One question parents ask me often is: What do I do when my child is manipulating me?
Maybe they go behind your back and ask their other parent or another adult in the room, for something you’ve already said no to. Maybe they throw a temper tantrum until you “give in” to what they want. Whatever it is, it feels manipulative, And you’re at a loss for what to do.
The good news is that this type of behavior is common, and is often harmless. And it doesn’t mean that your child is out to get you! But I hear you: It can be infuriating, exhausting and even hurtful, to say the least.
Here are a few things your child might be trying to tell you when they display these “manipulative” behaviors, and what you can do about it.
What causes manipulative behavior in kids?
Just so we’re clear, children – or at least the vast majority of children – aren’t inherently manipulative by nature.
Manipulation, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary, is to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one's own advantage.
In other words, we often think of manipulation as someone purposely using their behavior to try to trick or exploit us in some way. Kids at a young age don't understand this level of exploitation. Yes, they are smart and know how to work us but more on this later.
As a mom, I completely understand that our children’s behavior can sometimes feel very manipulative. Sometimes, it feels like they are behaving in a certain way intentionally to push our buttons. And often, children do learn how to use their charms – or disruptive behaviors – to change our opinion and get us to do something for them.
For example, they might whine about a decision we made until we change our mind. You might also notice your child demonstrating "manipulative" behaviors toward their siblings or friends. For example, they might tell a lie to a younger child to get something out of them.
For many of the parents I work with this can be very concerning for them. The question I inevitably get is – why do kids behave in “manipulative” ways sometimes?
The answer is usually they are just doing what they have learned gets them what they want. In other words, kids "manipulate" because it works. They aren’t scheming "little brats" or as some parents will say "a**holes". They’ve simply learned how to get you (or other people) to give them what they want by behaving in a certain way.
These types of behaviors also aren’t usually intended to hurt or annoy you, even though it might feel like that sometimes. Your child probably doesn’t even realize how much these behaviors upset you. They’re simply trying to get their needs met in any way they can.
So, what can you do about “manipulative” behavior?
If you’re anything like me, what usually happens when your child shows manipulative behaviors is: you become upset, take it personally, assume you're being taken advantage of, or that your child is intentionally trying to outsmart you. All of which can make you feel angry.
You may feel like you are being challenged into battle with them and therefore need to “fight” or show them who’s boss and nip this behavior in the bud.
The problem is that children aren’t yet at the developmental level to do battle with us. It feels like they’re inviting us into battle, and I totally get that – but try to remember that what we see as “manipulation” is just a way – albeit a maladaptive way – your child is trying to get their needs met.
Instead, the next time you feel like your child is “manipulating” you, try these things.
Try changing the way you think about the behavior you are noticing. Instead of viewing it and describing it as manipulation, focus on what strengths this type of behavior represents in your child. For example, do these behaviors show cleverness? Creativity? A flair for the dramatic arts?
One thing I often highlight to parents is how this type of behavior means their child is smart – they have learned what they need to do to get what they want and they are using it. This skill is definitely something that can serve them better later in life and even when negotiating play with other children.
The next time you feel like your child is manipulating you, you might say to yourself: “They don’t have the developmental capacity to intentionally battle with me. They’re behaving this way because they have a need, and are simply replicating what has worked for them in the past."
Check in on yourself
Again, children often use ‘manipulative” behavior in a maladaptive effort to get what they want. They learn that they can influence people in this way. One effective strategy is to check in with how your reactions to your child’s “manipulative” behavior might be causing it to continue.
For example, let’s say that you tell your child they can’t have a certain item from the store. Your child begins to cry and may even escalate into a temper tantrum. Eventually, out of embarrassment, exhaustion, etc. you give in and give them what they initially wanted.
While I understand all the factors that come into play into giving in - unfortunately, by doing so, we are teaching the child that they can change our mind by behaving in a certain way. So, why would they behave any differently despite our reminders, pleads and negotiations.
Be mindful of how you and other adults might be contributing to conditioning behavior. This is not me saying it is your “fault,” but it does mean it is an area that needs modification so you can teach your child that such behavior isn’t the way to get their needs met.
Check in with your child
Lastly, check in with your child needs. Remember, most kids show these types of behaviors as a way to get their needs met. Instead of focusing only on the behavior, make sure you’re also looking at what your child needs. For example, are they hungry? Are they tired? Do they need more attention from you?
Or could something deeper be going on? Could they be sick, anxious about something or experiencing any kind of sensory issue? Figuring all of this out can be overwhelming and this is usually when child and family therapy can be helpful.
Young children either don’t have the vocabulary to describe how they’re feeling or express their deepest needs or don’t know which words to use. As a result, we see a lot of "misbehavior". I specialize in working with children aged 3 to 9 and their parents to help figure out what the child's needs are and how to reduce "tantrum/manipulative" behavior.
Get in touch with me to join my waitlist! If you are not interested in therapy right now but want to get some monthly parenting support, check out my latest support groups.
As we close out this year, I would like to thank you for all of your support in reading and sharing my blog posts. I hope they are helpful to you. Wishing you and your loved ones a very happy holidays. See you next year!
Christine M. Valentín
Welcome to my blog where I provide tips on common struggles children and parents experience and how to work through them. Sign up below.