“My kids are driving me crazy! They are so manipulative I can’t stand it!”
Does this sound familiar? Or how about these:
“My middle schooler blackmails me emotionally – he cries that I don’t care about him and that I love his brother more when I ask him to stop playing video games. He’s more difficult than his brother, and we always fight. But, his words make me feel so guilty that I let him continue to play.”
“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.”
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 essential 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—perhaps more often than we’d like to admit. Parents have busy lives and many stressors, and we can only take so much.
Understand that for your child, finding ingenious ways to get what she wants or to 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 helpful 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 remember that these traits can be a force for good if you can help your child use them properly and balance them with self-restraint and respect for boundaries.
Look at it this way: your kid’s job is to make demands, communicate desires, and try to get their needs met as best they can. Your job is not to get stirred up and give in to those demands. Instead, try to help your child balance the energy of his endless wants with self-control and integrity.
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, you feel disrespected, and you withdraw. Or, you give in to your child’s demands to avoid conflict and keep the peace.
Sometimes you might tighten your grip to show that you’re in control. Unfortunately, this usually invites a power struggle with your child because she starts pushing back. If you tighten your grip more 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 sometimes be easy to take manipulative tactics personally. You think, “If he loved me, he would never lie to me.” Or, “If she cared about me, she would never try to sneak behind my back 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 into these behaviors. Instead, treat them as behavior problems rather than moral or character deficiencies.
When we step back, we 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 typical behaviors such as emotional blackmail, lying, tantrums, shutting down, negotiating relentlessly, or playing the victim that they can get what they seek. And it works. The danger is when those behaviors become a way of life for your child rather than something that only happens between parent and child.
Remember, kids can only manipulate us if we permit them to. It takes two to tango, but only one to change this pattern.
So how do we help them and ourselves so that we can stop the pattern of manipulation? Here are some tips for parents who are stuck in the manipulation cycle.
You need to recognize manipulative behaviors so that 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 because they trigger a reaction in us. Therefore, pay attention to your triggers.
For example, what if one of your triggers is that you can’t stand to see your child unhappy? If so, your child might try to blackmail you emotionally by acting sad until he gets what he wants. 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 something like the following:
“I’m sorry you’re sad, but you’re still grounded this weekend.”
Other common behaviors include lying, shutting down, and screaming the following: “I hate you!”; “You don’t care about me!”; “That’s not fair!”
Don’t take these statements personally. Respond by saying:
“I know you’re angry with me, but you do need to put your bike away now.”
“I know you don’t see this as fair, but you must 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 the emotional content from what your child is trying to get. Hear her feelings about being the “only one,” but stand firm on your curfew time.
Parenting Tip: It’s helpful to write down the many different behaviors and words your child does and says to throw you off balance. Prepare for how you will respond next time you hear them.
Related content: Masters of Manipulation: How Kids Control You With Behavior
Triggers are behaviors that upset you and get you to react. They can be a tone of voice, a specific look, or an attitude. Manipulative behaviors, therefore, might set you off. You are less likely to get set off if you know your triggers and prepare for them.
For example, if you have a strong need for approval from your child, 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.
Parenting Tip: Write down your top three triggers and remind yourself often what they are.
Manipulative behaviors are designed to throw you off balance and create self-doubt. Defining your parenting principles 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. Show empathy toward their feelings, but stick to your established principles. Guiding your kids with your well-thought-out principles will generally be better than ensuring everyone feels good.
Parenting Tip: Write down your most important parenting principles and refer to them when you feel like you’re being manipulated.
Don’t get angry at your child for trying to go after what she wants in life. Would you 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 see that not doing what he is asked and ignoring your rules will not be effective in getting him what he wants. On the contrary, it will only get him in further trouble.
Help him learn to ask directly for what he wants. Instead of fighting you, he might know 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 more nicely.” Or “I think I’m old enough for a later curfew. Can we come up with a plan together?”
When your child asks for what he wants, listen. Give his requests the consideration they deserve. That does not mean always saying yes, but 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.
Have faith that your child is a work in progress and can improve. They might need to learn better ways to manage themselves in life, but they are not morally defective because they try to manipulate us. Their intentions are not to “get us” or make our lives miserable. However, if we believe that’s their intention, we will see them that way.
Believing in our children will help them understand they’re not defective and can change and get what they want more appropriately.
Learn how to soothe yourself when you’re anxious or distressed. Take charge of your emotional health. Don’t give in to your kids’ manipulations so you can feel calmer.
If you need your child to be happy or to validate you, 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 grow to depend on them.
Instead, learn to tolerate your child being upset, which will help them learn better behavior. Managing your calm will free your kids up to learn how to manage their own lives and meet their needs met more successfully.
Kids need limits. Even though they’ll rarely say it out loud, kids need us to have backbones and to set those limits. Of course, they will test those limits and 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.
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.