Is Your Kid a Manipulative Bully?

Excerpt from WHEN KIDS CALL THE SHOTS, Chapter Four, Understanding your kid’s bullying behavior style


Kids with a Manipulative Bullying Style

  • Is your kid an excellent liar?
  • Does your kid have a history of stealing?
  • Does he know how to exploit your fears?
  • Does his mood plummet when you deny his wishes?
  • Are you blackmailed with threats of self-harm?
  • Is your kid guilty of truancy or cutting classes regularly?
  • Has your kid faked illnesses?
  • Does she have a history of drug or alcohol use?
  • Has she been suspended from school?
  • Does she take advantage of her friends?

If you suffer fears and insecurities about your parenting, it won’t take long for a manipulative bullying child to home in on them, particularly if you are an anxious or guilty parent. (We’ll explore the tendencies of anxious and guilty parents in Chapter 5.)

Phony illness or injuries, elaborate plots, extortion, blackmail—these are the tools that the manipulative bully uses to extort his wants and needs from his parents by preying on their anxieties and generating self-doubt.

This can make the manipulative bully sound like a demon child, destined to ruin a family. Of course, that’s not true. Just as with the defiant and anxious bullying styles, the manipulative bully is trying to manage his fears and insecurities by controlling his environment and everyone in it. Getting to the root of his fears, helping him put them into words, is key to helping a manipulative bully develop better ways of relating.

Before we explore the mechanisms behind the manipulative bully, let’s spend some time with Marsha, a teenager who continues to manipulate her parents and take advantage of their good intentions.

Parenting Dilemma: Meet Marsha

Age: 19

Personality Type: Manipulative

Favorite Bullying Tactics: Inducing guilt, doubt, and trepidation

Bullying Moment:

Marsha is a curiosity. Tall and thin, with tousled auburn hair and hazel eyes, she seems to have it all. She’s attractive, has loving parents, and a beautiful home life. Why on earth can’t she finish high school?

It’s two o’clock in the morning when Marsha bursts into her parents’ home, startles them awake, and demands a family meeting. Victor and Amanda sit groggy-eyed at the table as Marsha paces around the kitchen.

“What’s the point of living in a crowded dorm with people who are obviously jealous of me?” Marsha demands.

Victor and Amanda exchange shrewd looks. They know what’s coming: Marsha’s going to drop out of high school again. They had hoped that boarding school would make a difference, and now they are disappointed.

Marsha opens the refrigerator and searches for leftovers. “I’m not going back.”

Victor sighs. “You’ll work it out.”

Marsha bites into a roasted chicken leg. “Students do drugs in their dorm rooms. It’s like living with criminals.” Amanda wishes her daughter would use a knife and fork but she says nothing.

Victor rolls his eyes. “You’re exaggerating, as usual.”

“I told you,” Marsha says, “I’m not going back. Why are you so dense?”

Now Amanda springs into action. “We’ll talk about this in the morning. We’re all tired.”

Victor finally snaps: “I’ll tell you what I’m tired of . . . .”

“If the school is not right for her, it’s not right for her,” says Amanda.

“For a third time?”

Marsha knows the drill: Her father’s voice will increase in volume, and then her mother will start to cry.

“If you make me go back, I don’t know what I’ll do,” Marsha says as she begins to cry, hiding her face in hands. Amanda hugs her.

“I’ll call the school in the morning. This is your home. You are always welcome here.”

Amanda hands Marsha a napkin as Victor holds his head in his hands.

“Thanks, Ma.”

Marsha’s History

Marsha was a miracle baby, born on the eve of her mother’s forty-fifth birthday. Victor and Amanda showered their only child with gifts. Though they lived on a modest income, they toiled and stretched their finances so Marsha could live a privileged life.

Unfortunately, their pampering produced a sense of entitlement and lack of appreciation. Marsha has become accustomed to getting her own way all the time. She accuses others of jealousy or malice when they don’t support her. Worse, whenever faced with problems, Marsha relies on her parents to bail her out. If she does poorly in a class, Victor and Amanda blame the teacher and advocate for a new class. If Marsha has a conflict with a peer, Victor and Amanda claim she was being “scapegoated and ganged up on.” Always, Marsha skirts responsibility with her parents’ blessing.

Marsha’s Fears

As a child, whenever she heard Victor’s booming voice in the middle of the night, Marsha would jump out of bed and run into her parents’ bedroom, redirecting her father’s anger toward her and away from her mother. Amanda, by accepting Marsha’s protection, unwittingly fed the rift between Marsha and her dad, leaving Victor feeling alone and undermined in his own home.

Marsha has few acquaintances and a deepening distrust of people outside of her family. She tends to end friendships abruptly when the slightest disagreement or frustration arises. This leaves her with few companions other than her mother and father. As you might guess, Marsha has no desire to live independently or move away from home. This springs from a lack of maturity, but also a sense of responsibility that she must protect her mother from her father’s temper.

Family Dynamics

By indulging their daughter’s complaints and attempting to fix everything for her, Victor and Amanda’s love eventually descends into enabling. As a result, Marsha’s personality remains mired in early childhood. She never went through a healthy emotional separation from her parents, so she remains reliant on them for gratification and frustration relief.

Marsha’s unusual closeness and dependency on her parents also undermines her attunement with others. She presumes that everyone will coddle her like her parents—and when they don’t, she feels hurt and betrayed.

Immediate Interventions

Here are a few actions that Marsha’s parents can take right away.

Contact School Officials Amanda and Victor should contact the school immediately and find out the protocol for such situations. A family meeting with school official must be arranged so Marsha’s concerns can be addressed. It’s crucial that Marsha begin to take responsibility for her actions and stop relying on her parents to fix everything for her. Most boarding schools have psychologists or counselors who are trained to handle such situations. Marsha could also benefit from working with a school-based therapist who could help her make a positive adjustment to life on campus.

Set United Parenting Goals The sooner Amanda and Victor set united parenting goals, the better. Their conflicts have a corrosive effect on their child’s well-being. Their habit of arguing over parenting decisions in front of Marsha causes her distress and prompts her manipulative tendencies.

If working out their disagreements proves too difficult, Amanda and Victor should work with a parent coach or therapist who could help them stay united. It would also strengthen their relationship, improve their communication, and help them understand how their divided parenting style harms their daughter and triggers her manipulative bullying.

Once the school crisis is addressed, longer-term interventions include the following.

More Social Outlets for Marsha Marsha needs more relationships outside of her family. These could be gained through a part-time job, an internship, or a youth program. Experiences like these would help Marsha become more self-reliant and less dependent on her parents. Earning her own money, improving her social life, and developing more meaningful friendships would help Marsha feel more confident and successful. Consequently, she’ll begin to realize that she doesn’t have to manipulate or bully others to feel respected or valued.

Family Therapy If conflicts at home continue, family therapy would give Amanda, Victor, and Marsha a place to air their grievances and work on improving their communication.

A central cause of Marsha’s bullying is not being addressed: Marsha feels burdened by her parents’ troubled relationship. Victor feels alienated by his wife and betrayed by his daughter. Amanda is afraid of her husband’s temper and dependent on Marsha for emotional support. And Marsha is unable to move on in life until she feels secure that her father can resolve conflicts with her mother without becoming abusive.

A skilled family therapist would help everyone express these concerns and come up with new ways of being together. This would reduce tension and bring much-needed relief to the family. This dialogue may seem elementary, but without a therapist to supervise it, it may also feel impossible.

Now that we’ve met the kids most likely to bully, let’s spend some time with parents who are most likely to be bullied and find out how they may actually be the cause of their kids’ mistreatment.