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The Manipulative Child

The Manipulative Child

Red flags and how to break the cycle.


Ten-year-old Becca could play “Annie” with her bright red hair and freckles. But Becca’s too busy running the household. Whether it’s bedtime or a visit to bubbe, Becca makes the rules. “I’m not going and you can’t make me!” Her parents, afraid to upset her, fail to see this for what it is ... manipulation by “drama.”

“If you make me go to school today, I’ll throw up!” says David, eight. His “nervous stomach” is perfectly tuned to his “don’t want-to-do” list. His parents let him “time off” watching Spongebob and learning to pronounce “gastroenteritis.” They fail to see this for what it is ... manipulation by “blackmail.”

“If you don’t talk to Abby, I’ll let you have my very best glitter. BUT if you do, I’ll TELL EVERYONE THAT YOU .........” threatens Debby, 11. Abby was exiled, and her “friends” came to Debby’s pajama party – in glitter. Mom thinks she’s “popular,” failing to see this for what it is ... manipulation by “bribery.”

The goal of manipulation is more often the attempt to gain control over anxiety through avoidance.

Most of us think of manipulation as a method of getting something that’s denied us, whether it’s that vacation we want, or, the “upper-hand.” Yet, the goal of manipulation is more often the attempt to gain control over anxiety through avoidance, especially in new or stressful situations. Even as ethical adults, who among us hasn’t cancelled that root canal due to “flu” or begged off an unpleasant hospital visit?

With young children, every experience holds new anxiety-triggers. I’ve yet to meet a child who hasn’t tried some of the tricks above to avoid fear of failure, loss of face, or challenges – at least once or twice.

But, when I use the term “manipulative child,” I’m referring to those who routinely use devious devices. Tragically, while they may “win” through lying, whining, guilting, bullying or bribing in the short run, they’ll inevitably face failure, frustration, a lack of esteem, confidence – and ethics in the long run.

After all, they’ve learned early that these avoidance tricks worked. As they head toward adulthood and find that life doesn’t always suit them, these “skills” get shakier. Unable to exercise honest, ethical, straightforward strategies to manage anxiety, they flail powerless, and fail time and time again, sometimes dropping out, or turning to other risky behaviors,

bothered, bewildered, blaming – and remaining dependent “kids” until they’re on Medicare. Listen ...

“My son’s 42 and he still lives with me, rent-free, while I do his laundry and cook his meals.”

“My daughter, 32, can’t keep a husband or a job, and keeps demanding money. When I tell her I’m living on Social Security, she whines, begs, or argues!”

“We’re sick of bailing our 25-year-old out! While other parents are worried about being ‘empty-nesters,’ we’re praying to join them!”

As these “kids” continued on the path of subverting long term goals through opportunistic, deceptive behavior, they remained stunted; locked in infantile patterns that destroyed esteem and ethics, making true friendship and commitment to anything or anyone almost impossible.

Related Article: Discipline 911

Red Flags in Our Children

We know we’re dealing with a manipulative child when he or she routinely:

  1. argues or whine incessantly over everything from rules to responsibilities.
  2. distorts or edits reality. Most popular is the circular “why” tactic. They’ll come up with endless reasons why they can’t/shouldn’t/needn’t do it, and why “it’s stupid, unfair, or “unnecessary.”
  3. wears us down like rabid trial lawyers until we give in.
  4. deceives us through promising, lying, making excuses, procrastinating or “negotiating” (like rabid trial lawyers).

Parents as Manipulative Partners

For these tricks to work, the child must have a willing partner – us! In a home where a child’s manipulation rules, we’ve abdicated our parental role to that of “appeasers” and “fixers.” Despite rationalizations, giving in is “easier” in the short-term, even if we’re setting up disaster. The recipe for the care and feeding of little manipulators include parents who:

1. Try to appease their children and avoid any unpleasantness. When we fail to teach them how to manage reality or “change the rules” to accommodate them, we create wormholes for them to creep through. 

2. Confuse boundaries between parent and child. When no one’s in charge, our little ones “step up.” 

3. Foster dependence. When children expect others to “make them feel good,” or solve their problems, failures becomes everyone else’s fault. 

4. Use manipulative discipline. False promises and bribing teach children how to play the game.

5. Place material things over deeper, ethical core values.

Breaking the Manipulation Cycle

It starts by not letting it start or continue.

1. We parents need to recognize our own “partnership.” It’s uncomfortable admitting we’re afraid of not being “loved” by our children, of setting limits, but owning up is essential in stopping the cycle. More, we need to ask ourselves, “Do we whine, kvetch, avoid, blame, bully?” If so, we’re teaching Manipulation 101.

2. Close wormholes! With new principles in place, get family rules and expectations in place. Post them. Consequences must be predictable and don’t change with the decibel level of our child – or our inconvenience. At first, the child will become ever more “creative.” Any exception is a set-back. The message: “It won’t work!” will only work with absolute consistency.

3. Empathize and support without “fixing.” Instead of doing that report for your child, or letting her stay home, the new response? “I know it’s hard. I also know you can do it. Calm down and work.” When we let them know we have expectations and trust their ability, instead of “I can’t,” they’ll learn, “I can, and I must.”

4. Reward truth, ethics, and yes, even failure. A successful adult owns it all honestly, then evaluates and persists.

It’s our job to create successful adults. Adults who get what they want through straight-shooting, taking on challenges they fear, and accepting responsibility for themselves.

More, the non-manipulator will also be manipulation proof! A child who is sure-footed is unlikely to be bullied, conned, or controlled. All it requires is getting them off the manipulative merry-go-round, by standing our ground. And that means that we, as parents, must stand on firm ground.

August 13, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 28

(14) Matthew Ferrantino, April 7, 2017 1:40 AM

False Accusations

This advice covers all areas except one: when one side or another becomes convinced that unjust manipulation is going on on PURPOSE when it's occuring more by ACCIDENT. I am at a strange place where the key to survive appears to be being better at manipulating sometimes than "the competition", but other times, it's only one side "playing" at a time-- and rather than any real all seems an accidental mess that everyone's trying to fix but everyone's bad at fixing too, based on backlogged histories and grudges becoming what people believe more than what really happened. The only solution to the trap of mutual abuse is to stop trying to do anything at all other than to keep kind promises and letgo of angry threats in an effort to restore belief that any goodwill is present. Once people trust each other again, then it is SAFE AND necessary to re-establish formal consequences. It also pays to make sure that rather than drive each other into relational debt, when you feel ready to restore order, pick something they can actually pay as a reasonable consequence, so that you can see them keep their word if they want to and have the means. It's less like trial lawyers and more like congressmen and businessmen. The creation of the new habit that a rule is actually binding is still at the center, though.

(13) Lindsey, March 31, 2017 7:35 PM

Boundaries for Non-Related

THANK YOU so much for this article; you're awesome!!

I'm an ENFP & my boyfriend's youngest sibling fits the Red Flag description to a T. I want to help him because he's still a kid & there are consequences esp. when you get older w/ relationships, but he acts flat out blameless even though he's the 1 that mainly starts the trouble (I'm thinking cause he wants attention).
Manipulation seems to be my Achilles heel & I feel as though I'm going to at some point explode & inquire sarcastically exactly how old he is & just when is he going to wear his big-boy pants.

I have quite a few EXTREMELY MANIPULATIVE relatives of my own & how my family deals with it is totally avoid them at all cost because they're users & just make everyone MISERABLE.
HOWEVER, I'm building my life w/ my b-friend & they are family orientated & I don't want to judge/overstep my boundaries/authority esp. w/ the parents.
What should I do?

I keep thinking 1-on-1 w/ b-friend &/or parents about this subject by showing this (amazing) article. But that's a tough pill to swallow/overstepping, but wanting to help, not criticize... AHHHHHHH!!!
Please & thank you!

(12) shalynn, February 5, 2017 9:09 PM

back talking and saying no

my 5 year old thinks he runs everything he will say no to everything. or hes not going to do this or that or when he gets older hes gonna do this to me or that to me. and when I place him in timeout to discipline him he will laugh consistently or try to be extra nice and hug me to get out of time out .. I have lost all control over him and I have tried everything instead of taking away I have placed an reward/ award system.. I cannot go on anymore he is hyperactive and is on a low dose of medication that works until about 300 pm and then all heck breaks lose and I don't know what do do anymore please help

(11) KR, July 3, 2014 10:09 PM

thank you

Discovering this was timely. I'm helping a nearly-40-year-old man reset his mess of a life. He has, as others have described, learned to survive through manipulation. Gangs taught him to "hustle." Betrayals taught him to distrust -- and not how to be trustworthy. Ever-impending doom taught him to live in "flight" mode; planning and execution are yet far-off hopes.

However, when the desperation turns to manipulation and divisiveness and chaos, and when attempting to control the symptoms just makes them increase, recognizing the manipulation to be a form of RESPONSE TO THE ANXIETY helped me track down the ROOT, and help that to be addressed.

I was glad to find this site; it's advice whose source I trust :) Thanks again!

(10) no tolerance, April 8, 2013 6:01 AM

Parents are shameful

parents of manipulative kids are shameful. Thinking setting boundaries or discipline will widen the affection gap.

Simple things can be used to straighten out children like if they whine or whinge in cars, public places; drop them off a kerb and let them take a walk home.

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