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Do Our Children Manipulate Us?

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

“She is manipulating you into staying with her before bed” I was told the other day.

How often have you heard these phrases?

“He is manipulating us into giving him anything he wants!” my friend’s mom told her. “She is manipulating you for attention!” “He is manipulating you to not go to daycare”. I can continue for a long time. It’s such a common misconception among both parents and grandparents that I could write a whole page of these quotes and only cover a limited ground of what I’ve heard in the past year or so.

How often have you heard these phrases? I bet most of you have though, and I’d like to debunk this myth for you. Even though many of us have been taught to fear being wrapped around a tiny bossy finger, our kids don’t manipulate, they just ask to be heard and seen.

What is "manipulation"?

To see that it doesn’t even make logical sense, we need to understand what “manipulation” is first. Manipulation is a type of social influence that aims to change the behavior or perception of others through deceptive and indirect actions. And this creates two issues when it comes to young children:

  1. Children asking us to stay and read to them before bed, to buy them a toy, or simply play and spend time with them are NOT lying or being indirect. It’s the opposite: they are honest and direct in asking for what they need in a way they know. A child doesn’t manipulate. He just does what he can to be heard. It’s true that our children subconsciously feel our own triggers, and if you normally let them cross your boundary - they will very quickly learn that it’s ok to do so.

E.g., you say “no sweets after dinner”, but your son cries. You feel bad and give him sweets. He will soon learn that tears make you feel guilty and get him what he wants, without even logically understanding the connection. Is it manipulative? Not at all. It's what you taught him. If you have a boundary that you think shouldn't be crossed, you need to stay firm. However, many of us will feel guilty and allow for one exception after another, and then transfer the responsibility for their own inability to set or hold the boundaries onto the child.

Here is another case for you. You ask your child to clean up her toys and she immediately has "a headache". Is this manipulating? No. It's about her need to avoid mommy's potential anger which she has either already learned would come if she says “no”, or she’s heard in your voice, about her need to maintain closeness and connection or get them back. In this case we can give her a hug, kiss her head and then request help with clean up again. Unless it’s a one time case and your child actually isn’t feeling well.

One last example, Your daughter is asking you to stay and sing her a song before bed and you need to finish up on a few work emails. Is she manipulating you? Or just looking for things that are absolutely normal for any child - connection and quality time with her parent? However, it likely makes you feel guilty, and many of us are wired to try and escape this feeling, so it’s easier to get frustrated with your child’s “manipulations” instead of taking the responsibility for your choices. Sorry, tough love.

Manipulation is a complex mechanism where we need to understand how a person operates and how we can make them act in a way WE want them to without them realizing they did it unwillingly. It’s way too complex for many adults, not even talking about children.

At the end of the day, using this phrase is mostly about three things: our own inability to stay responsible and decide what’s better for our child without feeling guilt; our fear of our children’s strong emotions; or our exaggerated maturation and independence expectation from a young child.

The last point is very common, especially among those of us living in the US. We are taught to think of our children as needy, clingy, and see their emotional and psychological needs that are considered normal in many other parts of the world as a sign of neediness. We want them to learn to fall asleep on their own before they are even one, to entertain themselves at 1.5 and deal with their emotions at 2. Which is completely impossible from developmental standpoint, and if you have one great sleeper on your hands who slept through the night at 2 months, or a zero tantrum nonchalant toddler, it doesn’t mean the rest of the children in the world are like this (or should be). Our children don’t need to be constantly pushed towards independence. When they get enough, they feel safe and secure in their relationship with us, they feel like they have a supportive home base to come back to, they will venture off, it just comes automatically and naturally. Even though it might take some of them longer than the others. In a healthy relationship, both parties can depend on each other, but to understand what it is to have a secure attachment and depend on someone securely, they need to learn it from a responsive adult. When you let them depend on you, you show them an example. You set a plank of what it is to BE DEPENDABLE.

They don’t manipulate you, they are just asking them to do the normal job of a parent - be there for them, regardless of what our society is trying to tell you.

Do you feel like your children can manipulate you? Or is it on you as an adult to deal with emotions that come in response to their ask for you to hear them?

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