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Manipulation and Learned Behavior

My Child is Manipulating Me

Parents can sometimes get frustrated with their children when they feel like they are manipulating them. Somehow, they know the exact buttons to push and get what they want. The parent is left feeling annoyed, even angry at the child and at themselves for “letting it happen.” Is the child manipulating the parent?

The Science of Learned Behavior

The answer is typically no, children don’t usually manipulate their parents! Manipulation means skillfully getting someone to reach your goal. Children learn about the world around them by seeing the behaviors adults model and by seeing what works to meet the functions they are seeking. Whatever behavior is encouraged is repeated to get the reward again, whether it be a cookie or attention. So, when a child learns that throwing a temper tantrum in the middle of the supermarket will get them the candy they wanted, they will repeat it the next time they want candy. This is NOT on purpose or intentional, but rather the outcome of reinforcement - reinforcement makes things happen more. In other words, children will use learned behaviors from the past to give them what they want, just like any other person.

Can Learned Behaviors Be “Unlearned”?

The answer again is, unfortunately, no. Once a child learns a behavior, there is no way to make them actually neurologically unlearn it. Once we’ve learned something works, our brains know that it works and will prime us to do it that way again in the future. But the child can have NEW learning, meaning they can learn new behaviors that work better than the old ones. Think of the old behavior as a pebble. As children learn better ways to get what they want, they don’t lose the pebble; they do, however, build a mountain of new behaviors over the pebble. A major life stressor can blow over the mountain, leaving the pebble glaring. It can blow a mountain of healthy coping skills away. The more the child practices the mountain-behaviors, and they work for them, they are effective at meeting their function, the bigger and stronger the mountain becomes.

How Can a Parent Stop Unwanted Behaviors?

There are a lot of answers to that question, most of them too broad to give over in one blog post. But for a brief preview, the first and one of the most important steps is for the parent to learn to regulate themselves because a regulated parent has the option to choose effective parenting strategies in the face of major stress. When the child learns that throwing a tantrum won’t get them the reaction they wanted, the tantrum loses its function. In other words, their learned behaviors aren’t helping them anymore. Of course, the parent must learn to regulate themselves in the face of challenging parenting moments and model effective behavior. What behavior comes next? That decision lies with the parent and what they choose to encourage or discourage.

You’ve got this!


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