Friday, July 20, 2012

The Allegedly Manipulative Child

In my research and thinking on how to treat psychopathic kids, I realized one big issue is how to deal with manipulative behavior. In order to effectively treat psychopathy in kids, it's vital that the kid notbe able to use manipulation to get what they want.

So when I saw a book called The Manipulative Child (by EW Swihart and Patrick Cotter) I thought I'd found a useful resource that might give good ideas on how to manage psychopathic kids. I was wrong.

The big problem is that this book, contrary to its' title, is not actually about manipulative kids! At the start of chapter two, they say:

"We noticed that most descriptions of manipulation assumed or implied that these behaviors were guided by conscious thought. From novelist to scientist, all assumed manipulation to be consciously planned behavior. When we looked at our patients who were manipulating their way through life, however, we discovered just the opposite: They did not seem particularly aware of how they were operating or why they were doing what they did."

So, they've redefined manipulation in a way that conflicts with everyone else's definition of manipulation. The reality is, conscious, planned manipulation is a psychologically meaningful category of behavior, which is what most people call manipulation. Their 'unconscious manipulation', in contrast, lumps together a pile of behaviors motivated by a pile of different things, and labels them with what most people consider a very loaded and negative term. When people think of a manipulative child, they do not think of a kid who lacks confidence and needs a lot of support. They think of a callous, selfish kid who deliberately tricks others into doing what he or she wants.

And this sets the tone for the victim-blaming prevalent in this book. From pages 37-39, they talk about a girl who was the victim of two separate attempted rapes. They talk about her acting seductively and not knowing how to say no, and imply that she's at fault for the attempted rapes (though they briefly admit that the boys' behavior couldn't be condoned). Firstly, contrary to stereotypes, acting seductively does not put you at higher risk of rape - acting insecure does. This is because rapists want an easy victim, who won't resist. The idea that seductive dress leads to rape is identified as one of a cluster of beliefs known as 'rape myths', beliefs which are more frequent in rapists and which lead to lower sympathy for rape victims.

They also blame the victims of bullying - one kid, for example, they say was being bullied because she reacted too readily. While her high reactivity may have been what got her singled out instead of some other kid, fundamentally she was bullied because there were bullies in her classroom. And the failure to recognize this not only teaches her that changing herself is the way to deal with bullying (a dangerous lesson) but leaves the bullies unrecognized and untreated. Being a bully is a risk factor for some pretty serious psychological problems, and some very adverse outcomes in life (such as becoming a chronic criminal). In fact, bullies often fare worse than their victims over the long run. Early intervention can help, but as long as we blame the victims, the bullies won't get the help they need.

They also think learning disabilities are often caused by kids avoiding work and manipulating people into helping them when they don't really need it. As a result, these kids don't learn the basic skills. On pages 10-12, they discuss a dyslexic 17 year old who was 'cured' by simply teaching her phonics, and claim that her problem originated by her deciding to give up because some kids were better readers than her. They also claim that the association between ADHD and dyslexia is because ADHD kids don't like reading instruction and try to avoid it.

Avoidance behaviors can play a part in developing learning problems, but in many cases where a kid is seeking too much help, this is a sign, not a cause, of learning problems. They also have a good point about how not learning basic skills sets up the kid for failure - this doesn't mean the kid's failure to learn the basic skills wasn't due to a disability. There's a big difference between a 6 year old and a 17 year old, so a 17 year old's ability to learn phonics doesn't mean she could've learnt it at 6. Some kids simply mature a bit more slowly, so they get ready for basic reading and/or math skills around (for example) 8-10 years instead of 6 years old. In a standard school system, often these kids don't get the chance to learn the skills when they're ready to learn them, because they're expected to already know them by then.

And one last example of victim-blaming - on page 37, they discuss a girl whose parents ask her why she got a low mark, and she replies "I was so upset by you and Dad fighting, I just couldn't concentrate." This is portrayed as 'putting the blame on her parents and trying to make them feel guilty'. Well, when I'm listening to two people I love arguing with each other, I can't concentrate! Parental conflict does have an averse impact on children, and part of this can be a decline in marks. This is not shifting blame - it's quite possible that this girl truly was unable to concentrate because of her parents arguing.

They also discourage parents communicating clearly with their kids. They recommend that you not ask kids 'why' they do things, because a) most kids don't know why they do the things they do, and b) it implies if you give a good enough answer, you won't be punished. Both of these are valid points, but they ignore just how valuable asking why can be. Firstly, if people introspect regularly, they learn to understand themselves better - this is why talk therapy so often asks you why you do what you do. Struggling to answer this question about your own actions teaches you how to analyze and understand yourself.

And secondly, when kids do give an accurate answer to this question, it often suggests a useful solution to the problem. If the kid doesn't want to wear his/her shoes 'because they're too tight', maybe he/she needs a larger size of shoes. If the kid doesn't want to go to school 'because Johnny always picks on me', maybe you can find a way for him/her and Johnny to get along, or maybe Johnny needs help learning not to pick on people. If the kid doesn't want to go to Grandpa's house 'because Grandpa sticks his hand in my pants and it feels weird', then it's time to call the police and keep the child away from Grandpa for his/her own safety.

When you understand why a kid does what they do, you're going to be more effective at dealing with it. And even though a kid's report of why they do things isn't always accurate, it's foolish to completely dismiss that method of gathering information on their actions. Obviously, you should also look at all the other evidence - the ongoing pattern of behavior, their body language, other people's reports, etc - but why would you ignore one of the most valuable sources of information on what's going on inside your kid's head?

Oh, and one minor complaint - they suggest the rule of 'homework first, then other activities'. This can work for some kids. But other kids find school so stressful that when they get home, they don't have the energy for homework. If you try to get them to do homework right away, you'll have a fight on your hands. But if you let them spend X amount of time doing something they like, and then insist on homework, they'll be a lot more cooperative. The key is timing it right, so it's a) not so soon that they can't relax first, b) not so late that they're tired and delays will infringe on sleep, and c) at a clear transition instead of interrupting something.

So, sadly, this book has nothing about actual manipulative kids. So, what do you do about manipulative kids?

Well, I'm far from an expert on the issue, but here are some ideas:

* Communicate directly with anyone involved with your child - If your child goes to school, talk to the teachers about his or her day; if he/she visits Grandma, talk to Grandma about how the visit went - that way, your kid can't pit you against them with lies.

* Check their facts - For example, one of my cousins, while in my family's custody, made a bonfire in the backyard and exploded a paint can. When my father came home, he immediately told my father a tale of helping someone with a house fire, to explain his singed hair. My father asked to be shown the house that was burning. My cousin claimed he couldn't remember exactly where it was. My father suggested they walk around and look for the burnt house. Of course, my cousin couldn't show him any burnt house. He also had no explanation for the blotch of paint on the wall of the house.

* Reward actions, not emotions - Children can't control what they feel, or don't feel. It's possible to control your feelings to a limited extent, but not completely, and this limited control isn't going to be learnt by rewarding the right emotions. Instead, rewarding emotional expression tends to teach kids to fake the right emotions and hide the wrong ones.

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