These particular signs of a manipulative teenager are not the usual dynamics at play for teens exploring the world, learning how to get what they want and figuring out where the limits are. This list has to do with teens who are manipulative for the sake of controlling others. These teens can be callous, calculating and cruel. Living under the same roof can be a nightmare.
You can read more about children with callous and unemotional traits here.
If you are dealing with a manipulative teen who falls into this category, you really need to know about it, because the rules with these types are different. The usual advice about being firm with them and punishing them according to the situation does not work here.
So let's have a look at the signs of a manipulative teenager that indicate that you have a serious problem...
They lie a lot. Even when they know that you know they are lying.
They lie when it would even be better for them to tell the truth.
There are lots of lies by omission. Not just the usual ones where they say they are going to a friend's house but leave out that the parents are away, but also, for example, telling tales about what a sibling has just done to offend them but leaving out how they were tormenting the sibling first. They know the information will come out but they don't care.
They can be very good at playing the victim. With a little practice then learn to turn the tables on anyone and act very offended with how they were treated, even when they are the guilty party! They become experts at making others around them feel very guilty.
They very often will not do things they do not want to. They will wait, hoping the parents let it slide or don't notice that the task has not been done. Or they will frustrate the other family members so much that it becomes easier for someone else to do the task.
They can be brilliant at the temper tantrums. Family members can be so afraid of upsetting the manipulator that they end up tiptoeing around them. Some families live in absolute fear of the manipulative teen.
They do not respond to punishments in the way you would expect. They are not deterred from behaving badly again. They do not care about being punished. They are more interested in instant gratification so the future consequences are of little concern to them. The second important thing of note here is that some manipulative teens will actually provoke their parents into punishing them! For example, the teen will push the parent into being really angry, and the angrier the parent gets, the calmer the teen gets, all the time winding the parent up. Eventually the frustrated parent hits the child with the object in their hand, a towel, a hairbrush, it doesn't matter. They the teen makes the parent feel guilty about the 'abusive treatment', often for years afterwards. In adult life, the teen then complains to others about how their childhood was so abusive, playing the victim role, eliciting pity as a way to manipulate those around them. (I suspect that this is where the myth came from that children who were abused go on to abuse others later in life. While some genuinely abused children do abuse others later in life, this number is nowhere near as big as many think. And, in fact, over 50% of abused children have been found to be abused as adults. You can read why here.)
They have an excuse for everything. It doesn't matter how awful the stuff they have done, they have a reason and a justification for it. Sometimes they will invent excuses each time. sometimes they have a stock answer that they use. A common one is 'I don't know.' Why did you do that? I don't know. What were you thinking? I don't know. Why didn't you...? I don't know. This is a common answer for younger manipulators while they are learning how to manipulate and control, testing the limits. It is very infuriating for the parents because there is often little you can say against it.
Do you sometimes hate your child? This is a common reaction when dealing with a manipulative teen. It obviously causes conflict for the parent, because you are supposed to love your children and you are not supposed to feel such anger or hatred for your own offspring. These types are deliberately harassing and abusing you. They are manipulating your emotions. Having all sorts of emotional responses is common.
Do you get blamed by outsiders for what your manipulative teen does? You know it's not your fault and the child is completely out of your control but you can't explain that to others. They think you are too lax, or don't care, or that you are simply not disciplining the child properly. You know the opposite is true. You have tried everything you possibly can. You care a lot about what is happening, in fact, it dominates your life, but you can't control this little terror that lives under your roof.
They may curse and swear at you, a lot!
They openly blackmail you, threatening to tell others what is going on.
They say one thing but do another. Sometimes they have lied, other times they just change their mind in an instant. This one will drive you crazy!
They may threaten you with knives or other weapons. They may be physically abusive.
You are afraid of them. Some parents lock their bedroom door at night, because they live in fear that the child will do them harm while they are asleep.
They may sneak out at night and you don't actually know where they have been. In fact, that's a common theme. The parents say that they don't actually know where their child is or who they are with or what they are up to much of the time.
They may be drinking, doing drugs and having sexual relationships at an early age.
They can be cruel to animals or siblings, even at a very young age.
Fire setting is another serious indicator.
They often have a vicious temper and people talk about walking on eggshells around them in order not to set them off.
Did I mention the lies? Lots of lies, lots...
They can seem to switch personality in an instant. Sometimes, especially in front of outsiders, they may seem like the perfect kid, happy, friendly, caring. At home they are tyrants.
As a parent you often end up doubting yourself. Did you do something wrong? Is there something else you should be doing? You see your child sometimes acting 'normally' and you think that you might actually be the problem. You cannot figure out what is going on with your child. Nothing seems to make sense. You may believe that you are a failure as a parent.
A pathologically manipulative teen will 'take' all the time. They give only when it is advantageous for themselves. And they have no trouble calling in the 'favor' they have done.
The whole household revolves around these types. They are the center of everything. Their needs have to be met first, second and third and everyone else's a distant fourth.
They are the ones doling out the rewards and punishments! If you try and control them, there is a price to pay. If you get one up on them, you know that there will be payback, you just don't know when it will happen.
Life for them is often a competition. They have to be the best, the first, ahead of others, the only one, and so on. If a sibling has something, they want one, or they break the siblings object. If the sibling has some kind of success, they will ruin the moment.
A manipulative teen can be cold and calculating. You may think sometimes that what they have done is inconceivable. You can't understand how a family member could be so callous to others.
They may not show emotions when appropriate, or they do not understand other people's reactions.
If you think that you are dealing with a teen who is manipulating for the sake of manipulating, in other words, this is not typical teen behavior but rather they may have signs of a personality disorder, you really need to know what you are actually dealing with.
The usual advice, don't take things personally, don't get stressed out, be consistent with them, listen to them, set consistent limits, won't work. But you already know that! You have been trying this stuff for years and it isn't working.
What is useful is to learn about mind control, psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists. You need to be able to recognize how specifically they are manipulating you. It's also very important to understand the motivations of someone with a personality disorder. What is important to them, what drives them? Why are they doing the things they do? This changes the way you fundamentally think about the relationship and how they are interacting with the world. For them, it's all about power and control. Their relationships are based on domination and coercion.
Another important idea is that they have little consideration for future consequences. They are much more interested in instant gratification. When they repeat behaviors that they know will cause trouble, it's not that they don't learn from their mistakes, it's that they don't care about future consequences.
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