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.
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?
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.”
- 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.
About Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
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.