More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Teens Skilled at Manipulating Divorced Parents
June 23, 2004

WEDNESDAY, June 23 (HealthDayNews) -- Many teens learn how to manipulate their divorced or separated parents to their own advantage, according to a Ball State University study.

"There is a perception that after a divorce or separation parents are active and children passive in their relationships. We found the opposite to be true. Adolescents are not passive," study author and sociology professor Chad Menning said in a prepared statement.

"Adolescents after divorce or separation do no simply absorb parental resources as sponges absorb water. Rather, they gather and interpret information about their parents, dodge questions, engineer images of themselves, parry parents' probes, maneuver between households, and cut ties with parents in efforts to exert their own authority and to secure their individual identities," Menning said.

The researchers interviewed 50 teens whose parents were separated or divorced. They discovered strategies that include:
o Withholding information from one parent to avoid punishment or to solidify a relationship with another parent. Children can gain an upper hand by controlling information flow because, following a separation or divorce, there is often reduced communication between parents.
o Moving from one home to another. Children often move into the home of the parent who is less controlling. They do this to punish the other parent or to escape a situation they don't like.
o Cutting one parent completely out of the teen's life. This allows the child to control when and where they have contact with that parent.

"None of these options would be open to a child in a single household with two parents," Menning said. "Parents talk and form a team to raise a child. Separate the two parents and the child can use the situation to play one off the other."

More information
The Nemours Foundation has more about teens and divorce.
And How!!

Thank goodness for this article - I thought I was the original stepmother-from-hell because I was sure that my eldest stepdaughter was manipulating her father but he claimed that I was crazy!

She is fifteen years old as is my daughter. My daughter lives with us full-time and his daughter lives with us every second weekend. As we have seven children (all of whom seem to have active social lives, extra-curricular activities etc etc) we made a rule that we need to have at least one week's notice of any event that the two teenagers want to go to. (Obviously some things are spontaneous and we try to be flexible) but the rule is where possible, we request one week's notice.

My stepdaughter consistently flouts this rule - she claims to forget, she claims she got confused and asked her mother for permission even though it was our weekend to have her, she argues that she did tell us and we forgot etc. My husband always permits her to go to the party without having given us notice. My daughter who so far has obeyed the rule is beginning to get very resentful. Her anger is not directed at her step-sister whom she loves but at her step-father as she sees that he is not being fair or consistent.

When we last tried to discuss this, he became very defensive and claimed that a) his daughter was telling the truth that she *did* forget each time and it wouldn't happen again. When I pointed out that for the last 23 weekends she has been with us she has *forgotten* each time, he then became very defensive and said b) She is my daughter, not yours. Why can't you just disengage from this and let me deal with her myself?

I do not believe that either of these options (believing her when she lies nor disengaging from her) is the right thing to do for her sake. Also I am aware that my daughter really needs to be able to trust her step-father - she has NO contact with her birth father - and finally the other five children are all observing the way that the eldest child can manipulate him and I believe this will have a negative effect on the family as a whole.

Am I wrong?


Hi Kiwi,
First of all let me say I have to admire you and your husband for the job you are doing with all the kids--wow. It must be an exceptionally difficult task, so keep up the great work. One thing that came to my mind was that your step-daughter has to go between both residences and that must be an added stress on her (and her sisters).

I think you are all doing a great job, including all the kids there. Hopefully each of you can be supportive of eachother in improving these difficulties as they come up. Try to find solutions from a basis of care and concern for the individual involved (the one in need of help) rather than a solution generated out of the negative impact that their behavior is having (easy for me to say...) Anyway, it sounds like you've got a darn nice family there. I hope you'll see progress in the coming weeks.

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
I used to have a (somewhat flexible) 24-hour rule with my teens. I understand the need for parents to have some fore-warning and to try to teach teens to think ahead, but honestly at age 15 that's difficult for many or most teens -- part of this is a matter of underdeveloped frontal lobes.

Your step-daughter is at an additional disadvantage since she isn't there all the time and may genuinely fail to remember which house she'll be in when the event comes along. She's also almost certainly dealing with the disadvantage of trying to comply with two sets of house rules.

I'm not suggesting you give up and give her carte blanche but it may go a long way to reducing friction and conflict if you make the rule a little more teen-friendly.
Thank You!

I thought that one week's notice was pretty reasonable but I would really appreciate hearing your suggestions as to how to make it more teen-friendly. Also I should have mentioned that she is also at our house every Wednesday night.

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Well, as I said, a "rule" that worked fairly well for me was 24 hours -- that of course wasn't a guarantee that I'd be able to drive or pick up or whatever and I wasn't rigid about it but they knew that with less than 24 hours notice there was a very good chance I'd decline. And of course that wouldn't work for special events that required more preparation but for run of the mill sleepovers or parties, etc., it seemed to be something they could handle and I could accept.

If you think about it, do you always know a week in advance what you are going to be doing on a weekend or Friday night? I don't. I guess my basic premise I shouldn't ask more of them than I'd ask of me.

I think another approach that works well with most teens is to engage them in negotiation. Bear in mind that the goal with a teenager is to help them learn to organize, anticipate, and make good decisions for themselve -- i.e., you're trying to train them to eventually be adults. This is a good time to give them some input into rules that directly impact them -- but it is important that you actually listen to their viewpoints. That doesn't mean, of course, that they will get everything they want but it does mean that you have to be willing to compromise. In my experience, both as a parent and as a psychologist working with teens and parents, this is usually the best way to get a teen to cooperate and to function as a responsible family member.

There are some good books on parenting teens at Adolescents and Parenting -- see also Transitioning With Teens: Letting Go and Staying Connected.
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