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

3. Stop Negotiating 

Before I had children, I truly had no appreciation for those desperate moments where parents would plead and bargain with their kids to change their inappropriate (ok, crappy!) behavior for the sake of saving their own humility or to keep their fragile parenting selves from being worn down any further.

A pack of gum here, a new soccer ball there. The bargaining chips are different for every family, as are the particular emotional battles, but the bottom line will always be the same—give in, and the child will continue to hold you hostage with this all-too-common form of manipulative behavior.

And why not? Every time I would like to get a new item for my home or go on a tropical weekend getaway, if whining loudly enough eventually landed me on a beautiful Caribbean island, I’d keep this tactic in my bag of tricks for as long as it lasted.

One of the quickest ways to nip manipulative behavior in the bud is to stay firm with your decision to decline one of their whims without any negotiating whatsoever. I’m talking about decisions such as declining friend time until homework is completed, or saying no to that concert when grades are unacceptable.

You know your kids better than anyone and they know your hot buttons just as well. In other words, say what you mean and mean what you say. When you send clear messages and your kids know what the expectations are—I.E. school night curfews are always 9PM, friends are not allowed over after school until all homework is completed, we’re not paying for your cell phone unless your grades are a B or higher every quarter—there is no reason for them to manipulate you, because they know upfront that negotiating is not part of the deal.

4. Be Consistent

If there’s one rule in discipline that I’ve learned not to waiver from in the 25 years I’ve been parenting, it’s to be as consistent as possible. My Quick and Dirty Tips colleague Ellen Hendriksen from the Savvy Psychologist podcast agrees.

“Manipulative kids aren't bad apples or mini Dr. Evils—they're just doing what works. The onus is on parents to keep manipulation from working. To do that, parents need to do three things: empathize, set limits, and be consistent." 

Holding your kids accountable for manipulative behavior will teach them that these actions are unacceptable.

As the mom of eight, I know this is easier said than done. When you calmly but firmly say, “The answer is no, and I am not discussing it anymore,” you have to mean it and commit. You have to lovingly walk away and take your power with you. This includes ignoring some of your kid’s mean and spiteful comments (“I hate you” or “You never try to understand what I need”). No matter how hurtful some of these barbs are, be the adult and walk away—without slamming doors or huffing under your breath. Later, when things have calmed down, confront the situation so your child can try and understand that you are doing what you feel is best under the circumstances, and that you’re happy to listen to his side of things if he wants to discuss things calmly without hurtful insults.

Practice consistency in parenting and manipulation will no longer be something your little darling will rely on.

5. Hold Them Accountable

In addition to consistency, another one of my favorite words in the world of discipline and parenting is consequences. I've addressed this topic in several previous episodes, including 6 Tips for Handling a Defiant Toddler and 6 Ways to Handle a Defiant Teen (Without Yelling), but one of my most popular podcasts was one that Ellen Hendriksen and I collaborated on: How to Effectively Impose Consequences for Bad Behavior.

Setting rules and boundaries are a wonderful tool to enforce your family’s guidelines but there’s truly no point in doing so if you aren’t consistent, as in my previous tip, or just as importantly if you don’t have consequences.

Holding your kids accountable for their poor decisions and manipulative behaviors will teach them that these types of actions are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

Dr. Hendriksen recommends setting a consequence and an incentive the child actually cares about.

“Here’s how to do it well: First, choose a consequence he actually cares about. If you take away his phone but he can just chat with his friends from his laptop, it’s not going to work. So choose something that he will actually be motivated about, whether it’s use of the car, having money, or being able to stay out as late as his friends. Spell out the consequence for breaking the rule just as specifically as the rule itself. Write it down and display it, just like the rule.

Next, add an incentive for adhering to the rule. Some parents think that this means rewarding kids for doing something they’re supposed to be doing anyway. But a one-sided punishment-only approach isn’t going to get him excited. Add some carrots as well as sticks, and you’ll get a more motivated response. This is where you can get your child’s input. Discuss it together and come to a mutually acceptable reward. For instance, for every weekend night he makes curfew, he gets to stay out half an hour later the next weekend night. Again, write it down and display it.” 

For more tips, see part two of my episode with the Savvy Psychologist: 4 Ways to Handle Teenage Defiance and Rebellion

How have you handled a manipulative child? Share your thoughts in the comment section at quickanddirtytips.com/mighty-mommyor post your ideas on the Mighty Mommy Facebook page. You can also connect with me on Twitter @MightyMommy or email me at mommy@quickanddirtytips.com.  Visit my family-friendly boards at Pinterest.com/MightyMommyQDT. Image of a hand manipulating person's thoughts © Shutterstock


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!

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