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Manipulative Child Behavior? My Kids Are "Too Smart for Their Own Good"

by Debbie Pincus MS LMHC
Manipulative Child Behavior? My Kids Are Too Smart for Their Own Good

“My kids are driving me crazy! They are so manipulative I can’t stand it!”

Does this sound familiar? "My middle schooler blackmails me emotionally – he cries that I 'don’t care about him and love his brother more' when I ask him to stop playing his video games. It's true that he's a more difficult kid, and his words make me feel so bad that I often feel guilty and let him continue to play." Or "My teenager negotiates with me relentlessly to get her way. 'If you let me go to the party tonight,' she'll say, 'then I promise I'll get all my work done tomorrow.' I figure, why not? So I let her go. But then, 'Oops!' She conveniently forgets all her promises."

"When we step way back we can see that kids can only manipulate us because we allow their behavior to be effective."

If your kids are like most, they are  masterful at finding creative ways to wear you down to get their way. You might think, "My child is just too smart for his own good!" It's important to understand first that it's natural for kids to “want what they want and try to get it at all costs.” It's also natural for us as parents to get frustrated and tired, and to give in to these behaviors sometimes — or perhaps more often than we'd like to admit! Parents have busy lives and lots of stressors – we can only take so much, after all.

As aggravating as it is for you, for your child, finding ingenious ways to try and get what she wants or avoid what she doesn’t want to do is a way for her to exercise influence in a world run by adults. (It doesn't mean you have to give in, but it's important to realize that it's developmentally appropriate.) Your child doesn’t have adult power yet  – most kids can’t make major decisions like choosing their neighborhood or school, for example. Having initiative, drive and passion are positives, even though it doesn't always feel that way as a parent. But keep in mind that these traits can actually be a force for good if you can help your child to use it properly, balance it with self-restraint and respect boundaries.

Related: How to stay calm as a parent and not fall for your child's manipulation.

Look at it this way: your kid’s job is to make demands, to communicate his desires and to try to get them met by hook or by crook. Your job is to not get stirred up by it – and not give in to it, either. Instead, try to help your child balance the energy of his endless wants with self-control and integrity.

The Cycle of Manipulation, Control and Defiance

Parents often get frustrated by their kids’ manipulative attempts to get their way. It's not easy to remain calm and level-headed when you feel that your child is trying to push you around or take advantage of you. You might feel accosted and lose your temper. Or maybe when you feel disrespected, you withdraw. Or perhaps you try to avoid conflict and keep the peace, so you give in to your child's demands.

Sometimes you might even tighten your grip to show that you're in control. Unfortunately, this usually just invites a power struggle with your child, because she starts pulling back on the tug of war rope as hard as she can. If you then tighten your grip more forcefully and pull back in response, the endless cycle of manipulation, control, and defiance can go on and on.

As a parent, I understand that it can be easy at times to take manipulative tactics personally. You think, “If he really loved me, he would never lie to me.” Or, “If she really cared about me, she would never try to sneak behind my back in order to go to her friend’s house.” And some parents overgeneralize their kids’ behavior. They reason, “If he can look me in the face and deceive me, that means he’s a deceitful person.” But it’s best not to put too much meaning on these behaviors—instead, stand up to them. (I'll explain more about that in a moment.)

When we step way back, we can see that our kids can only manipulate us because we allow their behavior to be effective. Children are human – they want to get their way. (Who doesn’t?) But they’ve learned over time and through using some typical behaviors such as emotional blackmail, lying, tantrums, shutting down, negotiating relentlessly, dividing and conquering or playing the victim that they can get  what they seek. Voila—it works! The danger is when those behaviors become a  way of life.

Remember, though, that kids can only manipulate us if we permit them to. It takes two to tango, but only one to change this pattern.

Related: How to give consequences to kids that really work.

So how do we help them and ourselves so that we can stop the pattern of manipulation? Here are 6 tips for parents who are stuck in the manipulation cycle:

1. Recognize Manipulative Behaviors

Recognize manipulative behaviors so you don’t get sucked in by them. Instinctively, as part of kids’ survival, they come with tools to get what they want and avoid what they don’t want. These tactics work when they trigger a reaction in us. Pay attention to your triggers. For example, your child might try to emotionally blackmail you by acting sad until he gets what he wants. This will be a trigger for you if you believe your job is to keep your child happy. Start by asking yourself if your job is to make your child  happy or to help him prepare to cope with life. If it's the latter, then you can answer with, “I'm sorry you're sad, but you're still grounded this weekend.”

Other common behaviors include lying, dividing and conquering, shutting down, screaming "I Hate You" or "You Don’t Care About Me" or "That’s not Fair!" Don’t take these statements to heart. Respond with, “ I know you're angry with me but you do need to put your bike away now." Or “I know you don’t see this as fair, but you need to go to bed when I tell you to.”

Some kids will play the victim and say things like, “All the other kids' parents let them hang out past 11:00." Don’t take the bait. Separate out the emotional content from what your child is trying to get. Hear her feelings about being the “only one,” but stand strong on your curfew time. Tip: It's helpful to make a list of all the many different behaviors and words that your child does and says for  the purpose of throwing you off balance. Prepare for how you will respond next time you hear them.

2. Know Your Triggers

Triggers are behaviors that upset you and get you to react. They can be a tone of voice, a certain look, an attitude or certain actions. Manipulative behaviors therefore might set you off. If you prepare for them by knowing your buttons, they will be less likely to get pushed. If you have a strong need for approval from your child, for example, then hearing him shout “I hate you” might trigger you. You might want peace between the two of you. Instinctively, you might let him off the hook so he won’t be unhappy with you. Recognizing your triggers will help you plan and prepare for how not to let your child push your buttons. Tip: Sit down and make a list of your top three triggers so you are aware of what they are.

Related: Learn about "Trigger Management" and other effective parenting techniques.

3. Define Yourself and Your Parenting Principles

Manipulative behaviors are designed to throw you off balance and create self doubt. Knowing your own bottom line as a parent will help you when your kids come at you with their ingenious ways to make you unsure of yourself and lose your center. Hold on to yourself by holding on to your parenting principles. Be careful not to let your children’s emotions drive you. Listen to their feelings so they know you care, but stick to the rules you've established. Guiding your kids with your well-thought-out principles will generally be better for them than making sure everyone feels good. Tip: Make a list of some of your important guiding principles and refer to them when you feel like you're losing your footing.

4. Approach the Bench

Don’t get mad at your child for trying to go after what she wants in life. Would you really prefer her not to? Be empathetic to her desires and wishes while helping her learn how to get what she wants more directly, honestly and effectively.

For example,  help your son to see that not doing what he is asked by “Shutting down” or “avoiding  the issue” by not responding to your request is not going to be effective in  getting him what he wants. As a matter of fact, it will only get him in further  trouble. Help him learn to “approach the bench.” In other words, during a calm moment, encourage him  to ask directly for what he needs. Instead of fighting you, he might learn to say, “Mom, it's difficult for me to get off the  computer the second you ask. Could you give me some warning?” or “Dad, when you  shout at me when I'm not doing what you want, I feel bad. It would help if you asked me in a nicer way." Or “I think I'm old enough for a later curfew.  Can we come up with a plan together?" (Rather than fighting, whining and coming in late every time your teen goes out.)

When your child asks for what he needs, listen. Give his requests the consideration they deserve. That does not mean always saying yes, but it does mean giving them some honest thought. If your child knows he can come to you directly, he will be less likely  to try to get what he wants indirectly.

Related: How to set limits effectively as a parent.

5. Believe in Your Child

Have faith in your child’s good intentions. Believe in him. Understand that kids are works in progress. They might need to learn better ways to manage themselves in life, but they are not bad or malicious. Their intentions are not to “get us” or make our life miserable. However, if we believe that's their intention, then we will see them that way. Believing in our children will help them see themselves with all the goodness that is in them and with all their best intentions.

6. Soothe Yourself

Learn how to soothe yourself when you're anxious or distressed. Be in charge of your own emotional health. Don’t give in to your kids' manipulations so that you can feel calmer. If you need them to be happy or to validate you, then you might inadvertently give in to your children so that you can feel good. But each time you justify their behavior and let them off the hook so that you feel better, they learn that these behaviors are effective and they grow to depend on them. Instead, learn to tolerate their upset, which will in turn help them to tolerate their own. Managing your own calm will free your kids up to learn how to manage their own lives and get their needs met more successfully.

Related: "Anxiety is contagious—and so is calm."

Our kids are doing their job: they are asking us through their behaviors to please be their leaders – to define ourselves clearly – to have boundaries so they know where the fence is. Even though they’ll rarely say it out loud, kids need us to have backbones. Remember when our kids were little and they would test us to see how far we could be pushed and where the limits were? Our kids wanted us to be strong for them. Yes, they do want what they want, but on a deeper level they want us not to let them get away with developing a bad character. They want us to help them learn how to tolerate limits in life and the frustration that comes with sometimes not getting what they want.


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For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.

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Manipulative Child Behavior, child defiance, too smart for their own good, motivating your child, parental control

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