Emotional Blackmail: Is Your Child's Behavior Holding You Hostage?
By By James Lehman, MSW
I've worked with many parents over the years who routinely gave in when their children acted out. One mother I met, I'll call her Linda, had a twelve-year-old son who often used emotional blackmail and threats of misbehavior to get his way. Linda dreaded taking him to the mall, because she knew she'd end up buying him anything he asked for in an effort to keep him from calling her names, stomping and yelling at her, and making a scene that left her feeling humiliated and powerless. In effect, her son's behavior was holding her hostage.
So what happens if we always respond to this type of behavior by backing down? Your child learns that if he misbehaves or threatens to misbehave, that will solve his problem, because somebody's going to give in. Make no mistake, the message you're sending your child is that misbehavior works. When your child acts out in public, if they're not responded to in an effective way, they develop a pattern of behavior where they learn how to blackmail you to give them their way. And their mindset is, "Give me my way or face my acting out." That may involve yelling, screaming and tantrums if they're younger. It may be angry faces and a disgusted tone, disrespectful remarks and even cursing when they get older. Either way, the whole game they're playing involves using behavior to try to control outside circumstances, instead of learning how to solve the problems they face.
When kids learn this lesson, there are two outcomes. Your child discovers there's absolutely no reason to change, no reason to mature. And every time you reward them for misbehavior, you're making that portion of your child's personality stronger. That's right: you're actually strengthening the part of them that wants to misbehave and that doesn't want to follow social rules or be civilized. In fact, you can look at parenting in that way: our role is to teach our children the rules of how to be civilized and live in our society. And in our culture, we go to the mall, we go shopping, we treat people with respect, and we behave in an acceptable manner. When you give in to inappropriate behavior, your child grows up without the coping skills to deal with the difficult situations that life presents.
The other thing that you need to understand is that when your child uses acting out as a problem-solving skill, they are not learning how to develop other more appropriate problem solving skills. Kids will throw a tantrum when they're frustrated or upset--that happens. But whether they're throwing a fit because they're frustrated, upset or overwhelmed, the same rules still apply. If you give in, you're simply teaching your child to continue acting out in public.
A Word about Younger Kids
When children between the age of two and three throw a tantrum, there should be no consequences other than to have them sit some place until they calm down. When most younger children get tired and overwhelmed, they have a hard time controlling their emotions. It's part of a parent's responsibility to know their kid, know how much stimulation they can take, and when they're tired or hungry and need to leave.
When I'm at the mall or downtown where I live, in the late afternoon I'll see little kids around the age of three, four, or five years old crying or really shutting down. I think most parents recognize that their kids are overly tired. But the adult mind manages stimulation very differently than a child's mind. We know how to compartmentalize everything and weigh things out. For kids, stimulation comes at them like a wave. And being in a mall is like being at the circus for a child. I think that parents have to be aware of that and be tolerant of some frustration their kids will express. Parents also need to learn how to either avoid those situations or find ways to manage them.
When your young child throws a tantrum, whether it's because he's tired or because he's angry at not getting his way, the management skills are the same: You wait it out. You give a little reassurance. You don't give in.
5 Techniques to Help You Manage Your Child's Acting Out Behavior
- Remember, you're the expert on your child.
You know what makes your child tired. You know the extra help he needs. And you know the situations that are frustrating for him. Prepare your child before you go into any new or stimulating situation. Say, "If you start getting frustrated, let me know. We'll take a rest. All right? If you get frustrated, if you can't handle it, let me know, we'll go home. And if you throw a tantrum, this is what I'm going to do." I think by being realistic about your child's temperament and discussing plans with them ahead of time, you can really enhance your ability to manage situations in public.
- Train your child by taking small steps first.
I think if parents have a child who acts out in public, you want to try what's called a "slow immersion." So in other words, if this kid can't handle going to the mall, take him to the drug store first. Say, "Let's see how you handle this. We're going in for five or ten minutes." Lay the rules down. That way you're not at the mall, you're in a more manageable location and you're close by your child. Start to train them by taking small steps, by coaching them in little pieces: little pieces of learning how to socialize and solve problems and act like everybody else.
- Write the rules down and keep them handy.
Before you even go into public, I think you need to decide what your limits are for your child in terms of behavior. Let them know exactly what's going to happen. For pre-teen kids and under, keep a 4x6 index card in your car with 3 rules on it:
- Respond to first request.
- Accept "no" for an answer.
- Don't raise your voice or misbehave physically.
Read that card in the car before you go inside the mall or store. That one small act is going to help your child keep it together; reading the rules to them is like lending them structure. You can't assume that kids are going to recall information that will help them change. Here's another way of looking at it: Let's say you're speeding and you get a ticket. The assumption is that the next time you're in a hurry, you're going to remember how it felt to pay that ticket and you won't speed. Even though that may be true, each state still has the speed limit posted every five miles. So give your child consistent reminders that will keep them focused.
- When the rules are broken.
If your child breaks the rules when you're out, I would take them out of the department store. If they throw a tantrum, I would stay with them in that tantrum and when they are done, I would take them out of the mall. At this point, the show is over; there's no way there's going to be any more shopping. With younger kids, you can just hold their hand and take them to the car. But if they resist you, don't get physical. Let them throw their tantrum. Have a seat, watch the show. And if people ask questions say, "He's throwing a tantrum and there's nothing I can do." I think parents have to do that every time until the acting out in public stops. If possible, bring a magazine or a book so that the child can see that he's not getting your attention through that inappropriate behavior.
Let me assure you that I know how embarrassing this can be for parents. But you have to understand, your child also knows how uncomfortable their behavior makes you; that's how your child is blackmailing you. So, in their mind it's, "Let me have my way or I'm going to blackmail you in front of all these adults. I'm going to embarrass you and make you uncomfortable." It's just that simple. And you need to stop letting them hold you hostage with their behavior.
Remember this: When you don't give in to your child, they have to figure out another way to solve their problem.
- Leave them at home.
I don't think there's anything wrong with leaving your child at home with proper supervision and telling them, "You can't come today because you can't handle it. You made a scene last time we went shopping and so today you're staying home." And if your child promises and begs and swears, say, "No, let's see how you behave staying at home. If you handle that OK, then we'll see." And make them sit at home. Make them understand that you're not going to be blackmailed and that you're strong--and that when you make decisions, you're going to stick with them.
So make up your mind that you're not going to let your child hold you hostage with their misbehavior. Don't give in to emotional blackmail when your child threatens to act out. I tell parents to think of it this way: your child has got to get to bed tonight without a crisis. That's their goal. And our goal as a parent is the same thing: to get to bed tonight without a crisis and to teach our children the skills they need. If you can do that, then you're all set.