May 28, 2024

Emma Part 1 of 3: When You Think Your Kid is Manipulating You

Today is the first of three sessions with Emma who is a mom of 4 children in a blended family.

Henelly, her 7 year old daughter is from her first marriage. Emma and her second husband have 3 year old twins, Grayson and Claire and a new baby, Olivia.  Emma reached out for therapy concerned that Henelly is manipulating her. Parents may often feel this way but it’s a serious accusation.  Leslie unpacks that word and explores how Emma’s past experiences are influencing the way she interprets her child’s communication style.  And there’s more to this episode which includes when parents feel helpless, when kids give voice to the fighting refrain –  “it’s mine, no, it’s mine” and those seldom-working promises that you make with your children.

Credits: Is My Child a Monster is produced by Alletta Cooper, Dale Rubury, and Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Theme music is by L-Ray Music. Public relations is handled by Tink Media. Graphics and Website Design by Brien O’Reilly. by Eric Rubury. A special thanks to everyone who contributes their wisdom and support to make this possible.

Time Stamps

  • 4:30 Reframing the word manipulation – children are designed to get their needs. 
  • 7:10 Varying communication skills – nonverbal to indirect to direct 
  • 9:58 Examples of dialectic dilemmas – clearly articulate the dilemma
  • 13:00 Reinforce the behavior you want more of. 
  • 15:15 The continuum of nonverbal to indirect to direct
  • 21:20 The parent trap of promises
  • 22:43 Use the phrase “what’s going to happen when….”
  • 25:00 How to give your child some healthy ways to be in “control”
  • 28:00 Reasons why children take on the role of parenting
  • 25;45 The feeling of being trapped is a terrible feeling. The antidote is identifying some options. 
  • 35:25 The unintended consequences of possessiveness of toys and finding a balance between mine and ours


Leslie-ism: Fostering effective communication means learning to speak your child’s language.


[Music: The Wilds Beyond by L-Ray Music]

0:03  Emma:  It feels like manipulating in the sense of being like, “I’m not eating my dinner until you give me something else.” And then the other half of me is like, she’s just a kid. She doesn’t like what she’s eating. She’s just throwing a fit.

0:21  Leslie Cohen-Rubury:  “Is my seven year old manipulating me?” That’s the question today’s guest, Emma came to me with. It’s actually a very common question I hear in my therapy office, and something I’m so glad we get to explore in this session. 

I’m Leslie Cohen-Rubury. And this is, Is My Child A Monster?, a parenting therapy podcast, where you get to listen in as real parents and caregivers share their trials and tribulations in therapy sessions recorded live. 

Manipulation is a loaded word and my stomach drops every time I hear it when a parent is talking about their child. It’s so similar to the question, “Is my child a monster?” And, as I say in every introduction on this podcast, no, your child is not a monster, just misunderstood. 

What many caregivers are interpreting as manipulation is a child trying to communicate their needs. And sometimes all a parent really needs is a perspective shift to help them understand that. Emma’s seven year old daughter, Henley, is from her first marriage. She also has three children with her current husband: an infant, Olivia, and three-year-old twins, Grayson and Claire. Today, our focus is mostly on Henley. 

So, as a reminder, all the names and identifying information have been changed. And though I am a licensed clinical therapist, this show is for informational purposes only, and is not a substitute for therapeutic intervention. So let’s begin.

Leslie:  Hi, how are you today?

2:02  Emma:  Hi, Leslie. I’m great. It is wonderful to meet you. I’m a huge fan of yours. 

2:08  Leslie:  Well, that’s so sweet. And I know you’ve been waiting for this session. 

Emma:  Yes, eagerly.

Leslie:  Eagerly. So I’m going to let you start. First, describe your family. And then we’ll go into what it is that you’re here to talk about today. 

2:25  Emma:  Okay. So, we are, right now, a family of six. So, it is my husband and I, and we have four children. And we just love all of them so much. But it is very busy, obviously—their ages are seven, three, and eleven months. So we stay on top of our toes a lot. I have been divorced before. And now I’m remarried to my husband now. So there is an aspect of co-parenting, and our oldest child is the one that I share with my ex-husband. 

2:56  Leslie:  And your oldest child is someone you’d like to talk about today, right? 

3:01  Emma:  Yes, I do.

3:05  Leslie:  So first, let me say, A) you’ve got four children—that’s a full household. Parenting, itself, is challenging. It challenges what we think we should be doing, how we feel about ourselves. I know all that’s hard. So I really just, I want to honor the fact that you’re here to learn, because there is no such thing as someone who knows at all. Let’s see where you are and see if we can help you a little bit more along the journey.

3:34  Emma:  Yes, definitely need more grounding, definitely need some clarifications, and hopefully, we can proceed. And she’ll just flourish from this and I’ll flourish from this.

3:43  Leslie:  Okay, go for it. Let’s hear.

3:46  Emma:  So, one of the things that my daughter struggles with, or that I see, is this tendency of manipulation, where she will sort of manipulate in the sense of…It’s not intentional—I can tell it’s not intentional. However, an example of that would be, she assumes, or she will see a fair is coming this weekend, and she’ll be so excited about it, she’ll hear about it from friends, or teachers or, or something at school. And then all of a sudden, she’ll get this idea that she wants to go really badly. And instead of having that communication or asking us, she’ll just sort of start saying things around the house like, “Oh, I’m so excited. I can’t wait to go to the fair. How many days are left until the fair?” 

And leaves my husband and I looking at each other. Like, “Did we mentioned going to the fair, have we talked about this with her?” Kind of very confusing in that sense. So she does have a lot of that tendency in just assuming that we’re going to be doing these things or kind of directing our behavior in a way that she wants us to do things without having any prior communication beforehand. So that’s one of the things that we struggle with.

4:54  Leslie:  Okay, that’s a big one. You started with a very powerful word of manipulation. Do you know people who have, in your life, that you’ve had an experience of being manipulated with before? 

5:08  Emma:  Yes. I would say, from my previous marriage, that there was some manipulation tactics that came into play, so part of that was very…it was very frustrating. And so when I see the behavior in her, I’m almost instantly kind of triggered myself, in a sense to kind of be on alert for that and notice and be like, “Oh, goodness, this is something that’s coming from possibly another household.” But it’s hard to really identify exactly if it’s just child behavior, or if it’s a learned behavior, and trying to figure out which direction she’s going with that. 

5:46  Leslie:  Okay. So you have your own personal experience. And it’s very important to acknowledge that children do have a mission in life. They are born with the important need, even an infant has the need, to get its needs met. So would you call a baby—an infant—that starts crying for attention, whether it’s to be fed, to be changed,they’re uncomfortable: would you call an infant manipulative?

6:20  Emma:  No, I don’t think I would.

6:23  Leslie:  Okay. So, where along the line do we all of a sudden decide to call a seven-year-old manipulative? Is she just trying to get her needs met? And you use the word, she’s not intentionally—I think that was the word you use—she doesn’t feel like she’s intentionally doing it. So at seven years old, are we going to call her manipulative?


6:46  Emma:  No.


6:49  Leslie:  Are you sure? That was too easy. I convinced you too easily.

6:53  Emma:  It’s just this constant asking for something without actually asking for it. And we’ve had the conversation with her that, “We are trying to communicate with you more. Can you communicate with us if there’s a need that you want? Can you tell us about it…” sort of thing. And she’s agreed, of course, but then we don’t always see the follow-through. So I think that’s where we’re kind of stuck.

7:17  Leslie:  Okay. So, again, do all seven-year-olds know how to verbalize what their needs are? 

Emma:  No. 

Leslie:  Okay. Do you think all adults have figured how to communicate their needs? 

Emma:  No. 

Leslie:  I’m not going to say we’re going to let your daughter get away with everything. I’m just helping us set the stage a little bit. Because, number one, children are designed to get their needs met. Designing to get your needs met does not mean manipulation at a young age. I’m not saying that there isn’t such a thing as manipulation. But, particularly as a DBT dialectical behavior therapist, we use the line: People are doing the best they can with the skills they have at any given moment, at the present moment. 

So she’s doing the best she can if we start from that basic assumption that she’s doing the best she can with the skills she has. And I know like you said, you want to help her develop some more communication skills? 

Emma:  Yes, definitely. 

Leslie:  That gets us into her communication style, as is. I don’t know if you have more examples. The one example you gave me was great, the one where she just happens to be saying in the background, “Oh, I can’t wait to do this ride at the fair,” or, “I can’t wait to…” And she makes these assumptions as if it’s already been discussed.

8:47  Emma:  Yeah. One other thing, I could give you an example of, kind of happened last night, actually, where we gave her something she asked for for dinner. And instead of having a conversation with us, her immediate was crossing the arms shoving the food back. 

And then she proceeded to sit at the dinner table for probably a good 30 minutes, because we were having this standoff on whether or not she was going to actually eat her dinner. And I guess I want to know, what’s the best approach for this? To me it feels like manipulating in the sense of being like, “I’m not eating my dinner until you give me something else, or you start having a conversation with me.” And then the other half of me is like, she’s just a kid. She doesn’t like what she’s eating. She’s just throwing a fit…that kind of thing, understanding that child behavior. So I’m not really sure where to navigate those little instances like that.

9:41  Leslie:  Excellent. So again, it feels from your perspective, it’s manipulation. We are going to talk a lot more about power struggles, because one of the things about this manipulation is, one, we don’t understand that this is a way children are trying to get their needs met. Two, that if it feels like you are being manipulated. I don’t know you well, so please, I want you to speak up and tell me if this fits or doesn’t fit. But what happens is that if you feel manipulated, you might be feeling like a victim or powerless in the relationship with your child. 

Emma:  Yes. 

Leslie:  And so you get upset. You just said, “Yes.” So you get upset, and you feel like, “She’s manipulating me.”

10:24  Emma:  Yes. Oh, yes, that is completely true. 

10:27  Leslie:  Oh, my goodness. Tell me about what that feeling is like.

10:31  Emma:  I feel completely helpless and frustrated because I think the motherly, nurturer part of me wants to meet that need. But I also want to develop her. So, it’s frustrating for me, because I’m having this internal battle of, I want to see her happy, I want to take her to that fair, I want to give her what she wants for dinner; and pick my battles and not have this fight. But then the other half of me is feeling: I want her to learn to talk to me, I want her to learn to eat what she has in front of her and be grateful and not have to kind of concede to what she’s trying to push on me. So it’s frustrating. It’s super frustrating. 

11:16  Leslie:  I totally get it. Those are called parenting dilemmas. How strict do I need to be, how lenient can I be—these dialectic dilemmas that cause us to feel confused. Because they’re both true. These dilemmas are very, very real. But you speak of feeling helpless in the middle of those, which I get. What I want you to do is want you to start to name, “Oh, this is a dialectic dilemma.” And let’s treat it as something that’s—I don’t know if normal is the word I want to use—but we want to treat it as, of course we’re going to have dialectic dilemmas. I’m going to be in dilemmas with parenting. 

If there were no dilemmas, then parenting would be easy. But we have dilemmas about what advice to get, we have dilemmas about what you want to do, we have dilemmas about my previous childhood and my adult life. I mean, we have all kinds of dilemmas inside of us. You said these internal struggles—that’s exactly what it feels like. 

So I want you to just name it, even name it out loud. You can name it to yourself, or name it out loud and put up your two hands and say, Wow, I want to make sure you’re happy with your dinner, and I want you to learn to communicate, “This is not what I want to eat.” You can actually name it for her, so she sees that. 

Emma:  Okay, I love that. 

Leslie:  Because guess what: she’s going to grow up with her own dilemmas. She’s already having her struggles between this and that, right? 

12:53  Emma:  Yes. So it’s telling her out loud, even saying, “I see that you’re unhappy with your dinner.” But could you go over that one more time, how I would say that?

13:05  Leslie:  Absolutely. First of all, remember about the word, we switch it from a but to an and. So I call it the magic of and, and the and holds the two opposite ideas together. That’s two opposing ideas—that’s dialectic thinking—is that we can have two opposing thoughts, feelings, perspectives, and they can both have some truth in them at the same time. 

So, you might say, “I see that you don’t like your dinner. And I’m curious if you are able to express that to me verbally. And let me see if I can help you put words to that.” Or, “And do you want to give it a try and tell me what you’re feeling or how you feel about dinner?”

13:54  Emma:  So what if what if she comes back with, “I didn’t want this for dinner. I wanted XYZ and I’m mad about it.” What should my response be? How do I not concede, but also make her grow? 

14:09  Leslie:  The first thing is that you have more dilemmas here. One dilemma is to get her speaking, accurately communicating. The other is to get her to be more flexible in her eating habits. There’s two different goals here. In the moment, if she says, “This is not what I want to eat, and I really wanted something different and I’m mad,” aren’t you getting what you want, as a parent? She just verbalized, beautifully, what she is doing. So, if she verbalized it and that’s a skill I want her to develop, I would…what would you do?

14:48  Emma:  Change her dinner?


14:51  Leslie:  You could change her dinner, but before you do that…that’s very funny. Before you do that, you can just validate and reinforce the skill you see. So you could say…go for it, I want you to say it.

15:06  Emma:  “I see that you’re upset with your dinner. And I appreciate that you just told me how you’re feeling about it so that we can work towards a goal here.”

15:17  Leslie:  Beautiful. And you can stop there. That could be the lesson for the night. That’s such a beautiful thing for the night. You actually accomplished a major goal, which is to get her to verbalize. Now, we think we want children to communicate. We want them to say what we want to hear, which is, “Mommy, I’m sorry, I’ll eat your dinner.” No, we’re not going to get what we want to hear. We’re going to hear, “This is not what I want. And I’m angry.” When they are actually communicating, we want to reinforce that. Otherwise, we’re going to teach our children to keep quiet.

15:52  Emma:  So, with kind of shifting this to the different scenario from earlier, if she’s talking about something that she wants to do without having had the conversation with me, I’m doing the same thing. I’m naming it, I’m saying, “Hey, I hear you’re talking about the fair. And I think that’s really exciting. And I would love to talk about it with you.”

16:16  Leslie:  Beautiful. And now you have her in the place where you can get her and you might need to model it. So I’m going to add one thing here. Acknowledge that you hear her talking about the fair. And to help her understand that you want her to communicate more clearly, you might say, “And I wonder, can you ask me, ‘Mommy, can we go to the fair?” I know, that seems obvious. It’s not obvious to a child, and it’s not obvious to you. And it’s not obvious to the child whose form of communication is more indirect. And I’m going to explain that to you. 

If there’s a continuum, which there is, in the way people communicate, some people communicate very, very indirectly. And some people communicate more habitually, very directly. So that’s a whole continuum. And one is not good and one is not bad. Because sometimes it’s: What is effective? Does it work?

17:24  Emma:  No, that makes complete sense. 

17:26  Leslie:  So, we want to help her understand that being indirect is not bad, it’s just when does it work, When does it not work? Sometimes it’s really effective. An direct communication can also include the nonverbal. Your daughter pushed her plate away, which, in a way, very clearly said, “I am not…” It was nonverbal, but it was direct nonverbal.

Emma  17:53  

Is this something that has to be practiced, like, continuously? Will she eventually begin to show me that she’s understanding these? Or is it going to be a process which—I’m guessing I know the answer to this, but—I’m just wondering. Because I know we’ve had the conversation with her about communicating to us. But seeing it, maybe, 60/40—not seeing it all the time. So I’m guessing it’s just a kind of having to do it over and over and over again.

18:22  Leslie:  Yes, and we all have strengths, we all have areas that are not as strong. So, our brains work in a certain way. We want to first—and I say this over and over again—we want to first acknowledge and accept who our child is. And we are going to have difficulty sometimes understanding the child that’s very different from us. 

We realize that we’re…our brains are set up and our experiences are set up so that we do have some behaviors that are pretty well established. Whether they’re biological or whether they are environmental, meaning we learned them from modeling, et cetera

We do need to work with those areas that aren’t as strong and it is a life-long process. So, that takes the pressure off you that you are going to accomplish something in the next year.


19:14  Emma:  Okay, okay, good.

[Music: The Beat of Nature by Pixabay]

19:30  Emma:  Moving away from the manipulation, but keeping in mind the needs being met. One thing that we also see with her is, she kind of initiates a lot of the fights with her siblings. She tends to be kind of possessive with her things, which as humans we like our stuff. And if, as an adult, I had to share something I really loved, would I love that idea? Probably not. But this obviously creates a lot of tension with the younger siblings, because they’re constantly having fights about, you know, whose toy is what. 

And actually one thing I could definitely use your advice on is, we have this rule. I’ve kind of played with her with this rule: are we asking before we take toys, or can we just take toys that aren’t being played without having to ask? And she’s picked asking every single time. So even if a toy isn’t being played with, but let’s say it’s Grayson’s toy. And I say “Okay, you have to ask Grayson before you play with his toys…t’s okay that you play with his toy.” And she’ll go and ask, and sometimes it’s a yes or no, depending on what it is. And she only likes that idea when it’s in benefit to her. So when they say no, and she really wants to play with it, then she wants to switch because then she’ll know, “Okay, he’s not playing with it. I want to play with it. So now I want to change the rule to “Well, nobody’s playing with it. I can play with it.” So what’s the best way to go about navigating these like sibling fights? 

21:06  Leslie:  Well, first, I want to understand who she is a little more, because you’re describing the fact that you guys are making rules. So I’m beginning to wonder: Is everyone in the household, or you, your husband? Is Henley very rule oriented? I mean, I’m just sort of curious about how the household runs, things like that.

21:32  Emma:  Oh, we don’t have very specific rules. I think there’s the only rule that I really have in my house is: we’re not allowed to say we’re bored. And we’re not allowed to say it’s unfair, because the sooner you learn, life is unfair, the better. But there’s no real rules around, you know, their play time specifically. I’ll get on them if they’re screaming and yelling while Olivia is napping. 

But other than that, we tried to keep it very open and try to keep communication with her. It’s kind of an as-it-comes-we-approach-it sort of thing. So rules only kind of come in place, if we experience something with her. And then we’re like, “Oh, there needs to be a rule in place for this.” And then we’ll have a conversation with her and say, “Okay, this is what we’re going to do, because we believe this will help. And do you agree? Do you disagree?” So she is kind of part of the decision-making process when it comes to those rules, in the sense of, we have the overall say—we don’t want to lose that authority with her. And we’ll say, “This is why if we feel really strongly on something, don’t you agree that this would be the best way to do it?” And most of the time, she says, “Yes, or can we talk about it a little more. So I understand.” 

22:47  Leslie:  And at the same time, I think it’s important to look at the unspoken rules that we have. Yes, yeah. Oh, there are a lot of unspoken rules that—you already brought one to me—which is saying, “My daughter needs to communicate more directly and more clearly.” And so those are the unspoken rules. Or, “My daughter needs to stick to a rule that she makes.” I know. Parents ask their children to promise, “You promise that if we get a dog, you’re going to feed the dog? “You promise that if we go get an ice cream, that you’ll come home and do your homework?” 

Parents do this promise thing. To me, it is like stepping in quicksand. And it looks like the children are at fault. And I say, oh, no, no, no, no—that’s a parent trap. Do not get your child to promise or stick to a rule. Because as soon as the rule doesn’t work for them, or the promise doesn’t work for them, they give up on it. So that’s just normal childhood behavior. And I don’t see it again as manipulating. I do not see it as a weakness of the child. That’s just the way kids are. You don’t make promises with kids. 

If anything, I would say right now you want to make a rule that everybody asks each other. What’s going to happen…then I say to her, “What’s going to happen when Grayson says no, and you still want to use that toy?” That’s going to be another problem? What’s going to happen then? So part of it is just helping her see that rules are not easy. Maybe we don’t need rules. Maybe we replace the rule idea with the reasonable idea. Let’s make a reasonable decision. Let’s make a wise-minded decision. What is wise-minded in this situation?

24:39  Emma:  So using the phrase, what’s going to happen when, it’s kind of a follow up to getting her to think “Okay, is this the way I really want things to go? Would you say the same thing to do, just in general, like when they’re playing together and they’re trying to share? For example, last night, it was one of those. They were all in a fight because we asked, we’re like, “Okay, let’s everybody go to Henley’s room.” And we’ll play with Henley’s toys, because usually we have the twins’ toys out in our main area. So everybody plays with those toys. But very rarely do they ever get to play with Henley’s toys. So we thought it would be a treat and would kind of change pace. 

And as soon as…we’ve had the conversation with her, “Hey, you know, we’re trying to change the toy situation up. And we’re going to send everybody to your room, and we would love it if you would share. Is that something you’d be interested in doing?” And of course, she was like, “Yes, I want to play, let’s do it.” And then as soon as they got in there, she kept taking toys out of their hands and saying, “No, I don’t want you to play with that one,” or, “No, I don’t want you to have that one.” And then it was a fight. 

And then my husband went in and got upset with her and said, “Why can’t you just share? They always share their toys. What’s going on?” And there were tears and so obviously wasn’t the best approach. So what, in your experience, or what would you recommend would be the best possible outcome for preparing her for those situations? Would it be using that, “What happens when Claire touches a toy that you don’t want her to play with?”

26:20  Leslie:  Right. “What’s going to happen when they get…it sounds like you’re really excited to have them in your room and playing.” So identify where her excitement is, and then say, “And what’s going to happen when they start playing with some toys that you may not be comfortable with?” So you can help her think ahead, which is not easy for children, but you can help her and say, “I’m so glad you want your sister and brother to come in the room and share with you. That’s exciting. You’ll all have fun. Why don’t you go to your room and put away three of your special toys you don’t want anyone to touch,” because that gives her a sense of control. But then she’s going to be open because there’ll be other things when they come in, that they ended up touching, that might have a hard time. Just say, “Go find the three most important things that you want to put away.”

27:10  Emma:  Okay. So, kind of giving her that space to have what she really doesn’t want to share, but then having the rest okay. Is it possible, like, if she switches directions in the middle of play time, and Henley decides all of a sudden, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I decided I don’t want to share my toys.” How would I approach that scenario? How would I say…obviously, I see her getting stressed, I see her starting fights with them. How do I change directions? Or how do I manage that? 

27:44  Leslie:  You know, feeling trapped is a very uncomfortable, terrible feeling. Imagine sitting in traffic and knowing you can’t get out of an exit. You’re just stuck in traffic. It’s anxiety provoking, right? So what I want to do when it’s possible is I want to give her this idea that there are options. “Okay, you’re getting done playing with them. Let’s talk about five different options you have in the moment.” 

Now, you might not do this every time but I do overall want children to feel that they have options when emotions show up. So one is, “You could step outside, take a walk around the house, come back and keep playing. So you can take a little break and come back and keep playing. And I can stay here and watch your brother and sister play with the toys. Two, “You can just move to the other side of the room. Go read your book for a moment while they continue to play. We can put away the four toys that everyone’s playing with and start fresh and pick some new toys. We can ask your brother and sister that play time’s over. We can give them a five minute warning. Five more minutes and Henley is asking to have a little quiet time. So finish up playing everybody. Henley gets some quiet time. playtime is over in Henley’s room.” 

She can say, “Mommy, can I just play with you and let the tw play by themselves?” and you give her some one-on-one attention. Again, another option: ring a bell and ask everyone to stop doing what they’re doing. And even though they’re three years old, you can call it a mindful moment. “Everybody put their head down,” go into a child’s pose or, however they’re sitting, Hug, everybody, take a moment we’re going to count to ten with very mindful counting. So, all different kinds of ways of being in the moment, changing the moment, taking a break from the moment—these are all great skills that are still going to be transferable when she’s an adult. Does that make sense? 

29:49  Emma:  Yes, completely. I love that idea of giving her options. And one of the other things we see, kind of in a correlation with the play time, is mini-parenting. Okay, so I love her very much. But she does become a mini-parent sometimes in her own context of what that looks like. So a lot of the time, she’ll start parenting Grayson and Claire, or she’ll start telling me everything they’re doing. “Oh, did you know that Claire is picking up toys and throwing them at Grayson?” And that kind of starts to come in.

30:24  Leslie:  I’m going to pause you there because I said a little while ago that I wanted to learn more about her—that, right there, is giving me more information. So, I have two questions. One, I did point out that I think there are some unspoken rules that you might want to think about. Two, this idea of possessions—my toys, your toys—is everything somebody’s possession, or are their household things? I mean, just curious about how it works in your family.

30:54  Emma:  So, right now we have a majority of baby-friendly toys out in our living room, which do consist mostly of Grayson and Claire’s toys, just because they’re bigger, they can’t be put in a mouth. That’s just the toy, kind of, they’re into. So they’re out here and they obviously have their own little space to play with them, too. But there are a handful of them in there that kind of don’t belong specifically to anybody. They’ve just kind of existed in the house. And now I’ve created a space in Henley’s closet—she has this big walk-in closet. And I have taken toy bins and filled them with just her toys, because I know that she likes little tiny figurines to play with. And so she has her own toys. 

And so a lot of the times, if she is overwhelmed by playing with Grayson and Claire, she will come to me and say, “Hey, I would like to play alone in my room for five minutes with my toys.” And I say, “Okay, go ahead, that’s great.” And we’ll close the door, and she’ll have her own little space to play with her toys. Now that Grayson and Claire are a little older, they’ve noticed that there are toys in this closet that are kind of the forbidden toys. And they are very curious about them and will sometimes go in and steal one or two. And that’s when she starts getting very upset about that, which I understand.

32:16  Leslie:  You are delineating baby toys, safe toys, older toys, not safe toys. And yet, I think what the children have heard is my toy, your toy. And there sounds like there’s a lot of possessiveness, which I think there’s going to be a little bit of an unintended consequence, where you might have a little bit of a struggle where the kids are now going to play that card. And it’s not manipulation, but it’s what they learned. “This is my toy, not your toy.” There may be a little bit of a challenge here, segueing from toys that are safe for the little ones and toys that are not safe for the little ones—that’s going to be a little tricky. 

I just want to say that I’m hearing this idea of my toys, your toys; I do believe that children should have a sense of ownership and they can have some things. But if it becomes extreme, it’s going to be a problem. So you might want to start thinking about family toys, because to try to teach a child to share relates to how strong their identification is with possessiveness. So I think you’re trying to teach her to share, but what you’ve reinforced is possessiveness as a quality in the family, “Go play with your toys, don’t play with their toys.” 

Here’s the thing, I want you to say to her, “Hey, I used to call everything your toy, their toy, her toy, his toy, your toy. And I want to say that toys are more family toys. That when you do get something special, that there are going to be times when it’s your toy. Especially, like, you make a Lego arrangement. That’s your arrangement. You want to protect the arrangement that you’ve made.” But I think I would say, “Hey, we’re going to change the rules a little bit about possessions.” And I think it needs to be very slow, very gentle, and just begin to plant some new seeds around possessions. Because it’s looking like it’s going to be these wars about possessions. That’s what happens when we possess things we have. We have to have battles over whose is what. 

34:45  Emma:  Yes, yes. I love that idea of changing that because I think that will alleviate a lot of arguments; because that’s what comes into play. They’ll start saying, “That’s mine,” or, “That’s my toy.” And it’s like, “You’re not even playing with it. Can we just play?”

35:04  Leslie:  So, I would want to sit down and think a lot more about that. Right off the top of my head, yes, it feels like I would move slowly into bringing some new concepts into the household. And think about how to do that. Tell them you’re changing the language that you’re going to use around this. Say, “Yeah, we used to use this language and we’re going to change it.” You can relate it to going out in the woods and saying, the acorn is not mine, is not yours, it’s not the squirrels. 

Now, the squirrel may put it into its den, and then the squirrel will eat that acorn, but it belongs to nature. So a little bit more generosity, when it comes to possessiveness of, “This is inside of our home, and this is part of the home. And where is it going to live in the home right now? It could live in your room, it can live in my room, it can move rooms.” And just start to play with some of these ideas. They’re big ideas.

36:12  Emma:  That’s definitely going to take some time to change their thinking on that. So I do think that’s going to be a buckle-up-and-kind-of-wait-it-out process. But do you think with the change in tonality towards the toys, she’ll become less of a little parent? Or do you believe that stems from something else? 

36:31  Leslie:  So, again, as I said, that’s a great topic. I know, we’re going to have another session. So I hope that what I’m going to do…I’m going to leave a cliffhanger. Can you hold off on that, think of examples in the next few weeks when these mini-parenting shows up? We’re going to start our next session with that. I think that makes more sense, rather than me trying to squeeze it in. You’ve brought up some very good examples of who she is: she is someone who has strong feelings, but communicates more indirectly. So I want you to focus on that in the next few weeks—try playing with that. 

And also this idea that there’s a lot of possessiveness, which may have been an unspoken rule that you set up for them, unintentionally—I know that we don’t want to create problems for ourself, but we don’t realize that things sometimes become problems later. And just start to listen to the way that she’s talking about things and, and let her know that she’s communicating and that you’re hearing her. A little bit more of that, that’s where I would focus right now. 

And then the mini-parenting, I can’t wait to talk about that. Because that can be, again, someone who is very rule-oriented. “Mommy, Grayson’s not following the rules. Mommy do this, do this.” She can also maybe think about it as, “Mommy you’re not doing your job.” You said you can sometimes feel like she’s got a little bit of power over you. And thinking about this power struggle, I don’t want there to be…I want you to let go of the idea that you are in a power struggle with your daughter. Your daughter is growing up, you are parenting. If we engage in it, because they’re pushing our buttons, then we are lowering ourselves to be in a power struggle with our child. But just see your daughter as your daughter, not someone trying to manipulate or bait you or push your buttons. Find other ways of looking at her and let’s see what happens before our next session.

38:41  Emma:  I love that, Leslie. Thank you so much.

[Music: Dreams in Nature by Olexy]

38:53  Leslie Cohen-Rubury:  Our own history is the lens through which we see the world. So if we’ve been manipulated in the past, it makes sense that we would apply the same lens with a child. And Emma realized, in this episode, that’s exactly what she’s doing. And although it’s hard to admit it, doing so allowed Emma to see Henley’s behavior for what it is: communication. 

We can’t help our children if we don’t see them clearly. I really appreciate and respect how Emma absorbed this concept in the session. And I love her enthusiasm for doing the hard work. Often, parents think there’s a right way and a wrong way to communicate, and that what Henley was doing was wrong, when all she was doing was something different. There are many forms of communication, each with its own effectiveness, from nonverbal to indirect to direct. There’s no good or bad here. It’s whatever works for the situation. 

I usually give my clients homework between sessions and Emma has her homework. I would like to give you, the listener, some homework, as well. Think about these questions. What level of communication are you using? Do you vary the intensity according to the situation? Is it effective? I’ve also got a handout linked in the show notes to help you work on your communication, along with other parenting resources. 

[Music: The Wilds Beyond by L-Ray Music]

Join us next week for Emma’s second session, where we talk about feeling trapped and feeling helpless when you don’t know what to do in a situation. And this is true for both parents and children. Subscribe to Is My Child A Monster? wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss an episode. And if you like what you hear, rate it and review it on Apple podcasts. You can find a full transcript of this episode or sign up for my newsletter at The Is My Child A Monster? team is Alletta Cooper, AJ Moultrié, Camila Salazar, and me. Special thanks to Eric Rubury and Mia Warren. Our theme music is by L-Ray Music.  I’m Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Thanks so much for listening. And this week, remember: fostering effective communication means learning to speak your child’s language.

Transcribed by edited by Eric Rubury

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