Manipulative behavior in teens can be concerning. Here are signs of manipulative teenage behavior and how to handle it effectively.
As a parent, you know that the teenage years can bring some of the toughest parenting challenges.
As your child reaches adolescence, they may start to undergo all kinds of changes, both physically and emotionally. They’re often exploring and developing their identity, which may involve questioning the values you’ve taught.
Even under the best of circumstances, disagreements and sudden changes in mood may be par for the course during this commonly turbulent time.
It may be hard to tell the difference between typical teenage “acting out” and behavior that’s more concerning, like manipulation.
Manipulative behavior might look like:
- emotional blackmailing
If these behaviors sound familiar, they could be signs of manipulation.
In young children, manipulative behavior is usually easy to spot. But as children grow older, their behavior may become more subtle and nuanced.
Still, most people can sense something is off when they’re being manipulated.
Your teenager may try to make you feel guilty for setting boundaries or imposing consequences or discipline. They might say things like, “Why do you hate me?” or compare you unfavorably to their friends’ parents.
Playing the victim
Your teenager may deflect blame onto others or refuse to accept responsibility for their mistakes. This behavior can often show up in interpersonal conflict at school but might also come up at home.
Playing parents against each other
A teenager may try to use one parent’s words against the other or try to persuade one parent to join them and gang up on the other.
To avoid this, communicate clearly with your partner or co-parent and work to be on the same page regarding expectations and consequences.
Teenagers often need and want things from their parents, and they may use your feelings to control your behavior. For example, a teenager may emotionally blackmail you by acting sad or withholding affection until they get their way.
If they don’t get their way, some teenagers might respond by retaliating, which can look like:
- saying something hurtful
- giving you the silent treatment
- refusing to do what you ask
Behaving angrily or explosively
You probably thought temper tantrums ended after the toddler stage, but teenagers may exhibit this behavior, too. Anger and explosive rage can be some of the easiest manipulative behaviors to spot.
It’s common for teenagers to have a conflict with their parents and even to yell sometimes. But if your child’s anger is excessive or frequent, it may be part of manipulative behavior.
In extreme situations, a teenager may threaten suicide as a manipulation tactic. However, it’s important to always take such statements seriously: Suicide is the
Get help immediately by calling 911, taking your teen directly to the emergency room, or calling the 24-7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Even if you think your teen is expressing thoughts of suicide in the context of manipulative behavior, it’s still important to take it seriously. This also may be a sign that mental health support is needed, whether or not their expressions are genuine.
The above behaviors don’t necessarily mean that your teenager is consciously trying to manipulate you. To get a better understanding of where this behavior is coming from, it may be a good idea to consider the possible causes.
Conflicts or transitions taking place in your child’s life or yours could be a trigger, including:
- \divorce, separation, or a new partner entering the home
- moving to a new house, city, or school
- conflict with siblings or friends
- difficulty with schoolwork
- bullying or social isolation
- traumatic events
- the addition of a new sibling or step-sibling at home
If you can’t identify a cause, you may want to consider speaking to your child’s teachers, sports coaches, and any other authority figures in their life to get as full a picture as you can.
In some cases, it may be difficult to understand the reasons for manipulative behavior in your teen, which is another reason getting support from a mental health professional can be helpful.
If you’ve realized that your teenager is trying to manipulate you, you’re probably feeling a real mix of emotions. You may feel angry, sad, confused, or even betrayed.
Try to make some space for yourself to process your feelings, both in the moment and after the fact. Speaking with your partner, co-parent, therapist, or another supportive individual can be helpful in addressing these behaviors in your teen.
In some cases, the best way to respond is to address the behavior directly.
Consider calmly and firmly setting boundaries with your child by making it clear what your expectations are and what actions are unacceptable. Communicate and consistently enforce consequences that will come with breaking the rules.
It’s common for teens to test boundaries to see where there’s room to expand or break them. Intervening immediately is often the most effective approach:
- Communicate the boundaries again.
- Discuss the disobedient or disrespectful behaviors.
- Enforce the consequences.
Clear communication is often beneficial in setting rules, as well as respecting your teen’s personal boundaries.
Avoid accidental ‘rewards’
It also can be important to avoid rewarding any manipulative behavior. Remember that in some cases, even negative attention can be a “reward.”
Try to calmly get to the root of the problem
Sometimes, focusing too much on the behavior itself can be a distraction from the root problem. If there are any specific issues that you think may be causing your child to act out, try to bring this up in a calm and validating manner.
Consider encouraging them to be honest about anything that’s bothering them, and try to actively listen to what they’re telling you.
Teens may exhibit manipulative behaviors when they need something, such as wanting to feel more loved, safe, validated, or supported, for example.
However, your child’s feelings aren’t the problem. How they may be using manipulative behavior to express their needs can be troubling.
Building a healthy relationship
This behavior isn’t usually something teenagers consciously or intentionally engage in. They may turn to manipulative behavior because they might feel as though it’s the only way to get their needs met.
If you focus on building a healthy, positive relationship in which they feel able to speak their mind, the situation may begin to improve.
Showing your teen that you care about them is one of many ways to strengthen your relationship with them. Some simple ways to show you care and potentially decrease manipulative behaviors can include:
- spending time together doing activities you both enjoy
- regularly checking in with them about how they’re doing
- validating their feelings
- being respectful of their boundaries
- setting a good example of the behavior you’d like to see
Focusing on positive reinforcement and a healthy relationship is much easier and more effective than punishing negative behavior.
Provide consistent consequences
Your teen needs to know that trying to manipulate you isn’t acceptable. Try to be calm and caring — but firm and clear with communication about their behavior and the consequences.
Consider holding a family meeting to develop a consensual contract that outlines house rules and repercussions. Choose constructive consequences, such as removing access to TV or their car until they go one week without engaging in manipulative behaviors.
Not enforcing the consequences you’ve laid out may encourage manipulative behavior, so it’s important to consistently follow through. Not addressing manipulative behavior in teens can encourage a pattern that may impact their future adult relationships.
Seek professional help
Sometimes, teens can become manipulative as a response to an underlying issue. If your efforts to get them to drop their manipulative behaviors fail — or they open up about the root cause of their behavior — it can be a good idea to get professional help.
Depending on the situation, you could find a therapist for family or individual mental health treatment.
Try not to let your teenager’s manipulative behavior get to you. As upsetting and overwhelming as it may feel, it can be a natural part of their emotional development, and it doesn’t have to mean anything negative for the long term.
By becoming aware of the problem, you’ve already taken the first step toward a solution.
Be sure to tend to your own mental health as well as your child’s. You might consider attending individual therapy or participating in a support group or online forum to share your experience with other parents.