–by Janyne McConnaughey, PhD
One day, well into my first year of therapy, I caught myself trying to manipulate my therapist. Not that I hadn’t been trying all along, but I hadn’t recognized that what I was doing looked distinctively like manipulation. Suddenly, I found the connection between that and my inability to ask for help.
At issue was my need to schedule another appointment. The therapist had always taken this initiative (because I so clearly needed to come back), but on this day she didn’t. I knew I needed help and probably she did too, but it was beyond me. Actually asking for anything from anyone was nearly impossible. This came from early experiences that had taught me it was better to manipulate than ask.
Early abuse wires the fear of rejection and abandonment deep within the body and makes it almost impossible to ask for anything. “What if I ask, and you laugh, ridicule, discount, ignore, walk away, or abuse me?” The fear of rejection can grip you like a vice, but so can the need for attention. The solution of the subconscious mind is to manipulate, i.e. try to assume control, something it feels it cannot do if it just comes out and asks for help.
My fear of asking presented itself in subtle ways. I thought my need manipulation techniques were generally well disguised, but in reality, they were often irritating. For example, one day my daughter said, “Mom, if you want me to get you some water, just ask.”
Here is what I’d said instead: “Oh, are you getting water?”
Other times, it’d be, “Oh, that looks yummy,” or, “Was that the last piece?”
My children could express exactly what was irritating them. I, on the other hand, could not. I would berate myself in frustration, “Good grief, Janyne! If you want something, just ask!”
Back in the therapist’s office, I looked at her and said, “I just tried to manipulate you. You know I have been trying to do that all along, don’t you?”
She smiled, acknowledging the truth of what I had said. Asking was not as simple as it sounds. Asking meant opening myself up to the possibility of rejection and giving up control.
If anyone had suggested I was manipulative, I would have argued vehemently in my defense, but in my most honest moments, I knew. I also knew that no one likes to feel manipulated—not in a relationship, not by a friend, and certainly not by a child. The problem is, traumatized children have become adept at manipulation in order to survive. This is not a conscious choice, but rather, as the traumatized brain sees it, a fight between life and death where manipulation equals life, while asking equals death.
Already an adult, I had been healing for almost a year before the day came when I felt I had to ask for an appointment. When I did, the words came out in a nearly incoherent jumble. I went in circles, I paused to gain strength, and I climbed over huge mountains of inner dread. My therapist sat and waited while I struggled. She never looked away. She didn’t fidget. She didn’t flinch. And when I accomplished what I’d thought impossible, she smiled and hugged me. We both understood it was a pivotal day.
As I think about adoptive parents and teachers of children who learned to manipulate early on, I have great sympathy for the parents, the teacher, and the child. Remember, the traumatized child feels that asking for help feels like a life-and-death struggle. This is not linear, logical thinking. It is nonetheless real.
At the same time, most behavior management strategies, in school and at home, are cognitive. Children who are experts at manipulation know exactly what to write or what to say so that they can return to controlling their own lives. They appear to be making cognitive choices, but they are not. Their reactions are based in primal emotions that are hard-wired in early childhood, when their needs were not met by the adults who were supposed to protect and keep them safe.
For example, I remember one night asking to fall asleep in my parent’s bed. I really liked my own bed, but if I fell asleep in theirs, I would wake up in the morning knowing my dad had carried me to my bed. That was actually what I wanted. On some level, I was remembering that on the night of my abuse, he carried me out of the hospital wrapped in a blanket. I longed for him to carry me every day after that, but I didn’t know that consciously. Asking directly would have been too great a risk. Therefore, my subconscious figured out a way to make it happen. This is how I moved through the world until that fateful day in the therapist’s office.
The point is, traumatized children will manipulate us. When they do, it is important not to flinch. We can’t tell them to stop when they don’t even understand what they are doing. We have to understand they are surviving. We have to put words to their behavior in ways that do not create additional shame. In a perfect world, we could say the following and it would be received:
“You know, if you want that, you can just ask. But it is okay. I am not upset. I understand that it is very difficult. It is hard to believe that I will take care of you, but I will. I will give you whatever you need whenever I can. If I can’t, I will explain why. It’s never wrong to ask.”
Sadly, the world is not perfect. It is hard to communicate all this in the midst of a trauma-related meltdown. And even if you do, it may take a long time before the child can truly hear, as it will only happen when their level of trust exceeds their fear of rejection. Still, keep trying. The child (adult) may have the same experience I did: they might suddenly, one day, see. And then, who knows? They might even ask for, and accept, your help.