When children are thought to be manipulative


She knows exactly who to ask to get permission, so that the answer is yes’.

 ‘He will do everything he can to make sure bed time is pushed by at least an hour’

Did you hear what she said to me- making me feel guilty by comparing my husband and me and how Dad always listens and I never do!’  

‘Did you see what he did?’ He cleverly went around and asked all the adults in the house until one of them did exactly what he wanted them to do! Kids these days, I tell you- so smart. They know exactly how to get what they want. Master manipulators, I tell you!’ 

Often, many parents voice their concern that their child is manipulating them. Most of us feel angry or indignant when we feel that someone is taking advantage of us. In a parent- child relationship, this can have serious implications. 

What happens to us parents when we believe we are being manipulated? 

  • We get angry 

  • We will be  constantly on guard and suspicious of the child

  • We want to use our power over the child to control them because we believe they are controlling us 

  • We become even more  harsh in our methods of discipline to make them comply.

This  could lead to a situation where both the child and parent are continually in a heightened state of emotion and temper. It may end up with every interaction becoming a competition between the parent and child - a very exhausting and disconnecting way of being. 

The truth is that all behaviour is a strategy to meet needs. Adults are often better at meeting their needs as they are not overly dependent on others to do so. Children also use behaviour as a strategy for meeting their needs. However, children often are completely or highly dependent on an adult to meet their needs, whether it is being fed, entertained, heard, comforted or even for rest. Let us recognise that manipulation is a complex ability and not the most natural way that children think. Can we trust our children and believe that they are not manipulating us but just trying to meet their needs in the way they know best? Once we look at it from this perspective, we can decide which of their needs to honour and meet. For other needs that we may not be able to meet,  we can recognise and acknowledge their frustration and disappointment that their need is not being met.

Children are simply trying to meet their needs 

If we  pause and  revisit the examples above, we can actually see that in every case the child is trying to meet a need. When they go to a parent who they know will give them permission to go out with friends, they are meeting their need for fun or freedom. When they seem to be persistent about listening to a story right away when we have guests, it may be their need for connection. They are probably trying to communicate that this grown up party is very boring for them! Or their need to be heard is met by one parent consistently, hence the refrain that ‘Dad always listens’. 

If we trust our child’s intentions and try to identify the need behind a child’s behaviour, it may offer us a different lens to view the actions of the child. The child who runs to the other parent or an older sibling when they are yelled at by their parent, isn’t trying to play off the adults in the family. He may simply be seeking comfort, safety or an empathetic ear. Don’t we all! The child who expresses big feelings because they were not allowed to have ice cream is sharing their disappointment. They are sad and angry that they have no say in this matter and the all-powerful adult in their life just doesn’t seem to understand! When parents are tired or busy they find it easier to give the child what he is crying for, and end up feeling manipulated! Instead we could just be with the child and acknowledge their feelings saying, “ I know you are disappointed that I am not allowing you to have this”. They can hold the child , if the child allows, until the tears subside. 

It can be  difficult for parents to  identify the need of the child when the child is having an outburst of feelings. Or when  the parent is thoroughly frustrated with their child’s behaviour. At such a point instead of  thinking , “ Look at how he is manipulating me to get what he wants” , we could just ask ourselves, “ Wonder what my child is needing?” 

Coming back to where we started this discussion, imagine the ease and joy we would experience in our interactions with our children when we are able to view their behaviour in this manner. We would be free of the endless feeling of being locked in a “ power struggle” and be able to develop a relationship of mutual trust, understanding and connection.

Author:Seemanthini Iyer is a  certified Parent Educator with Parenting Matters, an organisation that promotes parents to build deeper connections within families.