9 signs your child is being low-key manipulative

Children are such little angels – until you have one.

Sure, they look cute. But ultimately, children are just small humans, with everything that goes with that.

And they are not above a little bit of manipulation to get what they want.

Sometimes, it’s easy to see when your kids are trying to get you to do what they want. In fact, it can even be endearing to see their juvenile attempts at manipulating you.

But other times, they can be surprisingly good at getting their way.

Establishing firm boundaries and consistent rules is an essential part of parenting – which means you can’t let your kids push you around. Keep an eye out for these behaviors which show that your kid is trying to manipulate you.

1) Lying

Dishonesty is one of the go-to strategies for anyone trying to get what they want out of other people.

That’s especially true when it comes to kids.

While learning to lie is part of growing up – and, some would argue, an important step in brain development – there’s always something bittersweet about catching your child in one of their first lies.

Kids may lie over something relatively harmless and even endearing, like whether they’ve had a cookie or some other treat. But if left unchecked, kids quickly learn that lying is an effective way to get them what they want.

If you don’t catch them and call them out on their lives, they will progress to bigger and more elaborate lies, exposing you as a parent to ever-greater manipulation.

Clinical psychologist Matthew Rouse points out that there are lots of reasons kids lie, including:

  • To gain approval
  • To distract focus from themselves
  • To see what happens and learn what they can get away with
  • Simply because they don’t think before they speak

Dr. Rouse also writes that the child may employ different levels of lying, and that your reaction should vary according to the kind of lie they tell.

You may not need to call out every lie your kid tells you, particularly if they are harmless, self-esteem-boosting lies like how many goals they scored at recess or how many questions they got right on a test.

However, serious lies should come with consequences.

2) Tantrums

Another way kids try to manipulate their parents is by throwing tantrums.

Toddlers are famous for this, but unfortunately, this isn’t a behavior that kids quickly age out of. Teenagers are every bit as capable of throwing tantrums as toddlers are when they don’t get their way.

It doesn’t take long for kids to learn the powerful effect attention can have, either. Every parent knows that by the time they can talk, kids have learned that a tantrum in a public place is far more effective at getting you to give them what they want than one at home.

Tantrums can be effective because they wear you down. In the short term, it’s easier to give in and give your kid whatever they want to stop the screaming, especially in public.

It’s also important to note that tantrums aren’t always a manipulation tactic. Sometimes, it is the only way a child can deal with emotions that they are not mature enough to express in a more manageable way.

Clinical psychologist Vasco Lopes advises directing your attention to behaviors you want to encourage and away from those you want to discourage. 

He says, “by positively reinforcing compliance and appropriate responses to frustration, you’re teaching skills and—since you can’t comply with a command and tantrum at the same time—simultaneously decreasing that aggressive noncompliant tantrum behavior.”

He also recommends modeling calm behavior and setting clear expectations for the behavior you want to see in your child.

3) Emotional blackmail

Even quite young children can become adept at toying with the emotions of their parents. And moody teenagers have it down to a fine art.

Because we love our kids so much, no one can hurt us quite like they can. And even knowing they are doing it deliberately doesn’t necessarily take the sting out of what they say.

Children may say that you don’t love them, or that they don’t love you. Older kids sometimes say they wish they had never been born, that you had never had them, or that they had been born into some other family.

Kids can use threats of outbursts to emotionally blackmail you. They may also pretend to be sick or physically hurt to get you to feel sorry for them. The range of tactics they can use to try to blackmail you is almost limitless.

To control this kind of behavior, psychotherapist Debbie Pincus recommends:

  • Managing your expectations and expecting some pushback when you say no to your kids
  • Sticking to your guns and remembering that once you have said no, that has to be the end of the issue
  • Refusing to let your child wear you down with their manipulation
  • Disengaging from the discussion if you have to

4) Negotiating

Negotiating is part of life, and a key skill for kids to learn.

Unfortunately, they learn it way too early for most parents’ liking.

Even very young children learn that they can sometimes get what they want from you by negotiating.

Maybe they will promise some behavior you want, such as cleaning their room, in return for giving them what they want. 

Or maybe they will argue that you’re not being fair, and that you would give into the same demand if one of their siblings made it.

Kids can have extraordinary patience when it comes to negotiating, and skills that would put the slimiest used car salesperson to shame.

That’s why it’s important to remain firm and stick with any answer you’ve given your kids, no matter how they beg, plead, or try to convince you.

5) Shutting down

child is low key manipulative 1 9 signs your child is being low-key manipulative

Sometimes, when kids don’t get what they want, they will shut down.

That means they withdraw emotionally and will refuse to talk about what’s bothering them. It may also be accompanied by pouting and sulking.

As psychotherapist and author Erin Leonard argues, shutdowns can happen as a result of big emotions a child is not able to handle.

On the other hand, they can also be a manipulation tactic a child uses to get what they want.

As with other behaviors on this list, the trick is not to encourage the behavior by giving in to it.

Instead, calmly let the child know that you will be available to talk about what’s bothering them when they are ready, but that shutting down will not get them what they want.

6) Playing you against other adults

All kids do this. If you live with a partner, kids will often choose which parent they ask for something based on what they perceive as the likelihood of getting it.

However, if you’re coparenting with a former partner who no longer lives with you, kids can get even more creative in playing you off against each other in an attempt to win their affection.

No matter what issues you may have with your former partner, you need to be on the same page when it comes to raising your kids. 

Make sure you keep lines of communication open so that your kids learn that they can’t get away with making you compete for their affection.

7) Guilt-tripping

Kids can be master guilt-trippers. They can make you feel terrible for spending too much time at work and not enough time with them, or use your desire to make them happy to talk you into giving them what they want.

It’s important to listen to your kids when they have legitimate complaints. But it’s equally important to recognize when they are using a guilt trip to manipulate you into doing what they want.

Ask yourself, are the complaints valid? If so, you may need to change your own behavior. But if not, you need to stand firm against the attempted guilt trip

8) Deliberate misbehavior

Another classic manipulative behavior is being naughty on purpose.

More often practiced by younger kids, this can take many forms. If you don’t let them have a snack, they may tip over a potted plant or pour a drink on the floor.

If you tell them they have to do something they don’t want to do, they may smear crayon on the walls. 

Beyond simple revenge, the goal here is to make you afraid to tell them what to do in the future. That’s why you have to be firm and demonstrate that any additional bad behavior will only earn them more punishment.

9) Fake affection

This can be one of the cruelest manipulation tactics, because it plays on our deepest feelings of love and affection for our kids.

In younger kids, this is often very transparent. A toddler may come up and hug you for no reason or tell you how much they love you just before asking for something they know you are unlikely to grant them.

However, older kids can do the same thing, though they tend to be far more subtle about it.

It’s extremely hard to look into the smiling faces of your kids while they are hugging you and refuse them what they want. 

But staying firm and consistent is vital in discouraging this manipulative behavior, no matter how difficult it is.

Parenting isn’t for the weak

Kids can be every bit as manipulative as adults, if not more so.

Keep an eye out for these manipulative behaviors to make sure your kids aren’t getting the better of you. You’ll need to stay strong and on your guard to ensure your kids don’t learn these bad behaviors.

Ryan Frawley

Ryan Frawley

“Ryan Frawley is a France-based writer with a passion for psychology, philosophy, science, and anything that attempts to answer life’s biggest questions. Reach out at ryan@ryanfrawley.com”

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