Parents frequently describe emotionally sensitive children as manipulative. It this true?

EnglishSupersensers / By Francheska Perepletchikova

Supersensers experience emotions on a different level, and much stronger than children who are less emotionally sensitive. Little things irritate them, and emotions may be so overwhelming that verbal or physical aggression occurs. Indeed, parents frequently describe them as trying to push everyone’s buttons, or in other words, as manipulative. However, the child’s volatile behavior is not an attempt to manipulate. Manipulation entails 1) formulation of a specific goal; 2) knowledge of means to attain it; and 3) an ability to skillfully apply these means to achieve a desired outcome. Manipulation is a planned action, executed in full awareness. None of that is usually present during an outburst of an emotionally sensitive child, where reactions occur seconds after a trigger. A child clearly is not thinking that “if I throw a temper tantrum, my emotional arousal is likely to decrease, while the probability of my parents giving me what I want is going to increase.”

What is present is a combination of: 1) a mood-consistent response that functions to reduce an intensity of an emotional arousal (we all know that screaming when we are angry initially helps release pressure); and 2) reinforcement of this response from the environment via negative attention (e.g., screaming at the child, criticizing, punishing) or positive attention (e.g., attempts to pacify during an outbursts, accommodation, giving in to stop an outburst, or just simply talking or looking at a child). All together we get a learned behavior that is triggered in response to a stress, usually functions as a coping mechanism (albeit maladaptive) and is maintained by reinforcement from the environment.


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