Do Children Manipulate Their Parents?

“Silly question!” you might exclaim. “Of course children manipulate their parents! My children do it all the time, and it drives me crazy!”

We tend to call it manipulation when a child looks at us, and then proceeds to do something they know is off limits, like dump planter dirt on the carpet, or throw their sister’s toy across the room. We call it manipulation when a child begs for something from one parent, and, hearing “No,” goes straight to the other parent to wheedle some more. And we call it manipulation when children do the exact behavior that drives us wild, over and over again, at times when our patience is already stretched thin.

Sometimes, it feels like our kids are out to “get” us. It feels like they want the power in the parent-child relationship, and the harder we try to hold our ground, the more brazen their efforts to rock our sanity and undermine our authority.

Assuming that Children are Manipulative Leads to Unhappy Interactions

When we interpret children’s behavior as manipulative, there are several well-trod but unpleasant paths that we have been taught to follow in our response.

• We feel accosted, so we attack in return, with punishment, heavy disapproval, or isolation.

• We feel unappreciated, so we withdraw our warmth and willingness to connect.

• We feel we need to teach the child a lesson, so we lecture, scold, and mete out unpleasant consequences.

• We tighten our grip on “the controls” in the family, in an effort to stay in charge.

• We become legalistic, and hunt for further transgressions.

In short, the perception that our children are manipulative tends to send us into a highly unpleasant state of mind. We have less fun as parents. Our children have less fun too. We don’t like to tighten up like this, but we’re told that our children have “asked for it,” and that we’re obligated to respond with ever more surveillance, and ever more unpleasant responses. It’s hard to know what else to do!

What Feels Like Manipulation is a Need that’s Gone Unmet

But what if children don’t try to manipulate their parents at all? What if they’re persistently reaching out for the love and connection their minds require in order to function?

It’s easier to see that feeling manipulated is something that happens inside us, not something that children do to us, if we consider a less personal example. Do you remember what it’s like to lie in bed at night and hear a constant “drip, drip, drip” of a leak in a nearby faucet? If you’re reasonably rested, you’ve fixed leaks before and you have tools and know-how, you go to sleep, and set aside a quarter-hour the next day, get out your tools, and replace a washer. End of story. The leak doesn’t rock your emotional boat.

But if you’re short on rest and your own unmet needs are throbbing, that sound can kick up big feelings of upset. It can trigger feelings of “That’s the last straw!” When you don’t know how to fix a leak, don’t have the tools, and haven’t had a moment to yourself in the past two months, that leak feels monumental. The faucet isn’t to blame. It’s signaling that a simple piece of work needs to be done. No one is out to “get” you. But your mind looks for someone to blame, someone to take the heat for causing trouble on top of difficulty on top of bother.

And so it is with children’s behavior. Every behavior that departs from playful, flexible, enthusiastic participation in family life has a message for us about a need that, at some time or another, wasn’t met. Children’s needs go deep. Their needs can’t be dialed down when we’re tired and seek some peace and quiet. And children sometimes carry the feelings from unmet needs they once had into their present moments, like they cling to a blankie or a pacifier. The actual need may be long gone. But the feeling of need can be strong and present.

To complicate things, we parents don’t necessarily come to parenting well equipped to meet our children’s needs. If we haven’t had a lot of play in our lives, children’s desire to play feels burdensome. If we haven’t been treated well when we cried or had tantrums as a child, their feelings burn, and we badly want to control, extinguish, or dismiss their emotional moments. When we’re trying to get household tasks done or to meet a demanding schedule, our children’s need for love, kindness, and affection feels like a real imposition.

Lack of Resource for Parents is the Real Difficulty

The real culprit in the set-up for parents is a society that doesn’t care to offer information, tools, and good old-fashioned help to parents. We feel manipulated by our children as they try to connect with us, but that feeling arises because we’re juggling more than one full-time job at once. If we were rested, and if had dear ones who came and played with our children, woke with them in the night, cooked meals when we were too frazzled, and listened to our worries and frustration, we’d be delighted to meet our children’s needs. The set-up we’re in is far too meager for parents, and it’s not right for children. So of course we feel yanked by their needs. A different understanding of their behavior can help alleviate some of the trouble.

Try Allowing for an Emotional Safety Valve

Children need regular access to an emotional safety valve, and they need us to care about them while they use it. That safety valve is the chance to cry broken-heartedly, to tantrum at full throttle, to thrash and shriek and tremble if they’ve been frightened, and to laugh and giggle (but not because they’re being forced by tickling) for good long stretches. They come equipped to get from “difficult” to “sunny,” through the passionate, eager expression of whatever feelings are stuck inside. As we listen and care (and sometimes, hold a reasonable limit or expectation), they unload their emotional burden. It’s simple, and it works! The underlying assumption is that, when children are pushing our buttons, they can’t feel anyone there. And more than anything else, they need to feel connected. Connection is oxygen for their minds. Listening to them while holding a reasonable limit helps them regain that sense of connection that allows their minds to shift into “I’m glad to be here!” mode.

Interpreting Children’s Behavior, with Connection at the Center

So when a child looks at you, and then proceeds to do something she knows is off limits, like dumping potting soil on the carpet, or throwing her sister’s toy across the room, she’s saying, “I need to feel connected to you. We’re in the same room, but I just can’t feel you there! Help!” Set limits by getting close and stopping her, and then Staylisten, so she can cry or tantrum until she feels close to you again. You have a tool, and your attention is a powerful balm for her mind. She’ll use her inborn “safety valve” to release the pent-up feelings that were underneath that unhappy behavior.

When you’ve said “No” to your child, and she goes straight to your partner to plead her case, she’s saying, “I have big feelings about needing this thing. If I don’t get it, I’ll show you how big my feelings are. I want you to know me, inside and out!” A second “No” will set off those big feelings, feelings appropriate to some situation, possibly long past, in which she felt bereft. You or your partner can Staylisten with confidence, holding the limit but offering kindness no matter how hard or long she cries. She doesn’t really need to have her way, but she does need to have her big cry or tantrum. Her disappointment gushes out. You stay close. Soon, she’ll recover her ability to feel pleased and content.

When your child is doing the exact behavior that drives you wild, and your patience is already stretched thin, she’s signaling, “I can see that you’re fading away from me. When you go away like that, I panic! Who will connect with me? Help!” Your best tools at times like this are Special Time—giving your child your undivided attention, even if it’s just five minutes—and later, a Listening Partnership for yourself, so that you can talk and debrief with another adult. Unless you’re unusually fortunate, you do this work of parenting with far too little time to check in with yourself, and with far too little time to sort out your own thoughts, priorities, feelings, and needs. A Listening Partnership can clean your mental windshield, letting you enjoy your children and see both their beauty and their efforts to connect with you.

“My Child Needs to Connect” Leads to More Generous Behavior

Making the assumption that a child wants and needs to connect will lead down sunnier pathways. Here are the kinds of thinking that many parents find this assumption leads to, once you get the hang of it.

• When you see how well children respond to Staylistening and other listening tools, you’ll feel like you know how to help. You’ll listen when you can, giving your child a chance to feel your caring, and giving yourself a chance to relax and express your love right when it’s most needed.

• You may feel unappreciated, but you can use a Listening Partnership to talk about and release the feelings of having your hard work go unnoticed. You won’t look to your child to take care of your feelings, which she can’t really do. Instead, you will develop a relationship with a listener who can and will appreciate the good job you’re doing as a parent.

• You can finally skip the lecturing, scolding, and punishments, and let the limit you set speak for itself. You’ll see that you can trust your child to have much improved wisdom about the issue at hand when he’s finished crying or having his tantrum. Trusting her will relax you, and relax her too!

• You’ll be able to spend less time telling your children what to do, and more time trusting them to show you how smart and willing they are when they’re feeling close to you, and to show you what limits you need to bring to them when they’re not feeling good.

• You’ll seek out Special Time and Playlistening with your children, and set up Listening Partnerships to sweeten your relationship with them. You’ll be able to give more respect to yourself, and to the resource it takes to parent our children.

• Because you have acquired tools for handling emotional moments, it will be easier to stop expecting perfection from yourself or your children. We’re all learning!

Patty Wipfler Patty Wipfler Founder, Program Director, and Trainer

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