Child Behavior: Is Your Child Manipulating You?

Kids manipulate parents all the time using their charms and strengths to swing decisions in their favor. In reality, they are negotiating for power.

Manipulative behavior springs from the need to manage, control and influence another for one’s own advantage. In children, it manifests itself in many forms, from a charming smile (harmless) and whining , to serious threats.

Behavioral Problems Start Early

A baby of a few months knows that it will be picked up if it cries. As a parent, you will get used to differentiating between a genuine cry and one that is manipulative.

Toddlers push their limits by doing things they’re not supposed to, hoping to get their own way. They feel you will only hear them if they shout loud enough. Once you give in, you’ll find yourself in their ‘control’.

When a child gets a definite ‘no’ from one parent, it is not unusual for him/her to wheedle his way into getting a positive answer from the other.

How To Tell If You’re Being Manipulated

Sometimes, it is hard to differentiate between authentic feelings and feelings designed to manipulate. Genuine feelings spring from the death of a pet, inability to cope with lessons, quarrels with friends etc. You need to recognize emotional suffering and be caring and compassionate while dealing with it.

Manipulative emotions are often tied up with non-issues like tussles over dress, curfew time, food etc. However, these may hide a deeper need, which as a parent you will have to ferret out.

When Are Parents Vulnerable To Manipulation?

Parents are vulnerable to their child’s manipulative behavior when:

  • Their children identify their weaknesses
  • They lack confidence
  • They feel guilt
  • They have a hidden agenda
  • They have a conflicting relationship with the spouse
  • They are physically exhausted, mentally stressed out and emotionally drained

When Parents React Immaturely

Parents often react very inappropriately to their child’s manipulative behavior when:

  • Manipulation is construed as a personal attack. We mete out punishment, show obvious disapproval or isolate children
  • We feel sorry for ourselves, feel we are taken for granted and treat our children with coldness instead of warmth and understanding
  • We feel the need to teach the child a lesson s/he will never forget
  • We take stricter measures to show who’s in charge
  • We’re always on the look out for unpleasantness and often turn innocent expressions of feelings into attempts at manipulation.

The result – our minds are in constant fear. Parenting becomes a ‘far from fun’ experience and the mood is passed on to the children – with disastrous consequences.

Prime Targets For Manipulation

Overindulgent Parents

When you give your children material things and don’t believe in saying ‘no’ to his or her demands, the child gets confused when at some point something is withheld from him.

This could result in violent behavior or threats. The child measures his worth by the things you give him and equates ‘getting’ with being loved. A ‘dictator’ is born.

Permissive Parents

In a home that exudes a permissive atmosphere, it need not necessarily be what you give the child as what you allow him to get away with.

One fine day you decide to clamp down on him. The child tries to manipulate you into retracting the new rule. He becomes destructive as he thinks your love has been withdrawn from him.

Rules are essential for children to gradually learn self discipline. They have to be taught that not following rules will bring consequences.

Overprotective and Domineering Parents

The child is not allowed to take simple decisions. Everything is done for him. You don’t trust him to pack his books in his bag or fill his water bottle. Such a child often has difficulties in school. If, on the advice of the teacher, the parents change their parenting methods abruptly, the child assumes he is not loved.

In severe cases, children are known to run away from school or home. This is the only way a child feels he can gain ‘control’ over his parents. The common mistake in these instances is lack of consistency in the way parents deal with their children.

Dysfunctional or Broken Homes

When parents don’t get along or are divorced or separated, children are insecure. Threatened by change, they take advantage of the situation to play one against the other. They become manipulative by controlling the flow of information.

Parents, for their part, vie for the child’s attention by indulging them. They worry about the effect the divorce may have on them and give in to their every whim. Manipulative behavior in the form of emotional blackmail could be the outcome.

Whiny Child

Are you reacting inappropriately to your child’s manipulative behavior?

How To Respond Responsibly

Present A United Front

Children nose out which one of their parents is a ‘weak link’ and often exploit the situation. It is therefore important for parents to work as a team. Communication is the key. If your spouse is not present, check with him/her and then give an answer.

If for instance you both have decided that your kid should do his homework before he plays his favorite video game or goes out to play, stick by it. When a parent ‘passes an order’ the other should never oppose him or her, or even show disapproval.

Children pick up on this and manipulate the one likely to capitulate. If you disagree with your spouse’s way of dealing with the child, talk about it privately. If the rule has to be changed it should be done by the one who laid it down in the first place.

Reach Out To Your Child

Children who try to manipulate parents are trying to make them listen. They feel isolated and have deeper needs that haven’t been met. Connection with a parent is their lifeline.

Children need to vent their feelings. When their bottled-up emotions erupt in heartrending sobs, give them a good, long hug. Listen to what they have to say. They need to get their feelings out into the open. Show that you understand and care. Express your love.

Children need demonstrations of love, some more than others. When you are there for them, they readily unburden themselves. When they know they don’t need to be manipulative to get your attention, they’ll stop using tactics for attention.

Avoid Power Struggles

If the child has refused to comply with your request, s/he will only get more adamant if you insist that it be done immediately. The child may try to argue and make you out to be gorgons compared to his friend’s parents.

Don’t retort, much as you are tempted to. Make your point calmly that if he doesn’t comply, there will be consequences. Walk away from the argument. In this way, you stop the struggle for power.

This also gives the child time to reconsider. More often than not, he will come round. Once the situation is defused, show the child he is loved. You could cook them their favorite meal. Rewards are important.

Set Clear Limits

Children are dependent on their parents. They need to be protected and guided. Their dependence decreases with age, but equality is only arrived at when they become adults.

Parents have the authority and responsibility to provide reasonable rules that a child is obliged to follow. In a dysfunctional relationship, the roles are reversed. Parents are often intimidated – rather than risk confrontations, they allow their kids to lay down the law.

Contrary to what we may think, children welcome rules. When you say ‘no’ to your kid, he/she probably goes to your spouse to enlist sympathy. When there’s a definite ‘no’ from that quarter too, the child is bound to feel disappointed.

Don’t lecture, scold or punish. However, don’t relax your limit. Trust your child. You’ll be surprised to find how soon the incident is forgotten and the child is on an even keel again. Limits give the child security.

Special Time For Bonding

Whatever else you may give up when you are rushed, never compromise on the special time you spend with your children. It may be at mealtimes, at bedtime, at a cricket or tennis match – you need time to bond with your children.

If you give them undivided attention, you can be sure they’ll divulge all their dreams and frustrations. Don’t be judgmental. All they’re asking for is your encouragement and sympathy. What’s more, it will help you understand your child better – and maybe yourself too.

Appreciate Without Overpraising

Like all human beings, children need you to appreciate their work, their little gestures. When a child spends a whole day making a card for you, appreciate the gesture and admire his efforts.

Suppress the art critic in you! Above all, don’t be indifferent. Let him feel you care. You don’t need to make a public display of it, showing it to all who come around. This may even embarrass the child.

Children manipulate you if you allow them to. Let them know early enough who’s in charge. Once we learn how to manage our own feelings, we can help our children manage theirs. Are we manipulative in our relationships? Children imitate parents, so be a good role model.

Do you wish your child to grow up to be a happy, responsible, resilient and well adjusted adult? Which parent doesn’t! Address manipulation now.

Copyright © Jean Isaacs

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Photo credit mrgoose


  1. mercylivi August 6, 2010
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