Recognizing & Understanding Manipulative Behavior In Foster Children

Helping Foster parents understand manipulative behaviors

How to Help Foster Kids With Negative Manipulation

Understanding trauma-induced behavior is vital for Foster parents.

Foster Parents need to understand that trauma-induced behaviors such as manipulation are not a Foster child misbehaving. When the brain's prefrontal cortex is damaged, logic and reasoning are the first things to go. When the child has experienced abuse and neglect, a lack of feeling safe or needs not been met, the child begins functioning from their brain stem, which is the place of survival. Many foster families will experience a foster youth placed in the foster care system having trauma like this.

This is where they've had to retreat to time and time again when going through the chronic trauma they've experienced. Once they've done that, every single thought, emotion, reaction, behavior, and instinct comes from that place of survival. A child of trauma often has not only retreated to the brain stem (survival mode); they become stuck there. 

Parents sometimes forget that the meaning behind their adopted child's behaviors will differ from the meaning behind the actions of children who have not experienced trauma. Having different expectations​ ​and standards for adopted and foster children regarding behaviors, academics, and relationships is okay.

If we expect our biological and adopted or foster children to behave the same way and assume we will be able to parent them the same way, we will not be helping them in their healing process. Manipulation from a biological child could be just that, while manipulation in a traumatized child is likely what the child uses to survive. Foster care and adoption is a unique and complex experience from being taken away from birth parents.

Children in foster care need time to heal, so when you see a child in foster care, look from the point of healing and not as a child using emotional blackmail, silent treatment, passive-aggressive or emotional manipulation, or guilt-tripping. They are not a manipulative person; they are a child trying to find safety in a previously unsafe world they may not have experienced with their birth family.

All behavior serves a purpose. Children manipulate because they want things and because they need something. Many of these behaviors are learned. As they grow, they may discover that their needs are met through crying, whining, or even lying and controlling others.

They may continue on this course because it's working quite well for them. Their success rate and survival reinforce Their behavior. The problem comes as they reach adulthood and find that life doesn't always suit them.

Their manipulation skills get shakier. They will be unable to exercise sound, ethical, straightforward strategies to manage their needs.

How do you know if your child is manipulating? We know we're dealing with a manipulative child when they routinely argue or whine incessantly over everything from rules to responsibilities.

The child distorts or edits reality. Most popular is the circular "why" tactic. Children will come up with endless reasons why they can't, shouldn't, or don't need to do a task and why it's "stupid," "unfair," or "unnecessary." Children may also deceive us through promising, lying, making excuses, procrastinating, or "negotiating." 

When working with a manipulative child, it is essential as a parent to know and recognize our triggers or "buttons." These triggers could be a tone of voice, a specific look, an attitude, or certain actions that your child presents. If you prepare ahead of time by knowing your buttons, they will be less likely to get pushed.

Remember, you may need respite care for your own mental health. That is why foster care has a support network of parents able to help you recharge when needed.

If you have a strong need for approval from your child, for example, hearing him shout, "I hate you," might trigger you. Since you want peace between the two, you might instinctively let them off the hook so they won't be unhappy with you. Recognizing your triggers will help you plan and prepare for not allowing your child to use your buttons to manipulate you. 

There are ways to work with and improve manipulating behavior. First, set firm rules and limits and stick to them. Children need structure and boundaries, as it allows them to begin to feel safe and secure.

Hold on to yourself by holding on to your parenting principles. Be careful not to let your children's emotions drive you.

Listen to their feelings so they know you care, but stick to your established rules. Second, encourage your child to use honest words. Let them know they don't need to use tricks to ask for what they want or need.

Again, show your care by listening to their feelings, but stick to the established rules. This will allow you to connect more with your child and learn that you are there to meet their needs.

Third, don't get mad at your child for trying and go after what they want in life. Try to be empathetic to their desires and wishes while helping them learn how to get what they want more directly, honestly, and effectively. Last, be sure to check with your spouse. If a child says, the other parent said so, always review with your spouse or partner before agreeing. 

Consider your child's behavior a cry for help, not an intentional manipulation. Our kids need us to be healthy for them. They need us to help them learn how to tolerate limits in life and the frustration that comes with sometimes not getting what they want. 

Fill out our web form