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Does your child use anger or threats to get what he wants? Does he pick fights and blackmail you emotionally? Or maybe he acts helpless or plays sick to get out of doing chores or homework. Whether kids manipulate us aggressively or passively, this behavior makes most of us feel out of control and “played” by our kids. Debbie Pincus, creator of The Calm Parent: AM & PM, tells you how you can break this cycle while staying calm and in control.

“Caving in to your child’s demands in order to steer clear of his tirades will only teach him that manipulation works.”

Many, if not most, parents feel manipulated by their kids at times. Teens in particular can be very adept at manipulative behaviors that run the gamut from flattery and charm to downright abuse to get what they want. And most kids, by the time they get to adolescence, are skilled at arguing, debating and raging to get their way.

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Let’s step into your child’s shoes for a moment. Imagine your 13-year-old daughter wants the boots that all her friends are wearing; she’s sure that wearing them will establish her as part of the popular group. Of course, she’s desperate for you to say “yes” and buy them. Hearing the word “no” will seem intolerable and unfair to her. But let’s say you’ve given it some thought and your answer is no. You explain further by saying, “You don’t need another pair of boots, and besides, they’re way more than I’m willing to pay.” And then you brace for what you know is coming. Your daughter pulls out the big guns. She pleads, argues, sulks, gives you the silent treatment, debates, and rages in a desperate attempt to get what she wants. This is a much more likely outcome than your daughter saying, “Okay, I understand Mom. Your reasons make a lot of sense to me.” I’ve been working with kids and families for decades, and believe me, it’s the unusual kid who takes “no” for an answer the first time she hears it.

Why “No” Doesn’t Mean “No” to Most Kids

Why doesn’t “no” mean “no”? You might be sitting there saying to yourself, “I would never have spoken to my parents like that.” And that’s probably true. Back in the ’50s, ’60s and even ’70s, most parents valued obedience and used hitting, withdrawal of love and fear to scare kids into submission. If we used those tactics today, we probably could get our kids to stop at our “no.” The problem is that this parenting style does not lead to good long-term connection, trust and security and can easily backfire and cause serious rebellion. Don’t get me wrong, parents still value obedience nowadays, but we also put value on connection, independent thinking and communication. So in many ways, the new norm is for kids to try to persuade us to get what they want—which, when you think about it, is not always such a bad thing. Good persuasion skills can work effectively in life. But when would we say it’s simply persuasion versus emotional manipulation? When does the behavior cross the line?

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Once our “no” is said, most kids will persist and try to persuade and convince you to go with what they want. And, in the course of this discussion, perhaps you’ll even hear their argument and be persuaded to “yes.” Let’s say your daughter wanted to stay out a bit later one night for a special event, and you were willing to hear her reasons and give her extra time for a dance or the late showing of a movie—not because you were worn down, but rather because your child’s reasoning made sense to you. That ability to persuade and negotiate in a healthy, respectful way is a good thing—and it’s a helpful skill for your child to learn.

But let’s say your child is asking you for something you’re not willing to let her do, like sleep over at a friend’s house whose parents work nights. Your 11-year-old daughter tries a few of her persuasion tactics, you consider her point of view but decide to stay firm with your no. She tries a few more tactics, and you continue to hold the line. At this point, many kids are able to disengage and let go: They’ve tried and didn’t get what they wanted, so they give up and stomp off. But maybe your child is the type who won’t stop. Essentially, she’s saying, “If you don’t give in, I will wear you down until you do.” Or “If you don’t give in to my demands, I will subject you to my emotional tirades. I will make you suffer.”

Does Your Child Use Emotional Blackmail on You?

Part of what divides persuasion from emotional blackmail is how long your child persists—and how intense this insistence becomes. But I think manipulation also has to do with intention. There are kids whose sole intention is to try to manipulate you into giving them the answer they want, even if it means making you suffer with their behavior. And the message is, “I will wear you down and get what I want. My gain at your cost; I win, you lose. And when I win, I’m in control.” These kids have learned a dangerous lesson—that their emotional blackmail works. Eventually you will be worn down because you’re afraid of their outbursts. You might attempt to contain your child’s rage and unpleasantness by giving in. Your child will have learned that manipulation works.

Related content: Gut Check: Do You Tiptoe around Your Child?

Understand that manipulation can come in many forms, not only that of negative outbursts. Kids can learn that picking a fight works, playing sick works, playing dumb works, charm works, and threats work. So if your child has goaded you into doing things, here are six things you might do to break the cycle of manipulative behavior.

  1. Manage your expectations. Expect that it’s unlikely that your “no” will be followed by your child saying, “Okay, thank you.” Persuasion will probably follow instead. Don’t freak out. As annoying and unpleasant as it is, it’s what most kids do nowadays. We can expect better as parents, but don’t be surprised if you don’t get it. And as difficult as it is to say “no” (because of what you know will follow), it’s also extremely important to learn to say it and stick with it.
  2. Realize the behavior is normal. I think it’s important to realize that your child’s attempt to get you to change your mind and say “yes” is normal.  When you realize he’s not doing it because of some terrible pathology or evil inside of him, it will help you relax and deal with the behavior. Rather than reacting to their pushing with panic or worry, if you’ve thought things through and are comfortable with your decision, just stick to your guns. Caving in to your child’s demands in order to steer clear of his tirades will only teach him that manipulation works.
  3. It doesn’t matter what you say after “no.” Once you’ve said “no,” any attempt on your part to justify it will not matter. All your child is listening for is whether or not your decision still stands. If you continue the conversation, all it will be about is him trying to get you to change your “no” to a “yes.” So don’t get hooked into trying to get your child to understand and be okay with your decision. As far as he’s concerned, any “no” is totally unfair. Simply saying “no” and stating your decision with a brief, clear position is enough. You will get nowhere trying to make your “no” palatable. And teens in particular are very good lawyers. If you aren’t careful, you can soon be defending your position and led off on all sorts of tangents. Your child may feel completely justified in giving you a hard time because after all, you’re being a pain by not giving him what he wanted.
  4. Don’t be wishy-washy. Try your best not to let your child push you into changing your mind. Learn to say “no” with some strength behind it when you mean it. If too often your “no” becomes a “yes” because your child has been successful at wearing you down, a pattern of emotional blackmail can result. Your child has learned that being relentless works; if his relentlessness still hasn’t gotten him what he wants, in his mind it means that he should be more relentless until he’s successful. He won’t see anything wrong with his behavior, either, because it’s what he’s used to. The greatest danger is that he’ll be in charge instead of you. So say “no,” state your reason, make it short and to the point, and walk away. (More on this next.)
  5. Disengaging from the discussion. If your child is asking you for something you have some flexibility on, you might listen to his argument as long as he’s respectful. If it seems reasonable to you, you might decide to change your “no” to a “yes.” However, if you don’t change your mind, only discuss it with him to a certain point. Stop giving him your counterpoints and disengage. You’ll know when it’s time for you to stop when you feel the early signs of your adrenaline rising—your heart will beat faster, your face may get hot, and you might start to feel shaky. Pay attention to this and swiftly end the conversation and disengage. How do you disengage when your child does not? Don’t say another word. Walk into another room or out of the house if your child is old enough; ride it out. Engaging at all, in any way, will only add fuel to the fire. Holding onto yourself with your “no,” despite what your child does, communicates something important: “No matter what you do, I will not lose myself. No matter how long you carry on, I will not give in. Your behavior will not be effective.”
  6. Look closely at yourself. Do you tend to be too rigid? Do you think you make it particularly difficult for your child to get anything other than a “no” from you? Are you in any way contributing to his need to manipulate you to get anything for himself? Look at your own behavior and ask yourself the following questions:
    • Is it hard for you to get out of your comfort zone and let your child grow?
    • Do you hold your child back too much? Do your own anxieties prevent you from letting your child do things?
    • Are you too dominant? Do you have a strong need to control others or often find yourself in power struggles?
    • Are you a “one truth” thinker? Meaning, is it difficult for you if other people don’t think the same way you do?
    • Are you afraid to have a backbone—and therefore always give in?

Take a close look in the mirror and see if you’re doing any of these things with your child, and if your behaviors are contributing to your child learning ineffective ways to handle himself. Help your child learn to be able to effectively come to the bench and negotiate for what he wants and then to accept the limits of “no” as well. Change what is in your control to change.

Too Late for You? Breaking the Pattern of Child Manipulation

What if you’ve already gotten into the pattern of being manipulated and emotionally blackmailed by your child? Perhaps you’ve been giving in since he was little—maybe it started with temper tantrums, and escalated to the point where your 15-year-old started breaking things in your house, threatening people and calling you foul names. In other words, what do you do if you already have an emotional manipulator and you’re stuck in this destructive pattern?

I won’t sugarcoat it: It’s going to be difficult to change a pattern that’s already in place, especially with a teen, but it’s certainly not impossible. Expect the typical “pushback” or “change back” that comes when you start to take a different position as a parent. Be prepared because your child will escalate before he stops the behavior.

If you want to start breaking out of this pattern, be clear and stick to your “no.” With kids who are already blackmailing you emotionally, you have to continue to stand your ground harder because they’re going to fight harder. It’s worked in the past, so they naturally think they can get you to bend to their will. But you’re going to do whatever it takes to hold on and not give in. Your child will learn limits and boundaries when you have the courage, strength and backbone to provide them.

Eventually they’ll get the message that you can no longer be broken down. For any parent who’s trying to stop child manipulation, I would recommend that you create a guiding principle for yourself. A guiding principle might be, “I want my child to learn to accept limits in life,” or, “I want my child to learn that he can’t have everything he wants.”

Here’s the bottom line: Most people will do whatever it takes in that unpleasant moment with their child to get rid of the distress, and that’s why they give in—they can’t stand it. Picking short-term relief is understandable—many times that’s the choice we’ll make because we just have to get on with the day. But if you want to stop being manipulated, instead of going for the short-term fix, look at the long-term gain. Keep your mind on that larger goal rather than on short-term relief. If you’re really looking at changing manipulative behavior and you want to work on developing your child’s character, then you’ll have to try and make a different choice in that moment when he’s testing you.

Keep in mind that with our older kids, we are consultants, not managers. And with all kids, think about relating to them, not controlling them. Hold onto your position if it’s well
thought-out, but try to do it with kindness, respect, openness and understanding. Don’t see your child as the enemy—think of being on his side and relating to him side-by-side, rather than toe-to-toe—even when you’re setting limits, holding the line and being firm.

Related content: Manipulative Child Behavior? My Kids Are “Too Smart for Their Own Good”

About

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.

Comments (14)
  • Tesla
    My 7 year old is very manipulative. She threatens, screams, and lies to get her way. Our last argument was about a dollhouse she demanded me to buy. I simply told her let's wait and see what Santa brings you. She was outside playing with the neighbors girl and toldMore the neighbor that I was saying bad things about her. I'm afraid she's going to get someone in deep trouble from lying. She wanted to bring her tablet outside and she knows I won't let her take it outside so she asks the neighbor if she could bring it outside. I told her I am your mother not her. I played for that tablet so you can play games on it and I dont want it broken. We leave are tablets inside. I'm at cross roads with her.I have thought about seeking a behavioral therapist.
  • Jolie
    I have a feeling my 16 year old daughter is manipulating me into letting her give up her year 12 studies and entry to Uni. She has 6 months left of the school year and has suddenly found that she is struggling with 2 of the subjects. She had recentlyMore asked to quit this route and go the general route. We have said no, she needs to keep on as she is so close to the end. She does have to put study in which she says she is not prepared to do. We have discussed this several times and she has had a change of heart and said she will do the ATAR route. She already takes antidepressants which made her a different child and is another story. Now she is phoning me and saying she is always sad and has no friends etc when I know full well she does and is well and happy most of the rest of the time. She is at boarding school and i am in close contact with her supervisors and teachers where they say she seems to be quite OK. I have a very strong feeling that the "crocodile" tears are an attempt to get me to let her give up the hard choice of ATAR. I am going with my gut here. How can I deal with this?
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      It can be quite difficult when you feel as though your child is trying to manipulate you into negotiating your rules and expectations. It’s not uncommon for kids to want to give up and take the “easy route” when they encounter obstacles or difficulty, because this is less challengingMore than putting in the work and effort necessary to overcome it. At this point, it could be useful to talk with her about what she needs to do to bring up her grades in the 2 courses where she is struggling. You can find some guidance on how to structure this conversation in The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: “I Can’t Solve Problems”. In the end, you know her best so the decision of what to do next with your daughter’s education is going to be up to you and your best judgment. I recognize what a tough situation this must be for you, and I wish you all the best moving forward. Take care.
  • Happy Fam

    So what you are suggesting here is that we should allow children to "negotiate" when the answer is no? What happened to teaching our kids no "means no"? Of course there is a time for reasoning, and negotiating but that time should be before a yes or no is given. By accepting arguments after a no, a child will feel it is necessary to do so with every no. I did it as a kid with my mother, never my father, and my kids attempt it now. This is especially true for breaking fundamental boundaries.

    My point, my children never have a reason to "manipulate" until the answer is no. At that point, a decision has been made. No, is no, and argument is not tolerated. When there is wiggle room, or a decision is being discussed, they tend to use critical thinking much more than manipulation. The occasional "outlandish reason why they should" can be met with a good laugh and a "nice try" when the decision has not already been made. When the answer is, or has always been no, firm consistency is the only way to truly help them grow.

    • Still Learning
      If you have all the answers why are you here telling the experts that they have it all wrong?
  • Mandi
    My mother and I share custody of my 7 year old niece. My mother let's her manipulate her into giving her anything and everything she wants. I am trying to be the stronger 'parent' and teach her that not everyone is going to spoil her like that. She tries toMore manipulate me and is very persistent. I've tried talking to my mother but she won't listen and doesn't see anything wrong with her behavior. I am afraid that if this behavior continues, she will end up like my sister (her mother) who is a very manipulative drug user. I will try anything at this point to try to shape her into being a good person.
  • Nannasue
    Hi i need advice how do you handle a situation where the child is 7 years old and the father is teaching him to manipulate and blackmail the mother. The father is also using docs to cause problems saying the mother is abusive and using her disability as a reason.More My daughter has done everything for her children. She is raising a child that has a disability and she has a disability but she says its an ability she has just had bad luck choosing boyfriends because she has a trusting nature. The father has only just come back into child live in last 12 months beforw this he did not want anything to do with child. How can she stop the manupulation.
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      Nannasue

      What a tough situation. It’s not uncommon for kids to try to

      pit their parents against each other, especially in two household families.

      It’s unfortunate that this boy’s father seems to be promoting this behavior. In

      reality, the boy’s mother isn’t going to be able to do anything about what goes

      on in the other parent’s household. It would be more productive to develop a

      culture of accountability in her own home, as James Lehman suggests in the

      article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/the-disneyland-daddy/. For more information on developing a culture of

      accountability, you can check out the article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/how-to-create-a-culture-of-accountability-in-your-home/. We appreciate you

      writing in. Take care.

  • Nannasue
    Tell her she is old enough to do this...your live does not revolve around her there are other people that need your attention. So welcome to the real world of grown ups
  • Nannasue
    I think you really need to let her go but you really need to let her know that you are there if she needs you. I have a daughter with aspergers and she got pregnant at 17 i welcomed her boyfriend into our lives and home and he abused her.More My grandson does not see his father because my daughter stood up spoke out about and charged the boyfriend. She made us proud. She use to run away climb out windows and hang around the wrong crowd...why because she wanted to fit in. She is raising 3 children now and still getting singled out because she has aspergers as the father of the 2nd child is fighting for full custody of child and saying she is unfit. Well i have supported her the whole way and i am so proud of her. It was hard earlier on in life trying to teach her that there is consquences to your actions and that things are goven to you on a silver plater that you have to earn it but it has all been worth it i have 3 lovely grandchildren and a daughter with a big heart.
  • Hurting Mom

    Thank you both so very much for your input . The main reason why I fear so much also is because my ex husband used PAS (parental Alienation Syndrome) on my son . My son has absolutely nothing to do with me . All his fathers doing . So my situation is very hard for me , not only have I lost my son but the fear of losing my daughter too is unbareable. It's been 4 years now since my son stopped talking to me. He is now 19 and just finished his first year of university . I don't even know how he did. As I write this I'm trying very hard to hold back my years . To this very day I still try to be in his life . I sent him birthday gifts, Christmas gifts, valentine basket, Easter basket , cards in the mail . He only lives five minutes from me . So , you see how I fear so much of loosing her . If I was an a drug user or an alcoholic or if I Abused my children in any way, I could see both of them not wanting anything to do with me but I'm not , I know I'm a good person and a great mom . So why do I try so hard but always end up with the wrong end of the stick .

    The reason why I give her everything and afraid to say no to her is because she will just go live with her dad and forget me . She seems to have more respect for him than me . Sometimes I just feel like giving up and other times I want to try harder .

    She tells her dad she doesn't like my boyfriend and he tells her she doesn't have to come here to my home . She also uses that against me

    It's a no win situation

    Thank you very much for listening to me .Hurting mom and heartbroken .

  • Hurting Mom

    My 13 yr old daughter is Manipulating me

    My husband and I have been divorced for 5 years, we share joint custody of our 13 yr old daughter. I've had a new man come into my life and she does not like him at all. After dating him a year and a half, we decided to move in together. My daughter will not come to see me . She will only come in if my boyfriend is gone out . He has tried many times with her to like him but she wont budge.  My dalima is, she asks me for everything and I buy it for her because I don't want to totally loose her from my life. Sometimes , when we argue about what she wants me to buy her,  she tells me , she will just go live with her dad and not see me at all, if I don't get it for her 

     She asked if she can have a rabbit, and told me if I got it , she would come in even if my boyfriend was there . I got the rabbit and still she does not visit . Now she wants me to get a kitten and tells me if I get it, she will come and stay with me on the weekends . My family tells me I cannot buy her, and I know they are right .

    This is just the tip of the iceburg, there is so much more she has done and said to me , I feel I am loosing her. I need help... What to I do ?

    • Deserately Seeking Help

      Hurting Mom Hi.  Your story is almost a mirror image of mine.  My daughter did exactly the same sort of things to me at a similar age (she is now 20) and, like you, I gave in (and still do sometimes) as I did not want to lose my relationship with her.  Big mistake.  Even now she is still manipulating me because she knows I have got to the stage where I am terrified to say no because of all the upset it will cause and mentally I find her arguments very hard to deal with sometimes.  Please try and be firm with your daughter (easier said than done, I know).  It is unlikely that she will walk out of your life because you say no every now and again and she also has to realise that you are also entitled to a life and to move on, but that doesn't mean you don't want her.  I did everything to try and appease her because of my own guilt about her parents splitting up but over the years it really has just made things worse for me, and ultimately her as we have some awful rows.  When she and I are getting along and I look back with her at some of the rows we have had and comment about how I believe she had manipulated me in certain situations, she just grins and admits that she knows she did because I will give in for a quiet life.

      If you hang on in there and try to hold onto your sanity it will help in the long run.  Look around at her friends' parents and ask yourself if they would do the same.  This has really helped me over the years when you realise you do far more for your child than other parents do and yet they seem to get more respect.

      I hope this helps you a little and I really feel for you, but try not to give in too much and do not give up on your new relationship.  You are entitled to be happy as well and if it means you don't see your daughter for a little while because she won't come to you when your boyfriend is there then so be it, but I am sure once she realises you are not going to give in to her blackmail then she will soon be back - she will miss you as much as you miss her.  Don't forget, she will eventually grow up and move on with her life independent of both you and her father and won't be worrying that you my be left on your own. Good luck to you and I hope everything settles down soon.

    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      Hurting Mom

      What a tough situation. I can hear how much you want your

      daughter to remain in your life. It’s also clear you recognize the ways she is

      trying to manipulate you in order to get the things she wants. Know that it’s

      not unusual for kids to try to use circumstances like this to their advantage.

      At 13, she doesn’t have the skills to deal with the situation appropriately. As

      Debbie Pincus explains in the article Does Your Child Act Out to Manipulate You? How to Stop Falling for It , your

      daughter is using emotional blackmail, threatening not to see you, as a way to

      solve the problem of wanting something and not having the ability to get it for

      herself. I know it’s probably distressing to think that if you don’t get her

      what she wants, you won’t see her again. While that may happen, chances are, it

      won’t. Instead of trying to appease her by getting her everything she wants, it

      may be helpful to start establishing some limits and boundaries around

      acceptable behavior. You will probably want to start small. For example, start

      setting some limits around what privileges you will provide for her. I

      understand this is going to be a tough transition to make, to go from buying

      her things out of fear of losing her to limiting what  privileges you provide for her. It may

      be helpful to speak with a counselor who may be able to help you develop a plan

      for moving from where you are to where you want to be. The 211 Helpline can

      give you information on counseling services in your area. You can reach the

      Helpline 24 hours a day by calling 1-800-273-6222. You can also find them

      online at http://www.211.org/. I appreciate you reaching

      out to Empowering Parents for help with this tough situation. I hope you will

      continue to check in to let us know how things are going. Take care.

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