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Does it say SUCKER on my forehead? Fetal Alcohol & Manipulation.

By Jeff Noble

This is one of the issues I hear the most about from caregivers both on my Fanpage and in person.

My client/kid/student with Fetal Alcohol is a master manipulator. They are sneaky. They are always trying to get what they want.

Do you say that or does someone who works with your loved one say it? If so, I’m going to tell you why people with Fetal Alcohol aren’t Manipulating at all.

First, let’s take a look at what the definition of manipulator is in this context.
Definition: To influence or manage shrewdly or deviously. I had a chance to chat with Diane Malbin about this and her definition of manipulation is: Getting what one wants without considering the other person and/or through devious means”.

Now, if that’s what a manipulator is and does let’s take a look at the cognitive steps (what the brain has to do) in order to be a true manipulator. The brain has to analyze, integrate, plan, form concepts, figure out alternative outcomes including how to handle multiple objections from others. It takes an extremely high amount of executive functioning to be a “Master” manipulator, and from what we know about people with Fetal Alcohol is their executive functioning is extremely impaired. If you need a memory jog on executive functioning check a previous blog post, The Difference Between IQ and Executive Functioning.

If someone with Fetal Alcohol was a good manipulator they would get away with it. Your loved one would be living on an island somewhere enjoying their fruits of manipulation. So, if it’s not manipulation then, what is it? And why do we get so upset when it appears they are doing this? I’m glad you asked.

The reason why your loved one can appear to be manipulating is because of needs they have that are unmet… and when the opportunity to meet one of these needs is presented to them they have a very strong reaction to it. While speaking with Diane Malbin about this topic she said something profound, ‘the degree to which you see that perseverance is usually in direct proportion to the degree which they feel incompetent’. Let me explain.

Just like you and me, people with Fetal Alcohol have needs, but because of their deficits, they are unable to meet some of those needs on their own. For example, my foster guy had a need to build relationships. He wanted friends and social opportunities just like everyone else. Well, one place to start would be to look at school for friends. Unfortunately, he couldn’t make any friends at school because of his academic impairments. He was never able to build any relationships at all. What happened most often was that he was alienated by his peers. So, when a perceived opportunity is presented to him to interact with his peer group, he is going to jump at the chance.

Here is another example:
One time my foster guy plows in the front door, eyes wide with excitement asking me to go for a ride with some people he just met not an hour ago at the store. He tells me he knows who they are and that they have been buddies for a long time and the other teens’ parents said it was OK to drive in their car as long as they put gas in it. So, not only did he want to go, but he also wanted 40 dollars. He said that would cover his share of the gas…Well, I know instantly that this is false. I have no doubt that he met some guys at the store, but I am sure when he said gas what he really meant was weed. My natural reaction would be to get upset because I am insulted that he would try and pull the wool over my eyes and mock my intelligence. I mean, does it say SUCKER on my forehead?

What happens is that we get stuck on interpreting the superficial behavior and not the brain. We are unaware of what is really going on of because the behavior clashes with our VALUES and we get distracted. You see, values are beliefs and philosophies that we hold about life. While we were growing up we accepted a lot of the values of those around us until we got older and were able to define our personal values on our own. I remember my parents would often say to me “does it say sucker on my forehead” when I would make an attempt at manipulating them into something that was probably unsafe or silly. I was also taught that if someone was trying to manipulate me it was to mock my intelligence and as if the person is trying to take advantage of me and that it was wrong and bad! Whether the behavior is primary or secondary, we have extreme reactions because our values are so deep rooted that when someone clashes with them, we instantly get upset and want to blow our lid…but it’s in that moment we can’t think or ask the questions we need to in order to prevent the inevitable meltdown or come up with a better solution. In fact, when we get upset because of this massive clash, we dig in our heels and let the power struggle begin and we all know how that ends up.

So, the challenge becomes not only having the ability to take a breath in that moment when “The Clash” happens, but to also figure out another way to meet their needs in a safer and more rewarding way. So, what to do next time this happens?

Whenever I found myself in that situation I would go through this process.

Delay and Redirect. Sometimes if I could delay before giving an answer just long enough, I could think of an intervention strategy to try or hopefully slow down the impulse control. Also, knowing when to pick your battle and acknowledging that it could be so important to him and that he will be stuck on it and there will be no delaying or redirecting. We have to ask ourselves, ‘what are the real risks involved?’

If it’s something they want to do and you know the situation is not going to turn out well,
I would bribe with something better if the situation called for it, ie. wanting to go drive around
with friends he met only hours earlier… I knew my guy wanted a video game really badly and was going to get it for him anyway. So, as he waited for my answer I pretended to get a call from our local video game store and got really excited like I had just got word that my pre-order was in, but I had to hurry before the store closed. By the time we grabbed the game and a bag of chips (had to be ketchup) and headed to a friends house to play, my guy had forgotten all about those other kids. I was lucky to be able to come up with a solution that fast and that worked and I was able to do that by taking a breath and figuring out a solution… not by getting upset and analyzing his behavior.

Moving forward my goal was to figure out what needs he had that weren’t being met and figure out a way to meet them in an environment that was conducive to his growth and education. The more I did that, the less time I spent getting upset.

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