anxiety

Is my child manipulating me?

This week’s question is, “Is my child really anxious? Or are they just manipulating me?” This is one of the questions I ask in the Parenting Pitfalls quiz because it’s one way I assess for patterns of anxiety in a family — that is whether or not people tell you that your child is manipulating you or if you wonder if they’re manipulating you. So let’s talk about that a little bit.

First of all, when people use the word manipulation to talk about a child’s behavior, what I know for certain is that family is struggling. Manipulation is another word for “doing things to get what we want” but it’s a really negative word. The truth is, we all do things to get what we want. We may be extra nice to our boss even if we’re annoyed by them because we want to get a raise. Or we might pretend to like a book we dislike so that other people in our bookclub will think we’re smart. 

According to Kohlberg’s moral development, children tend to behave selfishly until around the age of 7. They are reward oriented — behaving in ways that serve them rather than because it’s the right thing to do and they are selfish — looking out for their own self interest rather than ways to serve others. Now I know you’re going to give me examples of your child’s selflessness at younger than seven. It’s not that they don’t do lovely things like give a toy to their sibling, or bring you flowers, or give up the last cookie because their friend is crying — it’s that they do those things because they want to. They want your praise, they want your approval, they want their friend to play instead of cry. This again, is developmentally appropriate. And we help them learn our moral code with that praise and approval. That’s part of the teaching we do. 

I’ll tell a story about my daughter here with her permission to illustrate this. When she was about five she figured out that if I said no to something like a popsicle just before dinner, she could get a popsicle by going to her dad and looking very sad and saying, “Gee, I sure wish I could have a popsicle” and he’d say, “Well, go have one then.” Of course she was manipulating him because she wasn’t telling him the whole truth by explaining why she didn’t have one. But that’s typical manipulation. She didn’t know that lying by omission was a thing. We had to tell her that. If anything she was showing some good problem solving and people skills. 

From 8 to 13, their moral code is still about meeting rules and getting praise. Kids want approval. They are growing into the idea that morality can be more personal and that the greater good may sometimes mean they will miss out but they definitely haven’t mastered it. Heck, we adults struggle with this so of course we can expect children to still be learning and exploring what it means to behave in a moral manner.

Back to manipulation. Manipulation, as in manipulating people to get your own way, isn’t a moral issue for kids the way it is for us. A child who is anxious and who is avoiding through fight or flight or freeze, is definitely trying to get their own way. If they don’t want to do the scary thing like sleep alone, or talk in class, or go to the baseball game then they may meltdown, cry they may threaten to hurt themselves, they may punch someone or punch a wall and then parents often give in. Is the child being manipulative? Is the child really that scared? That in danger? Or are they pretending to be to get their way?

My take is it kind of doesn’t matter. We need to take threats seriously, always, especially when there is threat of harm. They might be exaggerating their threats but exaggerated threats have resulted in real harm when we don’t take them seriously. They are trying to get us to take their fears seriously and yes, they may blow those fears up so that we will. 

That doesn’t mean we help them avoid. It may mean we need to start smaller in addressing their anxiety because the big stuff is too big at the moment. Or it may mean that we need to create a plan that keeps kids and other people and things safe even as we continue to challenge their avoidance. (I will add that when a child blows up their fears so we take it seriously, they are also blowing those fears up for themselves. I don’t know how many of you read Anne of Green Gables. But there’s a chapter where she’s imagined a haunted forest and she’s done such a good job of imagining it that she is terrified to walk through the woods. Her imagination has run away with her. Our anxious kids do this, too. And sometimes that manipulative behavior may raise things to another level not just for us but for them.)

So I guess what I’m saying is that the question isn’t helpful because a child can be both anxious and manipulative and being manipulative doesn’t mean that your child’s struggle isn’t real.

When things get to this level of crisis, it’s time to get help. This is just such a difficult place to be as a parent and as the child or teen whose behaviors have become so damaging. 

If you’re curious where your family falls in the Parenting Pitfall quiz, which is about the family patterns that keeps us stuck in child or teen anxiety, I’d love for you to come by the site and take the quiz. If you have questions about your results, let me know. You’ll also have the opportunity to sign up for the free Get Yourself Grounded email course when you complete the quiz but you don’t have to fill anything out — like your name or email — just to take it or to get the results. 

Is social anxiety disorder caused by traumas and bullying?

First let’s talk about what social anxiety is and how it’s diagnosed.

Social anxiety is not being introverted and it’s not being shy. Social anxiety is when a child struggles to function in social situations. An introvert may prefer their own company and a child who is shy is a child who is slow to warm up in social situations but they’re able to get there. In social anxiety, the child’s anxiety prevents them from participation. 

There are two aspects to social anxiety. The first is what you might call stage fright where the child’s anxiety is centered around the fear of performance. This isn’t just being afraid of being on stage or public speaking, this is fear of raising their hand in school or ordering at a restaurant or answering the phone or being at an event where they will be seen. The focus here is on the performative aspect of being observed. Most of us don’t want to be the first person on the dance floor, right? Perhaps you can imagine how that feels. The stage fright part of social anxiety is that feeling — that feeling of being first on the dance floor — in any aspect of social performance. So these kids might have trouble getting up in class to sharpen a pencil. They may have bathroom accidents because they can’t ask the teacher to be excused. They might struggle in sports of gym class because they have to practice in front of their classmates or team members. You know, like when your coach lines you up and you take turns running up to kick the soccer ball into the goal. 

The second aspect to social anxiety is about the interaction. This can be present with the performative aspect or may show up on its own. In this case, there is intense worry about disappointing other people or making people mad or having people judge them. They may have trouble making eye contact (and this is separate from children who are on the autism spectrum — social anxiety is often co-diagnosed with spectrum disorders but lack of eye contact is not always an indicator of social anxiety). We all have had those middle of the night worries about having said something stupid after a social event. Most of us can shrug it off; we know people are forgiving and also most people aren’t paying that close of attention to us. But when social anxiety is present, those ruminations about possible social gaffes can be overwhelming. 

Kids with social anxiety fear negative judgment. Their avoidance is around this perceived negative judgment. To avoid it they may limit their socializing or withdraw from social interactions, basically going along to get along. 

In severe cases of social anxiety, the child might also meet criteria for a diagnosis of selective mutism where the child’s anxiety is so great that they are unable to speak to people outside of a select few, usually family members. The child is able to speak — they have no physical limitations — but their fear stops them from speaking.

Our children may ask us to reassure them that no one is mad. They may need to process the event over and over. They may apologize for perceived slights or insults, taking responsibility for things that aren’t an issue.

As an aside, I see so much of this in middle schoolers — such a socially anxious age — where conversation between two kids may halt entirely because they are both so caught up in apologizing for each other. Of course middle schoolers can also be incredibly thoughtless and cruel to each other. It’s a complicated age and the same child who is ultra sensitive in one social context may be clueless in another. There are estimates that up to 30% of adolescents experience some measure of social anxiety — I think it might be under diagnosed since I meet lots of adults who don’t realize that they have social anxiety but instead report that they are just very introverted. 

Which brings us to the original question. Is social anxiety disorder caused by trauma and bullying? The answer is yes, it may be but it isn’t always. 

Some children have a difficult experience in school and this contributes to their understandable fear of continued bullying and unkindness, i.e., social anxiety.

Other children develop social anxiety without a clear precursor. Although there is research showing that children who have separation anxiety when younger — that is struggle to separate from caregivers for longer than is developmentally expected — are more likely to develop social anxiety. 

Interestingly some children with social anxiety who do not have bullying in their background may still perceive some of their social interactions more negatively than they actually were. This is not because they are liars; it is because some children are more sensitive to negative reactions — real or perceived. What this means is that a child may tell you that someone doesn’t like them and even have examples but this is more about their perception than what really happened. So another child might casually say, “Wow, your shoes are really bright blue.” And the child may hear that as critical or mean when the other child was simply making an observation.

All right, so what do you do for a child with social anxiety? 

Remember that anxiety gets worse with avoidance so we want to encourage those children to have more social interaction. Now this doesn’t mean just sending them off to school and saying, “go make some friends!” That’s not going to work for every child. For some? Sure. Kids who are more motivated, who have already built some emotional muscle in overcoming social anxiety, who have some measure of social support — they may be able to simply push through it. But lots of kids need help with skills building.

You can reach out to the school counselor and ask them about social opportunities. Some will have groups — a lunch bunch or a more formal group — that the child can attend. Some may have ideas about getting the child more involved with extracurriculars that interest them and might feel safe. They may be able to connect the child with appropriate peers.

You can also look for social opportunities that are a better fit for your child. Girl Scouts, a church group, 4H. If your child has a special interest you could see about connecting them to peers that way. If you’ve got a child or teen who does a lot of online activities, head to the local comic book store and see if you can get your gamer nerd to open themselves to other nerdoms like D&D or Magic the Gathering. Our little neighborhood library used to host gamer meet-ups to get the kids off-line and talking to each other while still honoring that gaming was an important interest to them. You can try that, too. 

The reason I bring up computer games, is that kids who are social anxious are more likely to have what the researchers call problematic internet usage. That is to say, avoiding real world social interaction by increased used of online social interaction.

I do want to pause here and say that I believe that online relationships are real and important and they matter. But they are not a substitute for real world relationships. It’s great to have good social keyboarding skills. But we also need to be able to interact with people off-line. It doesn’t need to be one or the other and we can encourage real world friendships without denigrating online friendships. This is important when we’re talking about supporting our kids since many will feel rightfully defensive if we turn it into an either/or discussion instead of a both/and. 

If you can’t find the right social environment, you could consider creating one. Social media makes it easier to network with other local parents and perhaps you can find or create the social group that would feel welcoming to your child. It doesn’t have to be a large group. It can just be a couple of kids who are willing to hang out.

You can also talk to counseling practices and occupational therapy practices, which sometimes host social skills groups. Sometimes these are specific to a diagnosis — for example, for autistic kids. But some are open to any child who is needing opportunity and practice in learning how be with other kids. The leaders of these kinds of structured groups know and expect that the kids may be awkward and may struggle. Talk to the facilitators and see if your child is a good fit for the group and that the group is a good fit for the child. Some of the will organize around a particular theme. 

Getting intervention sooner rather than later is important. Sometimes we figure middle school is just awkward and they’ll grow out of it but social anxiety leads to depression if it continues through the teen years. Social anxiety tends to create dependence as children increasingly rely on their parents’ support and intervention. Parents naturally start assuming their kids can’t function on their own, which leads to more parental control, which leads to greater social anxiety. It’s basically an echo chamber. As in all things, parents need to recognize when what they’re doing is hurting more than helping — always a tricky thing with anxiety — and learn to step back.

If you need help with that, I encourage you to check out my program.

Why do gifted children have anxiety disorders?

Why do gifted children have anxiety disorders?

gifted children

Why do gifted children have anxiety disorders?

gifted children

Are you ready to bring calm to yourself so that you can bring calm to your family? Subscribe to my newsletter and you’ll get my FREE 7-day Get Yourself Grounded course!

Are you ready to bring calm to yourself so that you can bring calm to your family? Subscribe to my newsletter and you’ll get my FREE 7-day Get Yourself Grounded course!

How do I calm down my anxious child?

Let me right here right now say that if your child's anxiety is out of control, this is not because you have somehow failed to calm them down.

Dawn Friedman MSEd

This week’s question is how do you calm down an anxious child? Actually, it was much more specific. So I’m going to read the whole thing. “How can I help my anxious child calm down when they get upset? I remind them to practice their breathing tools and mindfulness and try to reason with them. But instead things escalate, they insist that only getting rid of the perceived source of anxiety will help.”

With this question we’re starting with the assumption that we should calm down an anxious child, which is not always true. That’s not always our job, but we’ll get to that in a bit. There’s also another assumption, which is that we have the ability to calm down an anxious child, which is absolutely not true, or at least not always true.

Sometimes we know just the right thing to say or do, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes our child or teen is just going to spiral beyond where we can help them. Let me right here right now, say that if your child’s anxiety is out of control, This is not because you have somehow failed to calm them down.

So let’s reconsider the question. First hat’s off to this parent for teaching their child coping tools. Because that’s certainly part of what we need to do as parents. We can’t make them use them, but we can teach them those tools and encourage them to use them. We can create a family climate where people are practicing calm, and it is a practice.

Meaning we need to be doing it on the regular and not just when it’s needed. Remember last week, we talked about ways to model anxiety, but we can also model calm that’s in our control. We can choose to learn those things and to model those things and to overtly teach those things. Calm shouldn’t be a separate event that happens only when people are anxious.

Calm needs to be built into the everyday functioning of our families. So when you’re sitting with a cup of tea, listening to your favorite podcast, that’s you modeling calm. Good for you. 

Or when you say, “Listen I had a bad day at work so I’m going to need to go for a walk.” That’s you modeling calm. Fantastic. 

Or when you’re having a conflict with your child and you stop and take a deep breath,  there you are modeling calm like a boss again.

(As an aside, one of the arms of my Child Anxiety Support membership is CBT family, which is a collection of ideas, resources, and activities to bring those cognitive behavioral tools to your family. So I encourage you to check that out if you’re interested.)

Okay. Back to the question. So this parent is already doing the most important thing, which is empowering their child.

The other piece of this question is the part that says, and I quote, “They insist that only getting rid of the perceived source of anxiety will help.” Yes, absolutely. And this is what we mean when we talk about accommodations.

Think about it. If there’s a tornado coming, you want to get away from it. You run down to the basement and you hole up. That’s how healthy anxiety is supposed to work. It’s supposed to protect us from danger.

Unfortunately, if we are sensitive and prone to see danger when there is no danger then that appropriate want to get away from danger isn’t inappropriate. It’s not working for us and we need to learn how to tolerate feeling like we’re in danger so that we can assess the situation and make a more accurate decision.

The way we learn to live with anxiety is twofold. One, we learn how to tolerate it long enough to acclimate to it. Two, we learn how to tolerate it long enough to acclimate to it so we can think our way through it. Basically, we need to hang in there long enough to get out of our survival brain that’s got us in fight flight or freeze so that we can access our higher order thinking brain.

A child who is prone to anxiety will probably always be someone who is sensitive to the idea of danger, but they will get better and better at accessing their higher order brain so that when they’re feeling scared, they can think, is this a tornado? Or am I just worried about tomorrow’s work presentation?

Of course, this sounds a lot easier than it is. When your child is in fight flight or freeze, that’s just where they are. And they’re expecting us as their parents, their protectors, to protect them. I want you to know, and to remember that you are protecting them, okay? They are safe. They don’t feel safe, but they are safe. You may need to tell yourself that and to sit on your hands. So you don’t react.

When we take action we’re telling them that they’re right to be afraid because we’re matching their level of urgency.

I encourage you to remember that your presence, your literal presence, if you’re able to tolerate enough to stay in the room with them. Or your figurative presence– because you have been a loving, supportive parent all of their lives– is a help. You are helping. Doing nothing is helping even if they don’t think so.

If you can stay calm, then you are helping by raising the level of calm in the room. If you are able to practice your own CBT tools, then you were helping by modeling practicing CBT tools. Please remember that. In other words, you don’t always need to do more; doing more when kids are already agitated can add to the agitation or prolong it.

Again, doing nothing can be a help.

I’m going to add here that sometimes in my therapy practice when I feel the urgency of my anxious clients and they want me to do something, fix their pain or worry, I picture a big sign behind them that says, “Don’t just sit there, do nothing!” as a reminder that being present and calm is my job in the moment.

You can tell that doing nothing is doing something because it’s so hard, it’s work. Right?

Now there are nuances in the answer to this question, depending on your child’s age, what’s upsetting them and what you’re trying to do, like if you’re trying to get out the door and you’ve got a timeline that you’re stuck with.

But right now for this episode, I really want to give you a new way of looking at support. Next time your child is flipping out and you feel the urge to calm them. Take a step back, even if it’s just for a few seconds and remember that sometimes the only way out is through and learning to tolerate the distress of anxiety is a skill that our anxious kids need to learn and that we need to learn. We also need to learn to tolerate the distress of their anxiety.

Let me know your thoughts!

Have a question?

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