Children who grow up with parents who are abusive, mentally unstable, addicted, or otherwise chaotic or dangerous, somehow figure out how to survive. They either learn survival skills intuitively or by process of elimination in experiencing what does not work. But one way or the other, children who live through this kind of childhood are to be credited with effective survival skills.
They learn when to hide; when to make a joke to deflate the tension; when to redirect the conversation so that everyone’s attention is turned to a mutual enemy (think of the relative, boss, or neighbor who is unanimously disliked); when to run (including the quick calculation of whether or not they are capable of outrunning their nemesis); and when they get a little older, they learn when to stand up and fight back.
When children of dysfunction grow into their teens, some people mistakenly misread their finely tuned survival skills as manipulation. Of course, they can (and do) use those skills manipulatively, but typically not for nefarious purposes. They have simply learned what works, and they strategically use the skills they've acquired to get the result they want.
Learning and then repeating what works for us is what we all do. Some people have learned that if they get angry, they get their way. Some have learned that pouting and giving others the "silent treatment" leads to others giving in. Others have learned that if they don’t feel well, they get attention and sympathy, as well as lowered expectations from others. For example, if a friend always talks about not feeling well, you probably won’t ask her to help you do the physical and exhausting work of packing and moving. People who were raised in dysfunctional homes simply continue to use whatever has worked for them—that is until they learn new, better options.
There are two approaches you can take to teach someone to stop manipulating you.
The first is to respond differently than you normally would so that the person’s behavior no longer yields him or her the result they expect. In other words, if a teenager’s strategy is to beg and whine until you finally give in and let them do what they want to do, hold your ground and refuse to give in. If a family member or friend complains to you for hours but never asks how you are doing, try something other than listening for hours. You don’t have to be unkind about it. You can say something like, “I hear your pain, and I’m so sorry. Let’s pray about it.” If the person isn’t a praying person, they’ll likely stop complaining to you because they’re not getting the attention they are hoping for. If they are a faith-filled person, you may be doing the best possible thing you can by cutting short the complaint session with prayer.
The second is to model different behaviors so that the person sees that there are other ways to get what they want. For example, if a child (or anyone in your life) is behaving poorly to get your attention, try ignoring the bad behavior and intentionally make the effort to identify something good to recognize and celebrate about the child. For example, if the kid is constantly picking on a younger sibling, and you’ve time and again tried correcting the behavior, try finding a character trait (like tenacity, resourcefulness, or bravery), a learned ability (like figuring out a complicated math problem or writing a good book report), or a natural talent (like being funny, having a great singing voice, or being good with animals). Compliment the child on the good things. Give him or her challenges in his or her good “assets” that you’ve identified, to further solidify that he or she is good at those things. Ultimately, with the kid getting the positive attention he or she craves, hopefully the bad behavior will stop.
The good news is that people who have survived dysfunction are strategic thinkers who are often willing to take calculated risks to invent new products or services or to launch new businesses. It’s relatively easy for them to learn new skills and to strategically apply them to their lives—sometimes without even being consciously aware of it!
So don't give up on the people in your life who dance on your last nerve. Change your responses to the behavior you don't like, model the behavior you want to see from them, recognize and celebrate what's good about them, and you will eventually see their true, awesome selves emerge.
For a shortcut on helping someone become their truly awesome self, give them a copy of How To Get To Awesome. This little book includes 101 easy peasy ways to be our best selves.