5 Strategies for Managing a Manipulative Child

If you have a master manipulator on your hands, fear not. Mighty Mommy shares five strategies that will put you—the parent—back in the driver’s seat and no longer playing victim to your child’s manipulative tactics.

Cheryl Butler
8-minute read
Episode #493
image of a child's handle manipulating a parent with puppet strings

Let me know if any of this sounds familiar.

“Mom, you look great again this morning. You really know how to put yourself together for work each day!”

“I’m going to start cleaning the bathrooms each week so you don’t have to do it. You shouldn’t have to do as much around the house with all you do for our family all the time!”

Or how about this: “Forget it then! I’m going to quit my job and just do nothing if you don’t let me go to the concert this weekend!”

Ringing any bells? Not only are our adorable kids smart and amazing, they’re also little con artists. The art of manipulation may even come about instinctually. In an article on child manipulation, clinical psychologist Dr. Susan Rutherford writes “Children can learn how to get certain responses from their parents from a very young age. Typically not before 15 months, but some kids can understand this dynamic really quickly.” She refers to a young child crying in the middle of the night. The parent runs in to pick the child up to soothe him. The child learns quickly that his needs will be met by this behavior, so the pattern continues to repeat.

As the mom of eight kids ranging in ages from 12 to 25, I have definitely learned first-hand about behaviors and why kids rely on them. All behavior serves a purpose and is a means to an end. Our kids do things because they want things and because they need things. Maybe they want toys, a new cell phone, or a much later bedtime. Many of our kids’ behaviors are learned. As they grow and discover their needs are being met through crying, whining, or even lying and controlling others, they may continue on this course because it’s working quite well for them. Their behavior is reinforced by their success rate. 

Kids manipulate their parents. They learn to sway us with their cuteness and charming ways to satisfy their immediate needs. If you have a master manipulator on your hands, fear not. Mighty Mommy shares five strategies that will put you—the parent—back in the driver’s seat and no longer playing victim to your child’s manipulative tactics.

5 Strategies for Parents to Nip Manipulation in the Bud

  1. Don’t Give Them an Audience
  2. Don’t Be the Weakest Link
  3. Stop Negotiating
  4. Be Consistent
  5. Hold Them Accountable

Let’s explore each of these in more detail.

1. Don’t Give Them an Audience

I became a parent through the amazing gift of adoption after six very long years of infertility. We didn’t have nine months to prepare for our first bundle of joy, we had one week! With lots of love and support from our family and friends, everything fell quickly into place, and one of our best, unexpected finds was our incredible pediatrician. Not only is she an outstanding medical doctor, she is also overflowing with great parenting advice.

One of the best pieces of parenting wisdom that I gleaned from her expertise was this: “When your kids are looking for inappropriate attention, don’t give them an audience.” We learned fast that kids are constantly looking for attention and approval. When you have a child who uses manipulative devices—yelling, threatening you, pitching a tantrum, or physically throwing things—you need to take control of the situation by walking away from the drama.

Nothing good will come from trying to negotiate while your child is in this negative mindset. If one of her manipulative tactics is to bully you by raising her voice and yelling at you, your best strategy is to calmly let her know, “We’re not even going to talk about this if you’re raising your voice." If she physically starts throwing things, that’s when you should walk away and say, “We’ll talk about this when you calm down.”

Although this doesn’t happen overnight, when you don’t give your child an audience, you take back your power and make them work to make everything right again.

2. Don’t Be the Weakest Link

Kids are not only smart, they’re resourceful. They learn early on which of their parents is the softie and is usually willing to negotiate or bend the rules. They also know which parent is (pardon the expression) more of a hardass and isn’t going to budge no matter what.

In the world of manipulation, children know exactly who they can barter with to get their way. And on those occasions where both parents might actually be on the same page, our ingenious offspring know how to work the system and go to the stricter parent with what they hope will be a convincing set of tools. For instance, "Dad said it was fine with him as long as we ran it by you." Yeah, right!

Thankfully, we parents are usually on to this ploy of playing one parent off another. Our kids have the upper hand in certain scenarios: divorce, for instance, or two-parent working homes where one parent is on hand more to make most of the decisions. But as parents, you have to decide what the plan is and then follow through on it. 

Establishing a protocol where you and your partner stand united on decisions is crucial. For instance, have a unified approach to how you handle your son staying out past curfew or your daughter staying at her friend’s house during exam time. Keep it simple: “Dad and I will be making decisions together so please don’t come to either of us separately and put in a request that requires a quick reply because the answer will be 'not until we both discuss it together.'" Do this a few times consistently and neither of you will end up being the weakest link.


About the Author

Cheryl Butler

Cheryl L. Butler is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. Call the Mighty Mommy listener line at 401-284-7575 to ask a parenting question. Your call could be featured on the show!