Friday, July 28, 2006

The Manipulation Trail

As part of a Risking Connection® training I have been teaching a new way of looking at behaviors we consider “manipulative” (see previous post 7/3/06). I urge all of us to see any use of the word manipulative as a flashing light, telling us that we need to explore further what is going on between us and a child. Here are some questions to ask yourself and your team any time we say that word:

Follow the “Manipulative” trail…..

A child is being “manipulative”…

  1. Describe the behavior. What makes it “manipulative”?
  2. What problem is the child trying to solve? What is s/he trying to accomplish? (such as: get more attention, return to previous placement, get more phone minutes, get her way)
  3. What is the need beneath that need? (such as: feeling alone, wanting to reunite with previous connections, needing to touch base with family or friends, needing control) Is the child trying to avoid any intolerable emotion? (such as rejection, loneliness, hopelessness)
  4. What does this show about what self capacities s/he may be lacking? (i.e. ability to manage feelings, ability to maintain an inner connection to others)
  5. How can we help the child meet “the need beneath the need” right now, in a more direct way? (i.e. pay attention, help them connect with others, give them some choices)
  6. How can we help the child develop their self capacities further? (i.e. practice grounding and calming techniques, review their good-bye book from the previous placement)
  7. How can we speak with the child in a respectful, informative, connected and hopeful way about the effects of direct and indirect communication on our relationship?

When we call a child manipulative we distance ourselves from him. Asking and answering these questions can lead instead to growth for the child, and a deepening of our relationship.

Sunday, July 16, 2006


Traumatized development changes a person’s ability to focus and changes the way they pay attention. The children we work with are often hyper alert, and tune into to many nuances of their environment with great clarity. These are the children who know every staff’s schedules, and what car they drive. They know more than we realize because they have listened to phone calls and conversations that we thought were private. They over-react to change: in routine, in tone of voice, in the environment. They have little ability to screen out events. When another child is having a problem, they are having a problem. It is as if they have no skin, no filter. This is a painful way to live.

It is also important to realize that this attention is primarily a screening for danger. When an organism senses danger, the first step is to scan the environment for the source of that danger, to evaluate the direction and the severity of the threat. During that scan, one cannot take in other aspects of the environment- whether it is beautiful, what new activities are going on, etc. The only information absorbed is that relevant to danger. Our children always sense danger.

In order to understand the quality of this experience, picture yourself walking down a street in New York City with some friends at 2:00 on a sunny afternoon. You are looking around, appreciating the architecture, enjoying the people on the street, noticing a new restaurant, looking in store windows, enjoying talking with your friends, relaxed and open. Then picture yourself walking down that same street at 2:00 A.M. by yourself. Now you are tense and scanning for danger. You notice movement and how close/far people are to you. You do not appreciate their unique style, you evaluate them for threat. You completely miss the architecture and you don’t see the stores, but you are exceptionally aware of lighted areas, dark areas, open doors, potential sources of harm and help.

If some one asked you questions about the street after each experience, what you could remember and report would be very different.

Our children’s experience is always the 2:00 a.m. scared experience. So we have to realize they may not be taking in a lot of what is around them, especially sources of pleasure, opportunities for growth, and things to learn. Our best help to them is to provide safety and to soothe, to help calm the activated nervous system. Only then will it be useful to point out positive and joyful aspects of life, and draw them slowly into an experience that includes more than survival.

Monday, July 03, 2006


We often refer to the clients we serve as “manipulative”. We say: “she’s just being manipulative” in response to a superficial cutting episode. We speak of “splitting staff” as a type of manipulation when a client asks a second staff when he doesn’t like the answer the first staff gave him. We describe a client as a “manipulative” person when we feel that she often tries to get her needs met in indirect ways. This term is judgmental and pejorative, dismisses the client and distances us from them.

Risking Connection ® ( ) states that: “Manipulative” is a word we use to describe behaviors whose intent is to persuade or compel other people to act using indirect or devious means. It is a learned skill.

We all use manipulation. A staff member wants a second cookie, and waits until the food service director is out of the room to ask the soft-hearted server who always says yes: that is being manipulative. If an employee considers how to describe an issue to her boss to present it in the best possible light, that is manipulative. Being manipulative is described as having good social skills when you do it well. Doing it well seems to involve some sense of knowing when it is okay and when it becomes too much, knowing when to stop, knowing the limits, understanding and caring about your effect on the other person, and combining a small amount of manipulative communication with a large amount of direct communication.

Yet, something is going wrong between the “manipulative” kids and the adults who are reacting to them. What is it, and what do we need to teach them?

Why would a traumatized child find it difficult to ask for what he needs directly? Asking for what you need is risky. You feel vulnerable. It has rarely worked before. You may have been hit, ridiculed, or ignored when you tried to get your needs met. You may also have lived in congregate care settings where life is regulated and very few individual needs are met, where the answer is usually “no”. You may have learned indirect methods of getting people to do things as a life survival skill- literally, something you needed to know in order to stay alive.

So one step towards helping a child do less indirect, dishonest communication is to say yes. If the child lives in a place in which individual needs and wants and preferences are legitimate, are taken seriously, and are met whenever possible, she will gradually trust enough to ask directly for what she wants.

In order to create such an environment we must start with the assumption that whatever the child wants is legitimate and important to them. If they are trying to get extra minutes on the phone- why? Maybe because having been cut off from everyone they know and love, their friends have become the only family they have. If they are trying to get attention, why? Because we all need attention to survive, and in times of distress or danger (which are these children’s whole lives) we need more attention.

Another step is to share with the child from our hearts (in a regulated way) how we feel when we are tricked, how it affects our relationship and our trust, and how it affects our interest in giving them what they want.

And then we have to teach the actual skills of asking for what one needs in a direct, clear way. The child has not seen this modeled. DBT ( ) offers some great skills training in this area in the module “Interpersonal Effectiveness”. Another way to teach this is to model it ourselves- not say to the children: “you need to quiet down” but instead to say “Could you please quiet down because I cannot think while you are yelling.”

A child will be able to become more direct in their communication when they feel safe, feel that their needs and wishes are respected, when they learn the skills, and when the experience the adults they care about communicating directly. We can use our feelings of anger at being tricked as a sign that we have more work to do in these areas.