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Manipulative Parents

In previous blogs, I touched on the characteristics of victims that make us susceptible to emotional manipulation.  These characteristics add up to a lack of personal boundaries.  We’ve talked a bit about children and some of the manipulative tactics that they use, which are probably the ways that they can see to get their needs met.  But when they turn into a manipulator or a bully, it is a tragedy. 

Parents install our hot buttons. They know how hard to push them and pretty much what our reactions will be.  We were taught early on to love and honor our parents, (Ephesians 6:2) but some parents didn’t get the second part of the scripture.  It is, “Fathers provoke not your children to wrath.” (Ephesians 6:4).   We were also taught that parents have their child’s best interest in mind.  Unfortunately, some of us wake up and realize that their parent has only her/his gain in mind and the child’s insecurity is the vehicle to their goals.  Unfortunately, that the parent is manipulative is realized much later in life, after the damage is already done.

Manipulative parents are likely to twist words to elicit a response or reaction from the victimized child.  In such ways, the child is a puppet to the manipulative parent’s whims.  Some of the common traits of manipulative parents are as follows:

  • Behaving like victimized individuals whose world only consists of misery (I was in labor for twelve hours to give birth to you and you don’t appreciate what I’ve done for you).
  • Indirectly blaming their children for their condition (If I didn’t have you, I’d have done what I wanted to do).
  • Eliciting guilt via emotional blackmail (If you don’t want to do what I want you to do, then I guess you just don’t love me).
  • Exploiting weaknesses in children to make them feel guilty (You are so sensitive, we were just teasing.  You have never had a sense of humor).
  • Underlying aggressive personality, the traits of which are seen in the aforementioned manner (Coming out on top is of primary importance regardless of the harm inflicted on the child).
  • Interfering with every aspect of a child’s life so as to have some amount of control on her/him (Oh, you don’t want to have them as a friend.  Their parents are not our kind of people.  You don’t want to study medicine; you know how bad you are at math).
  • Forcing children to do things for them that they would not willingly do (Just put this under your coat, no one will ever know).
  • Discouraging children’s endeavors by discarding their desires as impossible or wild (You can never be a model, you’ve always been homely).
  • Shirking personal responsibility in order to avoid accusations (it’s not my job to take care of you.  You need to take care of yourself).
  • Discouraging discussion on facts that may indicate personal responsibility for their situation (We are never going to talk about the past, so just forget about  it).

It is very important to understand that the manipulative parent is trying to prevent the occurrence of situations rather than dealing with them.  They do not want to accept that they may be responsible for their own condition.

Oddly enough, some parents are jealous of their child’s achievements.  We have all been taught that a parent will want the best for their child, but the fact is some parents cannot tolerate it.  Some believe that if they didn’t go that far in life, their child shouldn’t either.  You see that in the scenario of the father who demands that his child follow the father’s footsteps into his profession and is actively involved in keeping that son from climbing the ladder above him or the daughter who accepts a high paying job and the mother undermines her daughter’s every effort.

A manipulative parent fails to recognize or accept that the problem is with him.  Such individuals may steer away from a confrontation when you try to discuss the problem with them.  Even if you gently confront them and tell them that their behavior is adversely affecting you and your life, their response will likely be a personal attack and  will treat your words as a violent accusation. You may end up apologizing for even bringing it up, with no successful resolution to the problem.  And will the parent learn or change from the interaction?   Oh no!  They will continue in their manipulative behavior patterns as if nothing has happened.  In short, the manipulative parent’s behavior cannot and will not be changed.  It is now up to you to develop your personal boundaries and change the way you react to them.  Following is some suggestions on how to strengthen your personal boundaries.

  • Work on your self-esteem.  Children of manipulative parents often have poor self-esteem because of the demeaning behavior that has been meted out to them over the years.  This “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” environment damages self-esteem and makes you more susceptible to the manipulators or bullies in your life.  You have to believe that you are worth more than you were lead to believe and that you are capable of surviving without your manipulative parents.
  • Learn to say “NO”.  Learn to say “no” to your parent when his demands are beyond your capacity to give.  The Manipulator will try their level best to send you on long, convoluted guilt trips.  Just don’t pack your bags and go.  Once your parent learns that you won’t respond to that, they will change their tactics, or cease contact with you. 
  • Show the Change.  Finally, let your parents know that you are aware of exactly what they are trying to do to you and inform them that such tactics are not going to work anymore.  Of course, the manipulator will get overly emotional and start trying to blackmail you or blame you.  Stay calm and realize that you are doing this for your peace of mind.  Remind yourself that no one deserves to be manipulated to any extent where it becomes a chore and not something you would willingly do once in a while.  They are your parents, but would you allow the same behavior from a stranger?

Making changes in the way you relate to your parent may help improve your relationship in the long run.  Hopefully, you will learn to stop resenting her so much and she won’t be able to complain and manipulate you all of the time.  It is agreed that parents deserve respect, but respect is a two-way street.  It is difficult to honor someone whose goal seems to be to provoke you to anger or discouragement.


Manipulative Children

How can you stop manipulative children form controlling you?  Dealing with an adult who manipulates is one thing, but dealing with a child is quite another.  Our society has become quite permissive and we seem to be churning out children who see manipulation as an accepted form of socialization.  Childhood is the place where the hot buttons are installed and children, according to their temperament,  can develop the characteristics of the manipulator (bully) or the victim (target).  Fortunately, as a child develops, you can aid them in developing appropriate social skills, tolerance, and compassion.

  1. Be the adult and take control of the situation:  your child may throw tantrums, cry, stomp, sulk and whine, but you can’t give into their theatrics.  A lot of people give in to the child’s desires just to get the whole scene over with.  That decision only shows the child just how effective their techniques are and the next thing you know, you are training a future manipulator.
  2. Follow through with your threats:   don’t tell the child you are going to do something, if you are planning to capitulate to their demands.  Send them into the time-out corner or to bed early if you have told the child that is the consequence of her/his  actions.  Give them consistency.
  3. Be firm with your decisions:  when the child is a little older, explain to them why what they did was inappropriate and put everything into perspective.  Don’t allow the tantrum to back you off of your position or soften your stand.
  4. Be logical instead of emotional:   when dealing with children, prepare for a storm.  Children will try their best to appeal to you in every way possible.  When the conversation turns into an argument, use logic to make your point. 
  5. Explain your own emotions:  sometimes children don’t realize that their manipulative ways are hurting other people and how it is wrong to manipulate others for their own benefit.  Own your feelings and tell your child in an “I feel…when you…and I would like…. statement”.  Do this when you have plenty of time and the child doesn’t have a lot on her/his mind.  A quick conversation at the breakfast table before getting ready for school and work is not adequate to address the issue.  Set aside a time when the child’s focus is not scattered and demand their full attention.  It is best to turn off all electronic items and set your talk in a quiet environment.

Fighting for what they want is a human response that we all have.  You, as the parent, have a choice to make in the raising of your child.  He/she can learn to be assertive, not aggressive, and to have tolerance and compassion.  These are traits that are missing from the repertoire of the manipulator.

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Manipulative Family Members or Partners

Have you ever wondered how the emotional manipulator behaves when he/she returns home to their family?  Usually the manipulation continues on some level.  We are going to address the subject of the Manipulator at home.  If you have a partner or family member with these behaviors, please do not take your new found knowledge and confront them.  Depending on the temperament of the Manipulator, there could be consequences that will be far more radical than you would expect.  If you must talk to the Manipulator about their behavior, be sure that you and any vulnerable people (i.e., children, elderly or disabled) are safe before you do so.  Understand that your confrontation will not bring enlightenment to the Manipulator; he/she may take their behavior to the next level.

The website, Bully Online,org/related/family.htm, states that the serial bully (Manipulator) commits psychological violence on their family, because that type of violence leaves no physical scars or bruises and no evidence.  The manipulation takes place in the following ways:

  • Verbal abuse,
  • Emotional abuse,
  • Nit picking criticism,
  • Constant fault-finding combined with a simultaneous refusal to recognize, value, acknowledge and praise,

The Manipulator’s objectives  are Power, Control, Domination and Subjugation and the techniques used in the process of victimization was best described by George K. Simon, in his book, “In Sheep’s Clothing:  Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People”.

  • The manipulator’s aggression is not obvious.  Our gut may tell us that they are fighting for something, struggling to overcome us, gain power, or have their way.  We find ourselves unconsciously on the defensive, but because we cannot point to clear, objective evidence that they are being aggressive against us, we can’t easily validate our feelings.
  • The tactics Manipulator’s use can make it seem like they are hurting, caring, defending…almost anything but fighting.  These tactics are hard to recognize as merely clever ploys.  They always seem to make just enough sense to make a person doubt their gut feelings that they are being taken advantage of or abused.  Besides, these tactics not only make it hard for you to consciously and objectively know that a manipulator is fighting, but they also simultaneously keep you consciously or unconsciously on the defensive.  It is difficult to think clearly when someone has you emotionally “on the run”.
  • All of us have weaknesses and insecurities that a clever manipulator might exploit.  Sometimes we are aware of these weaknesses and how someone might take advantage of them.  Yet, when someone pushes that button, it is hard to think clearly about what is going on. Sometimes we are unaware of our own vulnerabilities and manipulators know us better than we know ourselves.  They know what buttons to push and how hard.  Our very lack of self-knowledge can set us up to be abused or manipulated.
  • Our gut tells us what a manipulator is like; challenging everything we’ve been taught to believe about human nature.  We’ve all been inundated with a psychology that has us seeing everyone, at least to some degree, as afraid, insecure or “hung-up.”  So, while our gut tells us that we are dealing with a ruthless conniver, our head tells us that they must be wounded underneath or frightened.  What’s more, most of us generally hate to think of ourselves as callous and insensitive people.  We hesitate to make harsh or seemingly negative about others.  We want to give them the benefit of a doubt and assume they really don’t harbor the malevolent intentions we suspect.  We’re much more apt to doubt and blame ourselves for daring to believe what our gut tells us about our manipulator’s character.  This is the time to learn to trust your gut feelings, because we have been given the ability to identify when we are in the presence of a predator and we have to learn to believe what we are feeling.

Control is the primary identifier of a serial bully (manipulator) at home:  control of finances, control of movements, control over the choice of friends, control over the right to work, control over what to think and so forth.  All of these tactics are designed to take power away from the victims.

A favorite tactic of the manipulator in the family is to set people against each other.  He/She then gains the following benefits:

  • Gratification (a perverse form of satisfaction) from encouraging and provoking arguments, quarreling and hostility.  He/She then watches other engage in adversarial interactions and conflict.  The approach may be as simple as, “Well, your father said that you…. (Fill in the blank).  Now I’m mad at my father for making such a harsh judgment when he doesn’t know anything about this.
  • Distraction and diversion:  the ensuing conflict ensures that people’s attention is distracted and diverted away from the cause of the conflict.

Family manipulators are masters of manipulation and are fond of controlling the victim (target) through the victim’s emotions, beliefs, attitudes and perceptions.  She/He sees any form of vulnerability as an opportunity for manipulation and is especially prone to exploit those who are most emotionally needy (i.e., elderly relatives, those with infirmity, those with the greatest vulnerability, or those who are or behaviorally immature).  When the victim (target) lives with someone who is constantly denying what they said or did, the victim feels crazy.  When the symptoms of injury to health start to become apparent, the manipulator (bully) will tell others that you have a “mental health problem.”  You are in a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” scenario and you are feeling angry, powerless and inadequate ALL of the time.

When the manipulator (serial bully) is close to being outwitted or exposed, they feign victimhood and turn the focus on themselves which is another example of manipulating through emotion or guilt.  Their tearful reaction seems way out in left field in light of the fumbling attempt of confrontation.  They will make themselves the center of attention by claiming to be the injured party and portraying their victim (target) as the villain of the piece.  Then when the victim tries to explain the game, they are immediately labeled “paranoid” and the game continues.

In my opinion, there is not much the victim (target) can do to change this situation other than distance from the manipulator (serial bully).  The prognosis for the manipulator is grim and although they may be very capable of figuring out your vulnerabilities, they are often blind to their own behaviors.


Manipulative Co-workers

One of the most dangerous and crazy-making creatures in the office is the manipulative co-worker.  You can read more about this in George Simon’s book, “In Sheep’s Clothing”.  This is the person who has mastered the art of covert aggression.  They disguise their aggression as helpfulness, good intentions and “working for the good of the company.”  While you may first see them as dedicated and focused, you wonder why you are feeling uncomfortable and stressed by being around them.  They are brilliant at hiding their true intentions by making you look incompetent, uncooperative or self-centered.  They can make you lose your job, do their job for them or apologize to them for trying to confront them about their aggressive behavior, according to businessfinishingschool.com.

In order to identify who they are and understand what they want, you have to let go of preconceptions of why they do what they do.  Traditional psychotherapy has long held that people act aggressively because they are “working through their fears and pain.”  That’s great for those of us who are neurotic, but is not the same for the covertly-aggressive person.  A rule of thumb in therapy is that a person who is neurotic is one who ends up hurting themselves.  Those who make others neurotic  are character  disordered.  In our permissive society today, the majority of problems being treated today are involving too little inhibition of urges and desires.  These folks have learned to pursue what they want in life aggressively and with ruthless abandon.  They trample on the rights and needs of others in the race to “win”.

Dr. Simon lists fourteen tactics used by manipulators to get you to do what they want.  These fourteen tactics are offensive moves employed by the covertly aggressive people to maintain a position of power, gain power, or remove an obstacle (you) from getting what she wants.  To be able to deal with this type of person, you need to know this list of tactics and identify them when they occur in your interactions with them.

  • Denial:  playing innocent, refusing to admit they have done something harmful.
  • Selective inattention:  playing dumb, or acting oblivious and refusing to pay any attention to anything that might divert them from their goal.
  • Rationalism:  making excuses or justifying their behavior.
  • Diversion:  changing the subject, dodging the issue, distracting us from the real problem.
  • Lying:  telling untruths, concealing the truth or lying by omission.
  • Covert aggression:  intimidation by veiled threats (i.e., telling you “It’s a tough job market out there.”
  • Guilt tripping:  using your conscientiousness against you to keep you anxious and self-doubting.
  • Shaming:  using subtle sarcasm and put downs to make you feel inadequate, unworthy, and anxious.
  • Playing the victim:  using tears and a sad story to make you feel bad for them and ashamed that you tried to confront her about her behavior.
  • Vilifying the victim:  making you the “bad guy” and accusing you of the very same behavior they have been practicing.  You are told you are “out of line” or you are trying to “split” the office or even accuse you of “carrying tales” against other coworkers.
  • Playing the servant role:  disguising their personal agendas by casting themselves as “Joan of Arc”.  Claiming that their motives are noble.
  • Seduction:  flattering and overly supportive to others to get them to lower their defenses and be trusting of the manipulator.
  • Projecting the blame (blaming others):  shifting the blame to others, scapegoating.
  • Minimization:  a marriage of denial and rationalization.  Telling you that you are making a “mountain out of a molehill.”

Now that you have the tactics used by your emotionally manipulative coworker, you can identify what is going on when the game is afoot.  But, have you ever wondered why it seems you have a target on your back.  Chances are you have run into more than one covertly aggressive person in your life.  Now it is time to take a look at those things you do that signals the aggressive person that you are an appropriate victim.  See below:

  • Naiveté:  it is difficult for you to accept that a person can be as conniving and ruthless as the manipulator in your life is, even though you are presented with mountains of evidence.  This can make you prone to being victimized several times over before accepting the reality of the situation.
  • Over-conscientiousness:  with this personality trait, you are your own worst enemy.  You are often too willing to concede to the manipulator’s attempts to shame you or cause you to feel inadequate.  This trait only makes the manipulator’s job much easier.
  • Low Self Confidence: this prevents you from believing that you have a legitimate complaint and standing up for yourself.
  • Over-intellectualization:  you try too hard to understand things and believe that if you could just understand the manipulator’s behavior, things would be okay.  This can cause you to spend too much time trying to understand the manipulator and you don’t protect yourself and assert yourself when your manipulator is abusing you.
  • Emotional dependency:  you may have initially really liked this person and have gravitated toward him or her because she appeared to be a strong and confident person.  When the manipulator turns on you, you are confused and afraid that they will reject you if you stand up for yourself or protect yourself from their aggressive behaviors.

Recognizing these qualities in yourself and working to change them will make you a harder target for manipulators.  In addition, you can more readily identify when someone is trying to manipulate you.

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Manipulative Bosses

For several years, I have been interested in topic of emotional manipulation.  In this article, I write about manipulative bosses.

Do you hate Mondays?  Do you find yourself trying to come up with excuses why you can’t come to work on Mondays?  Does your boss’s “finger in the wind” management style make your head numb?  Do you hide at your desk hoping that the office drama will just fly over your head?  Does your boss ever share things about a coworker that makes you feel uncomfortable?  Several people in the field state that this is because you have a work environment that is manipulated by a character-disordered person.

Dr. Mary Casey, from the Casey Center in Australia states:  “Manipulation can be either aggressive or passive aggressive.  Openly aggressive behavior such as bullying is easy to identify, but covert attacks are very difficult to spot.  As a guideline, you know that you are being manipulated when the problem is ongoing and you are left feeling unsure of where you stand, anxious, stressed out and even physically sick.”    She goes on to explain why these manipulative behaviors are so prevalent in the workplace.  Dr. Casey explains that manipulation is prevalent in the workplace because their top-down structures are the perfect breeding ground for control and power tactics.  Manipulators aim to covertly or overtly control and overpower the behaviors of others, even if it robs another person of their freedom of choice, reason and rationality.  Manipulative bosses may abuse their positions or responsibilities and overstep accepted boundaries in the workplace.

Manipulators use the following tactics to dominate their employees:

  • Threats:  The Manipulator uses concealed or open threats to keep their targets anxious.
  • Ask “harmless” questions:  Gather information to use against you.
  • Use “dividing” techniques:  Attempt to draw you into conversations  about the failings of coworkers.
  • Refutation:  Deny that they have done wrong.
  • Discrediting:  Take credit for things you have done, while discrediting you in return.
  • Distraction:  Change the subject to evade the issue or gain time.
  • Accusations:  Shift the blame to others or to you and detract in subtle, hard-to-detect ways.
  • Deception:  Withhold large amounts of the truth, distort the truth or are deliberately vague.


So how do you deal with a manipulative boss?  Confrontation is not a great idea.  The Manipulator is very skilled at this game and because he/she holds a position of authority over you, they feel that they must “win the game” and your self-esteem and feelings of self worth will be the only casualties.  According to Dr. Casey, you have two options.

  1. Disengage emotionally:  Set boundaries and use assertiveness.  You can expect your salary and others benefits of the job, but you have to relinquish your need for positive feedback or recognition.  Don’t be surprised if your boss comes back at you being overly flattering or act supportive to get you to fall under their spell again so the cycle will continue.
  2. Disengage physically:  If you are emotionally unable to do the above, or if the situation becomes unbearable, you will need to consider leaving your job.  This is particularly true if your boss tells you to leave if you don’t like it.  It is a good idea to leave.   Your health and your family will thank you for it.

To learn more on this topic, you can read George K Simon’s book, “In Sheep’s Clothing:  Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People” (1996) or you can read an excerpt of his book at:  www.rickross.com/reference/brainwashing/brainwashing11.html.  Whatever your choice, this is information you need to have.