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.

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