt? Despite their best impression as a mafia enforcer (and even potentially throwing out some emotional stingers), it’s important to realize that this is not new behavior. Whether it was throwing tantrums as a child, threatening to run away, or now trying to play off your guilt, this is the same game: Your child is trying to play you (and likely the other parent) to get what they want.
The twist on all of this behavior, of course, is that the landscape of the home has changed. Children who threaten to run away from a two-parent household may appear easier to deal with because it is more apparent that the threat is a bluff. Even if they tried, there’s not many options for them go that wouldn’t result in them coming right back home. When a child threatens to go live with the other parent post-divorce or custody dispute, this is fundamentally the same threat as running away. The problem is, it’s harder to judge whether or not this is a bluff when there is a realistic option for them to carry out their threats.
A better bluff isn’t the only issue that can be leveraged more effectively, other basic strategies to get what they want will also be more effective.
Playing you against the other parent is going to be harder to overcome. As any basic parenting guide will tell you, it’s important to be consistent in your parenting strategy. This is doubly true for when parents separate and now much keep that consistency up between two households. As each parent begins to move in their own direction on how to parent, it creates an opportunity to tailor requests and approach the parent that is more likely to give in to demands. This strategy may also quickly identify which parent is more likely to be a push over.
In addition, children may become more emotionally manipulative. Tailoring their requests to each parent can expand into finding the emotional responses in which each parent is most receptive and leveraging that to their benefit. Consistent and long-term patterns of behavior that may be targeted at making you feel guilty, rejected, intimidated, etc. are indicative of your child attempting to soften your position by making you feel remorse or regret for having denied them something.
It’s important to keep in mind that these demands from your child are often the result of an unmet need elsewhere in their life. Most children, even older teenagers, still maintain a fairly black and white structure of the world. Upending that image and stability can create a lot of confusion, sadness, and even anger that manifests itself as manipulative behavior.
Holding firm against manipulative behavior and addressing it directly will create better understanding of those unmet needs. This is done with a two-step process: First, set and stick to your boundaries and decisions. Emotional displays should not change your mind. Once you’ve established your boundaries, acknowledge that your child is upset and that you are there to talk, even if they don’t come to you for days after the incident. Children crave love, security, and your attention – give it to them constructively.