Is Your Child Manipulative? 5 Helpful Strategies

Kids learn early that manipulative behavior usually gets them what they want. These five strategies will help you foil your master manipulator and bring this challenging behavior to an end.

Cheryl Butler
7-minute read
Episode #602
The Quick And Dirty

When your child tries to manipulate you, these strategies can help nip the behavior in the bud.

  • Respond, don't react
  • Don't be emotionally blackmailed
  • Stand united with your partner
  • Stop negotiating
  • Hold them Accountable

When one of my kid's goes out of their way to tell me how great I look, particularly when I'm feeling harried, I cautiously embrace the compliment. I know I'm not having a great hair day, and I've worn my vintage denim jacket dozens (probably hundreds) of times, so it's not like I'm rocking an awesome new outfit they've never seen.

Hmm, what's up?

Do I seriously look amazing? (Every busy mom hopes so!) Or could this compliment be a ploy to cover an underlying motive like wanting the go-ahead to break curfew or to soften the news of a failing grade?

My daughter tends to be trustworthy and get good grades, so her overzealous fashion compliments are probably innocent. But when she applies that same charisma to go to her father behind my back to get his blessing for a new cell phone after I've already said no ... that's inappropriate.

Kids manipulate their parents for various reasons, usually to get something they want. There are times, however, when that tactic gets out of hand, and it becomes a challenge.

Kids learn to be manipulative from a young age

When a child manipulates, it may seem like an artful and calculated con job. But often, learning to manipulate comes about instinctively. 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 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 soon learns that this behavior will get his needs met, so it develops into a pattern.

As the mom of eight kids ranging in ages from 15 to 27, I've learned first-hand about behaviors and why kids rely on them. All action serves a purpose and is a means to an end. Our kids do things because they want something and because they need things. Whether they're craving a new toy, candy at the check-out aisle, or the ability to wheedle out of a chore, many kids learned ways to game the system without much effort.

As a child grows and discovers their needs are being met through crying, whining, or lying and controlling others, they may continue on this course. After all, it's working quite well for them! Their success rate reinforces their behavior. 

Here are Mighty Mommy's five strategies to help you take control and nip manipulative behavior in the bud.

1. Respond, don't react

It's helpful to think of your child's manipulation as a strategy to get her needs met rather than a sneaky tactic. When you approach this behavior with curiosity instead of being judgemental, you may discover why she's resorting to behaving this way.

Before you lose your cool and get upset, ask yourself why she's strategizing to con you.

Here are some examples of what your child may be thinking:

  • I need more attention from my parents
  • I need help expressing my feelings
  • I'm feeling overwhelmed, afraid, or frustrated

Communicate that you understand your child has a specific need.

Several years ago, my daughter fabricated stories between her dad and me about not having a cell phone. In the case of divorced families, such as mine, this scenario is likely. She told him she wouldn't be allowed to sign up for a school sport if she didn't have a phone. Then she came to me and said her dad insisted she get one since she'd be practicing after school. As a co-parenting team, we communicate regularly, so we were wise to her sly attempts.

Rather than shame her manipulative tactics, I talked to her.

"I understand you're disappointed that your friends have cell phones and you don't have one yet. That must be hard when you see them texting and you have to sit and watch empty-handed. Dad and I are going to work this out with you, together."

Check out Dr. Karyn Purvis's heartfelt ways to approach manipulation in this video. My favorite takeaway was not to label a child as a manipulator but to examine the behavior and see if you can meet the child's need. If it's something within your power and it's reasonable, saying yes can help her trust that tricks aren’t necessary.

2. Don't be emotionally blackmailed

In his article, 6 Ways Your Teen Is Playing You, Joshua Klapow, University of Alabama School of Public Health clinical psychologist, says parents are often unaware of how their actions invite behaviors that fuel many teen-parent conflicts.

One such tactic that often plays on a parent's heartstrings is the fear that their child won't be happy if he hears the word "no" or is disappointed with a decision that doesn't go in his favor. In fact, many parents fear their child will fall apart and will ultimately blame them for their misery.

I have fallen victim to this many times because, as a parent, I want everything to be perfect for my kids. I'm not too fond of guilt feelings that go with a decision that will cause them grief. We all know those sad puppy dog eyes and the torment we feel when our child begs for a different outcome.

"I’ll never be able to face my friends again if I can’t go to the movies tonight. Please, mom, don’t let me be the laughing stock of the school!"

Oh, the drama of it all!

Klapow says parents should ask themselves a crucial question: "Is it my job to make my child happy or prepared for the world? And what will my actions do, depending on which way I go?" He reminds us: “It's OK for your child to be sad when his behavior impacts the way he lives in the world or the lives of others."

If emotional blackmail is one of your child’s strategies to veer you in another direction, remain calm and validate her feelings.

I know you’re really disappointed you can’t go to the late movie with your friends, but it’s a school night. I’m happy to let you go this weekend, and you can borrow the car.

Don’t barter! Maintain this approach every time this manipulative behavior is in the works, and soon it will be a thing of the past.

RELATED: 5 Tips to Help Kids Handle Disappointment

3. Stand united with your partner

Kids are not only smart, they're resourceful. They learn early on which of their parents is easy and is usually willing to negotiate or bend the rules. They also know which parent is challenging and isn't going to budge no matter what. Playing one parent against another is a classic form of manipulation.

Establishing a protocol where you and your partner stand united on decisions is crucial. Have a unified approach to handling 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.'

Do this a few times consistently, and neither of you will end up being the weakest link.

4. Stop negotiating 

Before I had children, I honestly had no appreciation for those desperate moments where parents would plead and bargain with their kids to change their inappropriate behavior.

A pack of gum here, a new soccer ball there, the bargaining chips are different for every family, as are the particular emotional battles. Still, 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.

You know your kids better than anyone, and they know your hot buttons as well. My favorite parenting advice? Say what you mean and mean what you say! Set clear expectations for any areas your child might consider questionable. If school night curfews are 9 p.m., or hanging out with friends is not an option unless all homework is completed, don't waver. When your child knows that negotiating won't get them anywhere, they'll be forced to stop the manipulative behavior because it's clearly not working for them.

I've always been a firm believer that consistency is critical to parenting. Whether you're implementing change, enforcing new rules, or holding down the fort with existing house guidelines, if you cave and don't hold your ground, your children will take it and run—away from whatever you're trying to instill. It's only natural that they will manipulate and take advantage of any opportunity that strays you off course.

5. Hold them accountable

In addition to consistency, I’m a big believer in 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). One of my most popular podcasts was a collaboration with QDT's former Savvy Psychologist, Ellen Hendriksen, about how to impose consequences for bad behavior.

Rules and boundaries help to enforce your family's guidelines. Holding your kids accountable for their poor decisions and manipulative behaviors will teach them that these types of actions are unacceptable.

Dr. Hendriksen recommends setting a consequence and an incentive that motivates the child.

Here's how to do it well: First, choose a meaningful consequence. If you take away his phone, but he can chat with his friends from his laptop, it's not going to work. So choose something that he will be motivated about, whether it's the use of the car, having money, or staying out as late as his friends. Spell out the consequence for breaking the rule just as precisely as a 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, 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

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She 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. You can reach her by email.