Is My Child Manipulating Me?

I feel like my child pushes the boundaries to get what he wants. Am I being manipulated?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): That is an interesting question, and I don’t have a definitive answer, but even very young children can see the power they can have over their parents. It’s mostly an issue of patterns.

For instance, if a two-year old is crying at night and his parents always pick him up and hold him when he does this, he will actually train himself to wake up to get the comfort. You could call that manipulative behavior, and maybe it is, but I confess that I’m on the fence about using that term here.

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, and the parents can tell. They may feel manipulated and resent their child. In this case, they must intervene to change the dynamic. Let’s remember who’s the parent and who’s the child. As a parent, you have to set the tone for the child, and when they attempt to manipulate you, you have to be firm –loving but firm– that it is not going to work.

Supposing you have an older child. You might want to set up some limits around how often they can be on the computer. Then he or she will test you (and they will always test you) by trying to expand beyond the boundaries you have set. You should expect this. You’ll have to intervene right away and say, “Remember how we talked about this: you get to play on your computer for one-half hour a day and now you’re moving into 45 minutes. That’s not okay, and you need to put the computer away. If you can’t follow the rules, you’ll lose your time on the computer tomorrow.”

Kids will test you, and may test to see if they can manipulate you with tears or tantrums, and a parent should be ready to face these behaviors with resolve.

MOLLY: Are there any long-term consequences for not dealing with this type of manipulative behavior early on?

MOM: Yes there can be, especially if the pattern sets in and the child learns that the way to get what he wants is to manipulate the parents. Children can actually be quite good at this. That behavior will go on and on at home, and it will expand to include other people like classmates and teachers, or other people that he comes in contact with, like coaches.  Nobody likes to feel manipulated and usually people do experience a sense of being manipulated when it happens. What happens if this is left unaddressed in children is they end up forming a kind of character flaw or a negative character aspect that follows them into adulthood and really lasts forever. It’s much more difficult to change your character as an adult.

MOLLY: What might you see in the workplace?

MOM: You could see all kinds of behaviors in adults who were manipulative children, especially if a person wants to get out of doing a job. He or she might manipulate their boss or with co-workers, sometimes without fully realizing what is happening.

Manipulation can take many forms. Often, people will use shame as the tool to get what they want. They will shame other people to get them to do what they want. The other person knows something’s wrong when this happens, but they often don’t see the complete picture of what it is that is happening.

MOLLY: What about in relationships, like in marriages or partnerships?

MOM: That’s when you really see this type of character flaw show up, often on a daily basis. A manipulative person might twist things around to make her partner feel as if something is not the manipulator’s fault, and is, in fact, the partner’s fault. It makes the partner very angry and confused. This type of manipulation is often subtle, making it uncomfortably difficult to be in a relationship with someone who behaves this way.

MOLLY: So the manipulation is there, but it’s not that obvious.

MOM: Right. In children, manipulative behavior is usually pretty obvious, but as the child “perfects the art of manipulation,” they can become much more subtle, leaving people feeling uncomfortable but not quite able to put their finger on what it is that’s making them feel this way.

MOLLY: If you don’t deal with this type of behavior in childhood, what happens? At what age is it too late to influence character development in a child?

MOM: A lot of psychologists might feel that ten- to twelve-years old is getting pretty late in the game to deal with character traits like this one. I don’t know exactly the cut off age, but I do know that it gets harder and harder to manage as people move into adulthood. Certainly by the time people are in their twenties, I think it’s too late to change something like this.

This interview was originally published on Psych Central.

Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success dealing with your child’s manipulative behavior or Contact US if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.

My Child Picks Up Other Kids and Makes Them Uncomfortable

My kindergarten-age daughter is larger for her age than other kids. She’s very physical with other kids and likes to pick them up a lot. It’s becoming a big problem at school and her teachers are saying this has to stop. How can I help her?

MOM: I think that these are boundary issues that children need to learn and be taught as they grow up. Some kids have a natural sense of boundaries, but other children don’t.

MOLLY: How do you teach them that?

MOM: First of all, you have to start talking to them about how people need their own space and their own body privacy and that needs to be respected. It’s not okay to pick kids up like that, and generally other kids don’t want to be picked up like that.

MOLLY: Even though the kid is just trying to be friendly, showing her friends that she likes them?

MOM: That’s right: it’s not done in a hostile way. Children with this behavior don’t know how else to express how much they like the other kids.

There are a couple of things you as a parent can do to help teach boundaries. One is that you have to talk to them about how, while it’s not okay to intrude on other people’s space physically, she can express herself verbally. She can tell another kid, “I really like you,” without picking them up. You can help her put into words what she’s been acting out physically.

MOLLY: The kid can understand that?

MOM: Yeah, you say it in a language that the kid can understand. You help her realize that she can say, “I really like you,” or “I want to play with you,” instead of squeezing other kids. You try to help her put her actions into words so she doesn’t have to act it out. You could use a sticker chart in this case: when she does it appropriately, when she tries another approach rather than grabbing the other kids, she gets a sticker for it. She gets a sticker as positive reinforcement.

Some kids don’t have an innate social filter; generally you have to teach children what’s socially acceptable behavior. If you teach them when they are young, then you don’t have to worry about it when they are older. But, if they don’t learn it when they’re young, it will be a constant problem. Other people might end up avoiding her.

You can also practice with your child with what is appropriate hugging and touching. People hug and touch all the time but it has to be mutually acceptable.

MOLLY: How do you teach that?

MOM: : The Mom can teach her that she can hold hands with other children, or tell them how much she likes them, but she can’t pick them up and swing them around. You want to teach her how to hug without making it too strong where the other kid can’t breathe. It isn’t that she shouldn’t have physical contact with the other child, it isn’t that at all. It’s finding the appropriate way to do that. Children have to be taught that. Some kids have an intuitive sense about it and others don’t. If not dealt with when they are young, this lack of boundaries can become really problematic as they get older .