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What to Do About Another Mom’s Social Manipulating?

Dear Your Teen:

I’m having trouble with another parent. She spends a lot of time engineering social situations. In the mix, she uses the other kids in the friend group as pawns. I can’t imagine having the time, energy, or desire to do this. But this mom has made an art form out of it. My teenager has both benefitted and suffered from her social manipulation. Either way, it’s frustrating.

EXPERT | Jill Emanuele, Ph.D.

Parents and teens can have a hard time navigating social situations and friend groups. The types of challenges can differ, depending on your child’s age and developmental level. Without knowing the specifics of the situation you are dealing with, I can offer some general advice that can help you to address your concerns.

1. View the situation from her perspective.

I can definitely imagine your frustration over this situation. Clearly, you have concerns about the way this parent’s social engineering affects the children in your child’s friend circle. While the parent’s motivations may seem nefarious, one first step that can help is to view the situation from this parent’s perspective—in other words, see the situation through her eyes (I don’t know if this is a mother or father, but will use female pronouns).

My guess would be that from her point of view, she is not strategizing or using kids as pawns. Perhaps she is fearful that her child will be left out. Perhaps she feels anxious and then is behaving in a “controlling” way. There are many possibilities. By having a sense of this mother’s perspective, it will help to lessen the intensity of your own feelings about the situation and allow you to deal directly with her if that is what is called for.

2. Talk to her about a specific concern.

The next step is to decide how to approach the parent. Again there are many possibilities that depend on the specific situation. Are you addressing her on your own or with other parents? If you are looking for long-term change in this situation, I would not advise you to address her overall behavior toward the group that you described. She is likely to become defensive and it is unlikely her behavior would change.

Instead, I would recommend that you identify a situation that directly impacted your child and a specific behavior that the mother did that you are concerned about. You can then bring that specific concern to her for discussion with the goal of finding a resolution. During this conversation you should talk to her about how her behavior impacted your child and yourself, including emotionally.

In this way, you are setting a limit and providing direct feedback to her, as well as engaging her in a discussion that can lead toward a solution. Through this approach, she will be more likely to hear your concern. There will also be increased potential for a long-term change in this parent’s behavior. In addition, by doing this, you increase the likelihood of an ongoing, open dialogue that you can have with this parent when other concerns arise.

Jill Emanuele

Dr. Jill Emanuele is a senior clinical psychologist in the Anxiety & Mood Disorders Center and director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Program at the Child Mind Institute.