Dealing with a manipulative child? Stay calm, acknowledge feelings, and carry on, suggest the experts.
If you’re a parent, teacher, or coach who finds a child is manipulating you, it may help to know that they’re not unusual and you’re not alone. In the process of discovering their impact on their environment, kids naturally try to influence those around them.
These behaviors can manipulate you — sometimes by design, sometimes unintentionally.
Manipulation, if left unchecked, can worsen as the child ages and lead to relationships that are:
- codependent or enabled
- strained or dysfunctional
Teaching a child in your care mindful strategies to get their wants fulfilled and emotions validated can help them develop healthy relationships in the long run. And it can help you feel more at ease in your relationship with your child.
Isn’t my child too young to be manipulative?
Probably not! Babies as young as 15 months can cry knowing their parents come to pick them up. In a 2018 study, 188 multidisciplinary teachers in a Russian preschool observed 160 common childhood manipulations among kids ages 3-7.
Some older children even picked “easy” marks to manipulate. These kids weren’t necessarily manipulating out of cruelty, however, but because they saw it worked to fill their needs.
What causes this child to be so manipulative?
Children (not just yours and even young ones!) start manipulating adults and each other as a natural part of the development of:
What are signs of manipulative behavior?
Children manipulate others by:
- throwing temper tantrums
- telling lies
- triangulating (pitting other kids or authority figures against each other, while trying to get someone on your side)
Why do I let manipulation get to me and what should I do instead?
When a child manipulates you, it’s understandable to feel:
But current thinking suggests you might best help your well-being and your child’s growth by establishing an approach that’s:
- detached: taking your emotional connection and responses out of the situation
- firm: not caving to their persuasion (validating them, but restating your position)
- compassionate: mindful kids are human, too, and may lack the right words or approach to getting what they want
Manipulation is when someone tries to shape your behavior and feelings in order to get what they want from you.
Children try to influence adults and peers to:
- establish power
- obtain reassurance
- garner privileges and treats they can’t get for themselves
- avoid consequences or punishment
Children may use the following strategies to manipulate peers and adults, according to the 2018 article cited above:
Examples of kid’s manipulation
Identify and play on others’ weaknesses. E.g.,
- “Dad can’t say no. I’ll ask him for the lollipop.”
- “Kimmy doesn’t know how to make friends. I’ll let her play with us if she lets me boss her around.“
Pretend to be sick or hurt to get sympathy or to avoid an unwanted activity.
Pit parents or other authorities against each other. E.g.,
- “But Mommy lets me stay up late!”
- “At dad’s house, he and his partner respect me. I get to game as long as I want.”
Flatter or put on extra good behavior to get what they want (then stop the good behavior when they get it).
Common reasons might include:
- wanting attention, but not wanting to admit or show it directly
- not having much choice in an adult world, seeking autonomy
- to get their desires and express their feelings
- because they can and it’s worked before
Children who have difficulty regulating their emotions — which is most young kids — but especially those with behavioral disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or oppositional defiance disorder (ODD), may:
- blame others for their feelings or behaviors
- have intense meltdowns
According to the Child Mind Institute, kids with these conditions are likely to learn that these behaviors get them what they want.
- possible ADHD symptoms or behaviors that may seem manipulative:
- possible symptoms of ODD that may seem manipulative:
- angry outbursts or tantrums
A 2014 study of 90 parent couples coded the interactions between parents and children instructed to exhibit:
- ADHD behaviors
- ODD behaviors
- other common behaviors in development
After the study, they reported parents’ perceptions of their partner’s interactions with the child.
- Parents responded more negatively toward children exhibiting ADHD and ODD behaviors than to those exhibiting typically developing behaviors (as coded by observers).
- Adults showing ADHD symptoms, particularly attentional challenges, were rated more poorly by their partners on their communication and responses to the children similarly displaying ADHD or ODD behavior, than the partners without ADHD symptoms who communicated with the same kids.
When dealing with both childhood and adult symptoms of ADHD, parents may be unable to sustain a united front. This makes it easier for a child to manipulate them by splitting them (triangulation) and wearing parents down.
Try less judgment and more detachment
A 2018 review of research literature on manipulation found that manipulative children are often portrayed as “spoiled princesses” or “beasts” whom their parents have failed to control.
Researchers suggest such narratives reflect a misleading, authoritarian, moralistic judgment that adults always can and should be in control of children, rather than a nuanced, effective approach.
In an article for Empowering Parents, Licensed Mental Health Counselor Debbie Pincus says once you allow yourself to be manipulated, it’s easy to judge yourself as weak and compensate by coming down hard on your child or the child in your care.
This can evoke power struggles, however, which only exacerbate the cycle of manipulation.
It may be easier to feel good about yourself and your child if you don’t take their manipulation attempts personally. They may hate you saying “no.” It’s unlikely they hate you!
Offer firm compassion
Examples of parenting through manipulation
- Calmly identify the problem. E.g., “When you tell Sue she can’t play with you unless she gives you her doll, you are bullying her into giving you something that’s not yours.”
- Acknowledge the child’s feelings. E.g., “I see you’re really mad you can’t have the doll right now.”
- Walk away or give the child a time-out.
- Circle back, maintaining a calm assertive attitude. When the child is calm, give a mindful consequence, then discuss other options for asking to share the desired toy or a substitute at another time.
Form a united front when possible
Whether you’re at school or home, discuss the manipulative behavior and best approaches with a trusted colleague or partner.
Let your child know you respect each other so they can’t divide and conquer you.
Don’t give into manipulation — be a boundary-setting role model
This can be really hard, but the sooner you establish boundaries, the sooner your kid can learn by cause and effect that manipulation doesn’t work. They may become more transparent and honest about asking for what they want.
Setting boundaries involves defining and expressing what you need and expect, which sets a good example for your child.
For more thoughts on boundary setting, this may be a place to start.
From birth, humans learn that certain behaviors can get them what they want. Manipulation can be intentional or unintentional.
No matter how difficult your situation is, you can learn to de-escalate a child’s manipulation over time. Setting boundaries and clarifying expectations help.
Meanwhile, extending understanding to yourself and your child allows you to appreciate your mutual progress in these efforts.