Proactive Parenting: Manipulation


Dear Dr T.,

I really don’t like the way my son goes about his business. When he wants something – a favor, a privilege, an item – he doesn’t come straight out and ask for it. Instead, he convinces the other person that it’s for their own good.

Recently, he wanted his brother’s tie – a very expensive one, gifted to his brother by a family friend. He convinced his brother that it looked bad with his suit and that if he gave it to him their parents would have to buy him another one.

Why does he do this and how do we get him to stop?

Moshe (and Ahuva)

Dear Moshe and Ahuva,

What you are saying is that your son uses manipulation to get his wants and needs met. By this I mean that he twists events or situations to fit his needs. And the reason why he does this? Well, could it just be that it works?

Younger children often use manipulation. They know when to throw a tantrum, or when to be just darling, in order to get their way. In the best case scenario, small children learn how to directly express their desires – and then can dispense with this behavior. They eventually get the drill: what is appropriate (asking) and what is not (carrying on). An effective parent will ignore the willful tantrum and illustrate for the child a more prosocial way to make a request. (Note: Tantrums that are an expression of the child’s pain are not to be ignored. A tantrumming child whose feelings are hurt, or who is hungry, tired, or dysregulated must be attended to.)

Unfortunately, some people never give up using manipulation as a means to get their way. They use manipulation to control – others, the situation, or the course of events. And power feels good – especially for the powerless. So, despite the parent’s best (or, possibly, inadequate) efforts, an unhealthy pattern develops and may even become second nature.

How your son got here is not as important as how you help him develop a more appropriate way of behaving in the future. Though manipulation is typically “under the table” and hard to pin down, there is much you can do which would discourage its use.

Here are some beginning strategies:

  1. Encourage direct communication. If necessary, give your child the words to use.

Tova holds the whole family hostage every night that she has homework. She yells at the littler ones to be quiet; she hogs the computer; and she makes myriad requests of her parents (a drink! my markers! I have to call my friend!). Academics are very important in the family, so Tova has a captive audience.

After much too long, Tova’s mother has had it She has a (very lengthy) discussion with Tova who admits that she is frustrated and irritated by her workload. Mom encourages (at first) and insists (at the end) that Tova use her words to ask for help and express frustration. Mom also makes sure to ignore Tova when she is being difficult so that Tova learns that crime does not pay.

  1. Refuse to be drawn into the manipulation. State your position clearly. If necessary, “broken record” it.

Whenever Mom goes out for the night, Yanky takes advantage of the situation. He refuses to go to sleep on time, or shower, or clean up his stuff. He is quite adamant in telling his father that “Mommy said I can stay up later, skip a shower etc.”

Tatty ignores the noise and simply repeats the drill. When Yanky persists in playing one parent against the other, Tatty uses the broken record technique rather than give in.

(Note: For those of my readers too young to have seen a record player, this technique refers to a defective record that gets stuck and the same word gets repeated over and over again. When a person uses this technique, he simply says the same word repeatedly until the other party – sick of it – just gives up.)

  1. Model what you want to see. Review your own interactions with your children.

Mom is really overwhelmed and could use a hand from her family. But she sees how busy her kids are with school, extra-curricular activities, and chessed, and does not want to ask for their help and spoil their fun. Instead, she moans and complains about how hard she works and no one helps her, etc. In short, she makes her children feel so guilty that they reluctantly – and resentfully – help.

When the guilt-complain-help cycle runs its course, Mom realizes it’s time for a change. She decides to straight-out ask her kids what each one feels comfortable contributing to the family load. Though one child makes a commitment smaller than Mom would have liked, Mom is pleased with the results – some help, free of any baggage. And, most importantly, Mom is proud that she showed her children that they could simply ask for what they need rather than finagle and plot.

Dealing with a manipulator is unpleasant to say the least. It’s also crazy-making: it’s hard to tell exactly what is going on until it is too late. While occasional manipulation is fairly typical in a not-yet-mature child, a serious pattern is a cause for concern. If you continue to worry about this behavior in your child or adolescent, consider whether your child may benefit from professional intervention.

The Book Nook: In The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, author Wendy Mogel, Ph.D. discusses what we really want to give our children in today’s overly materialistic world. She also talks about teaching them values like gratitude and respect. Check out her website and read her blog “Over-Parenting Anonymous.”

Sara Teichman, Psy D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, L.A.’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email