Emotional Blackmail: Is Your Child’s Behavior Holding You Hostage?

by James Lehman, MSW
Emotional Blackmail: Is Your Child’s Behavior Holding You Hostage?

When your child acts out in public to get their way, you CAN get control back. Here, James Lehman, MSW lays out some step-by-step techniques for you to use next time you hit the mall or grocery store.

I’ve worked with many parents over the years who routinely gave in when their children acted out. One mother I met, I’ll call her Linda*, had a twelve-year-old son who often used emotional blackmail and threats of misbehavior to get his way. Linda dreaded taking him to the mall, because she knew she’d end up buying him anything he asked for in an effort to keep him from calling her names, stomping and yelling at her, and making a scene that left her feeling humiliated and powerless. In effect, her son’s behavior was holding her hostage.

Remember this: When you don’t give in to your child, they have to figure out another way to solve their problem.

So what happens if we always respond to this type of behavior by backing down? Your child learns that if he misbehaves or threatens to misbehave, that will solve his problem, because somebody’s going to give in. Make no mistake, the message you’re sending your child is that misbehavior works. When your child acts out in public, if they’re not responded to in an effective way, they develop a pattern of behavior where they learn how to blackmail you to give them their way. And their mindset is, “Give me my way or face my acting out.” That may involve yelling, screaming and tantrums if they’re younger. It may be angry faces and a disgusted tone, disrespectful remarks and even cursing when they get older. Either way, the whole game they’re playing involves using behavior to try to control outside circumstances, instead of learning how to solve the problems they face.

When kids learn this lesson, there are two outcomes. Your child discovers there’s absolutely no reason to change, no reason to mature. And every time you reward them for misbehavior, you’re making that portion of your child’s personality stronger. That’s right: you’re actually strengthening the part of them that wants to misbehave and that doesn’t want to follow social rules or be civilized. In fact, you can look at parenting in that way: our role is to teach our children the rules of how to be civilized and live in our society. And in our culture, we go to the mall, we go shopping, we treat people with respect, and we behave in an acceptable manner. When you give in to inappropriate behavior, your child grows up without the coping skills to deal with the difficult situations that life presents.

The other thing that you need to understand is that when your child uses acting out as a problem-solving skill, they are not learning how to develop other more appropriate problem solving skills. Kids will throw a tantrum when they’re frustrated or upset—that happens. But whether they’re throwing a fit because they’re frustrated, upset or overwhelmed, the same rules still apply. If you give in, you’re simply teaching your child to continue acting out in public.

A Word about Younger Kids
When children between the age of two and three throw a tantrum, there should be no consequences other than to have them sit some place until they calm down. When most younger children get tired and overwhelmed, they have a hard time controlling their emotions. It’s part of a parent’s responsibility to know their kid, know how much stimulation they can take, and when they’re tired or hungry and need to leave.

When I’m at the mall or downtown where I live, in the late afternoon I’ll see little kids around the age of three, four, or five years old crying or really shutting down. I think most parents recognize that their kids are overly tired. But the adult mind manages stimulation very differently than a child’s mind. We know how to compartmentalize everything and weigh things out. For kids, stimulation comes at them like a wave. And being in a mall is like being at the circus for a child. I think that parents have to be aware of that and be tolerant of some frustration their kids will express. Parents also need to learn how to either avoid those situations or find ways to manage them.

When your young child throws a tantrum, whether it’s because he’s tired or because he’s angry at not getting his way, the management skills are the same: You wait it out. You give a little reassurance. You don’t give in.

5 Techniques to Help You Manage Your Child’s Acting Out Behavior

  • Remember, you’re the expert on your child. You know what makes your child tired. You know the extra help he needs. And you know the situations that are frustrating for him. Prepare your child before you go into any new or stimulating situation. Say, “If you start getting frustrated, let me know. We’ll take a rest. All right? If you get frustrated, if you can’t handle it, let me know, we’ll go home. And if you throw a tantrum, this is what I’m going to do.” I think by being realistic about your child’s temperament and discussing plans with them ahead of time, you can really enhance your ability to manage situations in public.
  • Train your child by taking small steps first. I think if parents have a child who acts out in public, you want to try what’s called a “slow immersion.” So in other words, if this kid can’t handle going to the mall, take him to the drug store first. Say, “Let’s see how you handle this. We’re going in for five or ten minutes.” Lay the rules down. That way you’re not at the mall, you’re in a more manageable location and you’re close by your child. Start to train them by taking small steps, by coaching them in little pieces: little pieces of learning how to socialize and solve problems and act like everybody else.
  • Write the Rules Down and Keep Them Handy. Before you even go into public, I think you need to decide what your limits are for your child in terms of behavior. Let them know exactly what’s going to happen. For pre-teen kids and under, keep a 4x6 index card in your car with 3 rules on it:
    • 1. Respond to first request.
    • 2. Accept “no” for an answer.
    • 3. Don’t raise your voice or misbehave physically.

Read that card in the car before you go inside the mall or store. That one small act is going to help your child keep it together; reading the rules to them is like lending them structure. You can’t assume that kids are going to recall information that will help them change. Here’s another way of looking at it: Let’s say you’re speeding and you get a ticket. The assumption is that the next time you’re in a hurry, you’re going to remember how it felt to pay that ticket and you won’t speed. Even though that may be true, each state still has the speed limit posted every five miles. So give your child consistent reminders that will keep them focused.

  • When the rules are broken. If your child breaks the rules when you’re out, I would take them out of the department store. If they throw a tantrum, I would stay with them in that tantrum and when they are done, I would take them out of the mall. At this point, the show is over; there’s no way there’s going to be any more shopping. With younger kids, you can just hold their hand and take them to the car. But if they resist you, don’t get physical. Let them throw their tantrum. Have a seat, watch the show. And if people ask questions say, “He’s throwing a tantrum and there’s nothing I can do.” I think parents have to do that every time until the acting out in public stops. If possible, bring a magazine or a book so that the child can see that he's not getting your attention through that inappropriate behavior.

Let me assure you that I know how embarrassing this can be for parents. But you have to understand, your child also knows how uncomfortable their behavior makes you; that’s how your child is blackmailing you. So, in their mind it’s, “Let me have my way or I’m going to blackmail you in front of all these adults. I’m going to embarrass you and make you uncomfortable.” It’s just that simple. And you need to stop letting them hold you hostage with their behavior.

Remember this: When you don’t give in to your child, they have to figure out another way to solve their problem.

  • Leave them at home. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with leaving your child at home with proper supervision and telling them, “You can’t come today because you can’t handle it. You made a scene last time we went shopping and so today you’re staying home.” And if your child promises and begs and swears, say, “No, let's see how you behave staying at home. If you handle that OK, then we'll see.” And make them sit at home. Make them understand that you’re not going to be blackmailed and that you’re strong—and that when you make decisions, you’re going to stick with them.

Here’s the simple truth: when children resort to inappropriate behavior to get their way, they don’t learn how to solve problems. And when they don’t learn this skill, they go into adulthood with a real handicap. You see many adults who only know how to get angry and yell at each other whenever there’s emotional stress. Part of that is because they have very poor communication skills and very poor problem-solving skills. When confronted with a problem, they only know how to avoid it, which means they let it build up on the inside until they explode.

So make up your mind that you’re not going to let your child hold you hostage with their misbehavior. Don’t give in to emotional blackmail when your child threatens to act out. I tell parents to think of it this way: your child has got to get to bed tonight without a crisis. That’s their goal. And our goal as a parent is the same thing: to get to bed tonight without a crisis and to teach our children the skills they need. If you can do that, then you’re all set.

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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


OK then. I totally agree with this article. The problem is that I as an adult have very poor communication skills and very poor problem-solving skills and I try to avoid conflict at all costs. When I do have a conflict, I yell. We have twin duaghters that we adopted when they were 2 weeks old. They are now 15 years old. I have never felt like I was able to deal with caring for twins. I have always felt like a failure. I thought it was just because I went from having no children to having two at once. They have always been "a handful" but having no other children to compare them to assumed that they were just active kids. After some issues with not being able to learn to read, having spelling problems etc. we had them tested last year. They are both dyslexic and have ADHD. One daughter has OCD also. The same daughter has a chip on her shoulder and is very sensitive. How can I as a parent help them learn the skills they need to survive in life when I don't even have those skills? My example is not what I want them to follow. Any words of advise?

Comment By : farmmom

I have a daughter who is hearing impaired and wears 2 hearing aids. She never got over having tantrums and I was afraid of her outbursts. She used to hold me hostage in a store to buy her clothes. I had to run out of the store to get away from her. It was extremely embarrasing. After lots of counseling we decided to give her a clothing allowance which took me out of the equation and if she wanted to spend $100 on a pair of jeans, she could. She did and then ended up taking them back!! The only pitfall is that I had to be firm with the allowance and not let her badger me into buying other stuff for her. ps. I just started the program yesterday and I am very hopeful. What i really like is the easy verbal suggestions because when I get anxious about an outburst I can't talk and my kid overpowers me. thanks.

Comment By : rescuing mom from altamonte springs

Great article, but was needing to hear how to handle a teenage child On disrespect and mouthing off

Comment By : DoBi

I found this very helpful. I have a 12 year old that is immature but using your techniques has really helped. I am sending this article to a friend of mine who has always gotten his way and now is having real problems in school. I hope this helps her.

Comment By : Kelly

The other day at the store, our 10-year-old son needed to pick out a gift for his cousin. He was trying to manipulate us into buying a gift for himself, too, and we wouldn't allow it. Then he started making faces, calling names and he even pulled his younger sister's hair and brought her to her knees because he was trying to get us to take him out of the store and take him home. He knew that we were not going to give in and buy him a gift, so he was manipulating us into taking him home where he could do what he wanted (play the computer, which we did not let him do). He knew that bad behavior would get him out of the store, which is what he wanted. What do we do in this situation?

Comment By : Linda

I appreciate your articles - wished they were in Spanish - I have several folks who could use such great advice in Spanish.

Comment By : Miguel

Ihave a step son whonis very abusive verbally and physically at all different times it seems that when he wants to be impulsive he grabs other people or if you ask him to do something he mouths off with profanities and such, he has adhd and had been diagnosed as ODD and bi polar I am not sure this is correct is there any suggestions on how to handle this?? He does not do any of this at school only with us at home.

Comment By : trikmit

I love reading the articles in Empowering Parents. We have a 12 yr old daughter with impulsive ADHD and ODD. She can be a real piece of work, but can be as sweet as pie when it benefits her. I would love to see more advice in your articles about how to deal with the pre-teen/teenager ages of kids who have taken us parents for a ride this far in life, and have just discovered your program and are working on making our children be respectful and obedient. I started doing this with my daughter before we enter a store. I tell her everything we are going into buy and tell her we are not there for her. It actually makes it easier if I lay out the rules before we go, for both of us. She knows her manipulations aren't going to work to get something she wants, and it keeps my impulsive shopping in check too, if I try to pick up something that isnt on the list, I certainly hear aboutit from her.

Comment By : Mom of a 12 yr old Diva


Comment By : DONNA

* Dear Linda: I think you did a really good job with this. You gave a consequence for your son's behavior, which was the loss of computer time. Sometimes we need to complete shopping chores and it's just not possible to "Stop the Show" and leave the store immediately. For all parents who are having this dilemma with their children, when your child escalates like this, it can be helpful to remember our role as coaches and do our best to direct them to find a way to calm themselves down. You might say, "You need to calm yourself. If you won't try, there will be a consequence when you get home -- but let's not go there." You may remind them of the skill that works for them, such as taking a few deep, slow breaths. Do your best not to add to your child's tensions by naming the privilege that he is about to lose. This usually just escalates the situation. Just stay in the coaching role with the goal of helping him to calm down. Hope this is helpful!

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Donna: I think your question echoes what Linda, and many parents on the support line, ask about. These are tough situations, aren't they? Even though you do your best to shop when you're child is not overly tired or hungry, it can still be challenging. You might try asking your child to help you shop by saying, "Okay now let's pick out the green pepper. We want one that is not too soft." Let your child know the purpose of the shopping trip and if you're almost done, etc. Some children can pull through when they start to get bored if we start talking to them about something that interests them. You could take along a favorite stuffed animal to help soothe a child who gets anxious. It doesn't hurt to carry water and a healthy snack if your child mentions that they are hungry or thirsty. If possible, plan for extra time and a break if your child needs it. If your child starts to act out, try to use your coaching role and encourage them to find a way to calm themselves down. Use a calm voice yourself so that your not increasing your child's anxiety. It usually does not help to tell them if they don't settle down, they will lose TV time tonight -- that will not motivate them when they are emotionally upset. Your best bet is to try to encourage him to find a way to soothe himself. If your child really acts out, later on in the evening you can talk about the shopping trip and try to come up with ways your child can do a better job next time. You may also give the child a small consequence if your think he was capable of doing better but didn't even try. Good luck, Donna, and let us know how it goes.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

My 13 year old son tried the blackmail trick at a store a few months back. I stuck to my guns and told him no to whatever it was he wanted. He raised his voice more and more. I told him calmly that if he continue to act irrational, I would leave. He contined and I walked out of the store. He followed of course but sat on the ground refusing to follow me to the car. I walked to the car and drove up to the front of the store. I told him, "Get in or walk!" He got in and argured. I ignored him. When we arrived at home I started folding laundry to calm myself down and continued to ignore him. I did tell him, "When you act like a rational person, we can talk." I did tell him to sit in his room until he was rational. Thirty minutes later he came into my room and calmly apologized for his "blackmail" behavior. I accepted his apology and told him that I was sure he would never behave like that again. Before we go into any store I remind him of this incident and he has not acted out at a store like that since. He has been diagonosed with certain issues but I've never allowed that to limit the boundaries he and his siblings have to live by. It's been tough but I have found that consistancy and not giving in really does pay off big. He finally thanked in 7th grade for not putting up with his poor behavior. I just told him, "No problem, it's my job."

Comment By : sticktoitmom

As a mother of three, twin girls who are three years old and one year old girl. The article has given me some good motives to try. One of the twins has show very strong will of having her way. Both me and my husband are at a lost. Even the daycar provider is at a lost. So hopefully using the pointers given in this article will help us gain control.

Comment By : td

I would like to comment on Linda's earlier comment, I too have a 12 year old son who will act out in a store not because he wants something but because he wants us to leave. I used to try to remind him that the more he acts out the longer it will take me to finish my shopping and the longer we will have to be here. That worked for a while, but now he doesn't seem to care, and a few times he's responded with "then I guess you'll have to put up with me longer." It's a very frustrating situation. I have tried something new lately that seems to be working (for now!) When we go to the store for groceries, I hand him my list and tell him since I have to make sure his little sister behaves I need him to get the groceries for me. He likes having power and control, so this gives him a little of it and he doesn't act out as much. Now my grocery trips last twice as long because it takes him longer to find everything, but it's been much more peacefull and worth the extra time.

Comment By : Jen

My stepson is on the austism spectrum although highly functional and very intelligent. He is 9 years old and manifests similar defiant and blackmail behavior. However, I told him that I'm "on to him" and he knows it and knows I won't put up with his inappropriate behaviour. The problem is my wife so often gives into him without realizing it and even when I attempt to point out that he's blackmailing her (I say manipulating) she typically denies it and dismissed by concern. So, while I can handle my son's misbehavior, it's often my wife that I have difficulty with!

Comment By : LEN

great article my question is will the same rules apply for an 11 year old child who has been diagnosed as ADHD Bi-polar and severley emotionaly disturbed with manic episodes

Comment By : candy forbes

I started doing this when my stepson was 3 1/2 as I found that going over expectations and rules before we went somewhere helped both him and his twin sister. I even found that when a behavior started, if I asked them what the rules were and what would happen if they broke the rules, it seemed to divert things for a time or stop them in their tracks. I can remember taking them places like library storytimes etc and when my stepson would begin to step out of line, all I had to do was get into his line of vision and look him straight in the eye and hold my hand up in a stop sign and he would immediately stop and sit again. He knew from experience that if he didn't follow the rules he would be removed and we would not return. Of course, we did have to leave sometimes, but it worked for him.

Comment By : khar59

My 7 year old son has adhd and we are using some techniques described in Empowering Parents. My biggest problem is he is always making some kind of loud noise. Whether it be running through the house squealing or just shouting while he is playing, our house is sooo loud! Any tips?

Comment By : Eva

* Dear Eva: That does sound like it would be stressful at times to listen to a child who is frequently too loud—not using his ‘inside voice’ as we say. He may be trying hard to do this but not being successful because kids with ADHD do have problems with impulse control, attention span and hyperactivity. For an ADHD child, the problem is not that he doesn’t know what to do, the problem is an inability to control himself in the way that kids without ADHD can. In many ways you could say that the impulsiveness of ADHD creates a ‘disability of self-control’. From a simply behavioral prospective, the technique to increase desired behavior is to pay attention to the desired behavior you would like to see more often and to ignore the undesirable behavior you want to go away. That would mean to ignore the loudness you are describing and comment with appreciation when your child is playing quietly. But it will likely take additional assistance from you for your ADHD child to change behaviors. When you ask your child to notice that their voice is loud, don’t walk away, stay right there and give positive feedback when your child begins to talk softer. Children with ADHD do not respond to warnings about future consequences, but instead base their behavior on what is currently happening. That’s why it’s important to be there next to them and to patiently encourage them to pay attention to the behavior change you’re asking of them. Remember to ask your child to do only one thing at a time during this redirection. You may also enjoy reading Dr. Bob’s articles and blog posts regarding ADHD. ‘Dr. Bob’ is Dr. Robert Myers who designed the Total Focus Program specifically to help parents and kids work with the challenges of ADHD. Here’s a link to a blog that talks about setting up a reward system and the importance of using encouraging, positive feedback, Turn Around Your Child’s Behavior: The Power of Positive Praise for Children with ADHD http://empoweringparents.com/blog/news/turn-around-your-childs-behavior-the-power-of-positive-praise-for-children-with-adhd/ Good luck. Keep in touch with us.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

My 9 y/o likes to cut short his siblings' fun by acting out. I can't remove him and go home without him winning because then his siblings have to leave, too. Should I leave him home with a sitter? I think he would be a monster at home. Last weekend he put his feet on a table at a restaurant and shot spitballs throughout the meal and kept saying "I want to leave." It was a disaster.

Comment By : Donna S

* To “Donna S.”: It can be quite upsetting when you feel removing your son from a situation because of his acting out is giving in to what he wants. I can understand your dismay at not wanting his siblings to miss out on being able to have fun when they go out because of his behavior. I hear similar stories from other parents I speak to on the Parental Support Line. Hiring a sitter to stay with him is one option that you may utilize sometimes. It will also be beneficial to give him opportunities to develop the problem solving skills he needs to work through these situations. On those occasions, I would suggest outlining for your son what the expectations for his behavior are before you go out. Be very specific as to the behaviors you would like to see from him. You could then offer him a reward or incentive for meeting these expectations. It doesn’t have to be anything big, maybe extra computer or video game time or perhaps one on one time with a parent playing a game he chooses. If he misbehaves during the outing you can remind him what he’s working towards. If the behavior continues, you can then decide whether to stay and ignore the behavior or leave. Leaving can be effective in sending the message the he didn’t do a good job controlling himself and it may help him calm down. If you decide to leave, you can make it up to his siblings another way. Here are a couple of articles that can be helpful : Stop the Show: Putting a Lid on Your Child’s Attention-seeking Behavior & Sibling Rivalry: Good Kid vs. Bad Kid Good luck as you and your family work through this. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

Kids nowadays are brought up in such a way that they just dont take a 'no' from you. I am facing this issue right now. My kid, 8, always gets what he wants... now I told him that we are moving from Bangalore to Delhi. Initially he was not ready but then when he told all his friends, he was ready. Now our plan is cancelled and he is blaming me every day for this. I know its my mistake to tell him too early when I was not sure (I thought I will prepare him) but now the way he is reacting, I think this is just too much. He calls me every day and asks when are we moving :) and I patiently tell him that its cancelled. I am thinking that he is disappointed so I must give him some time. Or is he just not trying to understand and adjust? If anyone gives me any advises how should I behave now, it will be great. Thanks

Comment By : Anand

* To “Anand”: Thank you for sharing your story. I am sorry to hear you are struggling with inappropriate behaviors from your son. Having a child play the blame game with you is never fun. It is possible your son is disappointed you are no longer moving. This doesn’t excuse his behavior though. At this point, it probably isn’t going to be effective to continue telling him it’s cancelled or explaining the reasons behind the change in plans. We would suggest saying something to him like “We’re not going to discuss this anymore” or “Blaming me isn’t going to change the situation.” Then, turn around and walk away from him. If you are talking to him on the phone, you can change the conversation to another topic. If he continues to be verbally disrespectful to you, we would suggest ending the conversation. After not giving the behavior any undue attention, it should diminish. Here is a great article by James Lehman that discusses the best approach when your child starts playing the blame game: Stop the Blame Game: How to Teach Your Child to Stop Making Excuses and Start Taking Responsibility. Even though your situation is little different from what is discussed in the article, I believe there are some useful tips for you. We wish you and your family luck as you continue to work through this situation. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

Thanks a lot for your support D. Rowden. I gretly appreciate. Your advice was perfect, all is well now and this incident and your website will make me a more alert parent. Thanks again.

Comment By : Anand

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