Manipulations between parents and children

All theories of manipulation devote much attention to the conditions necessary for it to occur. It is generally recognized that the victim must be properly prepared for what is expected. To achieve his goals, that is, to persuade the victim to the desired behaviour, the manipulator tries to develop a favourable attitude in it, his methods refer to the concept of conditioning. This expression itself is quite a fresh date. It appeared in the mid-nineteenth century and meant “conditions preceding the occurrence of a phenomenon”. The scope of this term was expanded in psychology when Pavlov formulated the theory of a conditioned reflex: such reflexes are associated with specific situations. From now on, in a broader understanding, conditioning involves developing mental reflexes that are necessary for this or that behaviour to occur. The purpose of conditioning is to automate activities. This concept often comes close to the concept of manipulation, for example in the upbringing process. The confrontation of this kind of preparatory action with intellectual predispositions that enable manipulation causes that in social psychology a soft interpretation of the latter concept is paving its way. At this point, it becomes necessary to present different possible levels of pressure on other people.

How often do we observe the gap between parents and children … Conflicts with the youngest children often involve bathing, brushing teeth or even using certain objects as toys. Later, television, video or computer cause the real crisis. Children’s classes and their clothing preferences become a nightmare for some parents. Let us skip the crisis years of growing up, which are widely recognized as a time conducive to tensions. In the family circle, children learn the art of discussion and negotiation but also pretend. Let’s see that our children are future manipulators and future victims of manipulation.

In typical conflict situations between parents and children, compromises are not always achieved. Children are still subjected to the physical constraint (slate) and creating certain facts (by urging the child or helping him out), but many parents prefer a roundabout way of getting what they expect from children.

Most families use classic manipulative instruments such as facilitation payments, competition incentives and blackmail. In addition, folk psychology is practised to get someone to do something that this person would not have accepted without some, even minimal, preparation. One way to exercise influence is by referring to feelings. You must show obedience “out of love” or “to please me.” Such ways of using other people’s feelings could be considered as more or less explicit seduction.

Education theorists have long argued that children need to be persuaded to obey, ensuring that they are not aware of the goals parents are pursuing. This “black pedagogy” was used so often in nineteenth-century German families that it was even recognized as a cause of Germany’s submission to Nazism. Authorizing parents, already at the birth of the child, set life goals for him and sought every possible way to break his resistance and stand on his own. They were not shunned from severe corporal punishment, blackmail, deprivation of sleep and food, isolation of the guilty, and were encouraged to compete and report. This massively practised way of educating through manipulation gave birth to a generation of submissive and gullible citizens! So the thesis was confirmed that upbringing is a conditioning process which is carried out to the detriment of the individual.

Upbringing in our times less often serves the interests of the community (family or state) at the expense of the child’s personality. It is assumed that the goal of upbringing should be the good of the child, achieved without using roundabouts. The model of transparency has penetrated the school and family world. The use of physical coercion has been clearly disappearing since the 1960s. Western democracies do not accept corporal punishment. The law also provides for penalties for subordinating others to threats – this particularly applies to youth environments. However, children are still threatened by a hidden form of violence, which is psychological torment.

Although there are still appalling cases of child abuse, the exercise of parental responsibility is increasingly subject to social control.

Such a picture of upbringing opposed to manipulation should not obscure the fact that, in parallel, children from an early age get used to the use of deception, and thus to manipulation. They win for themselves and deeper feelings and momentary emotions of parents. They also sometimes use a trick to satisfy various cravings. They are then exposed to criticism of their behaviour. Such abuse is stigmatized by the word “whim.” The child demanded too much, and his emotional “play” turned out to be inadequate to the given situation. Playing feelings does not mean, however, no feelings. Similar scenes that make up intra-family communication are confirmation of the emotional bond between parents and children.

Parents, who are manipulators, also feel “lead by the nose.” The child plays on their feelings, using crying and/or screaming to get something, and also uses parental fatigue. Teens act more subtly: they can choose the right moment to get their own way and even prepare parents in advance, coaxing to them. In any case, feelings are a tool that allows parents to be manipulated. The same weapon is useful when a child wants to get their permission to leave the house, for example. The guarantee for parents is the mention of someone they know or a person belonging to the family (e.g. a cousin). When choosing a discreet or indulgent person, an adolescent child “protects himself”.

In psychoanalysis and pediatric psychiatry, the use of manipulation was abandoned. A psychotherapist and a child psychiatrist do not care for a quick but superficial change. Rather, they mean the possibility of seeking “mutual influence” that we will quote Francoise Dolto’s statement. Ad hoc manipulation will not be useful to someone who wants to understand the functioning of the psyche or reflection: a personality structure. According to therapists, the relationships of parents and children evolve depending on their mutual interactions, so reducing these relationships to several life events would be senseless. Instead, you need to recreate the family history, and also watch how relationships develop between partners and finally determine how individuals can interact.

Psychoanalysts are even more assertive in denying the importance of manipulation. The main reason for this is one of the general principles in this area: the principle of responsibility. It consists in acknowledging that man carries all his actions, even those he is unaware of. The life of an individual is considered the consequence of his personality and psyche. If someone is manipulated, it happens because they want it. He is therefore jointly responsible for the act that followed, even when he suffered damage. Such a person did not want, quite consciously, that what had happened, but unconsciously took part in it. Consciousness and unconsciousness are elements of personality. By penetrating yourself, you can get to know this unconscious dimension. A person subjected to psychoanalysis must agree to take responsibility for all his actions and renounce blaming it on someone else. Despite this, psychoanalysts do not ignore their existence in interpersonal relations and do not refuse to study its psychological effects. The concept of manipulation, however, does not fit – as too sociological – in their thinking about individual ego.

In two cases, however, psychoanalysts refer to the concept of manipulation. This is the case in the analysis of a man who, through his statements and behaviour, implies that he rules the whole environment and tries to make it serve him. Although in practice psychologists are not always able to decipher the method used to mislead, based on clinical experience, they realize that they are dealing with a manipulator.

In the face of certain cases – this applies to the persecution mania that occurs in paranoids – psychiatrists are also willing to acknowledge the effects of manipulation. This is the point of view of a manipulated person, not a manipulator, with the person observing himself as a victim of a conspiracy or some secret plot.

Given these extreme cases, psychoanalysts prefer to deal with children’s emotions and show how they use their intelligence to decipher parental behaviours while learning the principles of communication. From this point of view, a lie is not considered as a manoeuvre to obtain some small advantage but is a significant element that must be seen in the context of the development of the subject’s relationship with the world. Let us say that psychoanalysis underestimates manipulation because it is not for psychoanalysts to look for the guilty or to question the correctness of social processes.

Meanwhile, social psychologists are dealing with society to understand certain dimensions of different behaviours. The concept of manipulation is used here to refer to ordinary activities. In one of the main works referred to by this discipline, Petit traite de la maniplation a l’usage des honnetes gens (Short dissertation on manipulation for the use of honest people), we find two examples of manipulation occurring in the relationship between parents and children. The first example is about a father who is trying to get his son to do more than his father had expected from him before – this is a typical case of using bait. The second example, showing a more common situation, is about tactics used by children when they want to get ice cream. These two examples lead social psychologists to the following statement: everyone – both parents and children – can manipulate others.

In everyday life, it happens that despite intergenerational ties and emotional relationships, one attempts to take a roundabout path – no longer by means of arguments or temptation – to obtain submission to their loved ones. Beauvois and Joule, authors of the dissertation mentioned above, believe that their thoughts could serve as a starting point for creating a new pedagogy. “Manipulation” thus becomes a technical term that defines a whole series of treatments that make it easier to influence one’s decisions. Exerting influence may resemble sticking a leg between the doors – a trick the salesmen resort to – but it can also involve subtler methods.

From these various possibilities, French psychologists derived their theory of the functioning of the psyche – the theory of entanglement. According to her, the deeds of the individual become at the same time the reason for his entanglement, the more significant his participation in a given situation, the more difficult it is to get out of the entanglement. It would follow that our thoughts and feelings are not as complicated as deeds. But everybody sooner or later sets a trap for themselves, so manipulations often turn out to be self-manipulations. Of course, a third party can arrange a situation that will favour our involvement and cause us to lose our free will.

Fabrice d’Almeida “Manipulations in politics, in advertising, in love”