Feeling Manipulated by your Child? Try this Response.


How to respond when your child whines, cries, or argues to get their way!

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As soon as you say “no,” the waterworks begin.

“But mom!” your son says, dramatically flailing himself on the floor.

After a few seconds, the drama turns ugly. Now he’s pounding his fists on the tile and screaming wildly.

It’s just too much to bear.

“Fine. Here’s one more. That’s it.” you say, fuming.

He sits up, smiling. The storm is over as quickly as it started.

You are left feeling manipulated. He seems to know which buttons to push at just the right times to get his way.

And you hate it.

It seems like the only thing that works is to give in. Or yell. Or a combination of both.

Are You Being Manipulated?

Whether it’s an intentional act of disobedience or a random meltdown. Your child’s behavior has meaning.

When you see their behavior as manipulative, you start to see your child in a negative light. Suddenly they are “selfish” or “greedy.” You impose harsh punishments. And you may even feel as if you want to seek revenge: “I’ll show her not to manipulate me.”

Instead of thinking of your child’s acting out behavior as manipulative, think of it as having a purpose. All misbehavior is emotionally driven. And, all misbehavior is a cry for help.

Your child needs something from you! In that moment, their behavior is the only way they know how to get these needs met.

When you see your child’s misbehavior in this light, you start to see them as imperfect children who need your support. You look for solutions, not punishments. And you are more willing to give guidance and support.

Related: To the exhausted parent: You’re not doing it wrong.

How to  Respond to Misbehavior.

First, commit to thinking of your child’s misbehavior as a cry for help, not an intentional manipulation by your “rude” and “disrespectful” child.

Next, decide to respond instead of react to the behavior.

Finally, ask yourself these 3 questions.*

  • “Why is my child acting this way right now?”   Look at their behavior from an outside perspective. Be curious instead of making assumptions.  Here are some examples of what your child may be thinking:
    • I need more attention
    • I need to feel valued
    • I need to be challenged
    • I need to feel powerful
    • I need help managing my big feelings
    • I need more support
    • I need to learn new skills
    • I need to be understood
    • I am feeling: scared, uncertain, overwhelmed, understimulated, frustrated, detached, sad, angry, helpless, frightened, stressed, pressured, incompetent, forced, misunderstood, left out, disconnected…
  • What lesson do I want to teach in this moment?  -Does your child need to learn how to handle disappointment? How to ask for something without whining? How to share with his sister? Learn how to set goals for discipline in this post.
  • How can I best teach this lesson?  -This is not about finding the “perfect consequence” it’s about staying calm enough to think through the situation and figuring out the best way to support your child in making a better decision next time.

Identifying the underlying message is not always easy. It takes some keen observations from someone with a calm mind. (Which means you’re probably not going to find answers to these questions if you’re engaged in a power struggle.)

Related: Beyond “Take a Deep Breath”: Help for Angry Parents.

Let’s Give it a Try.

You say “no,” and the waterworks begin.

Instead of feeling frustrated and manipulated, you see his response as a cry for help.

Why is he acting this way? He’s disappointed. He’s flooded with big feelings and doesn’t know how to manage them. He obviously doesn’t know how to express them with words either.

What lesson do you want to teach? How to handle disappointment! And, how to let you know that he’s upset without throwing a tantrum or screaming.

How can you best teach this lesson? You get down on the floor next to him and say, “I know you’re disappointed. You wanted more and I said, ‘no.'” Then, you offer a big bear hug and engage him in a little wrestle which diffuses the meltdown. Later in the day, you find an opportunity to talk about feeling disappointed and practice saying appropriate responses, “Bummer! I was hoping for one more turn.” Or, “Can I set a cookie aside for after lunch?”

At first, there might be some trial and error. And that is OK. The more often you seek to understand, rather than just respond with a consequence, the easier – and more effective – your responses will be!

*These questions are from No Drama Discipline, by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. If you’re looking for an awesome parenting book, this is a must-read.

Nicole Schwarz (couch 3)

Welcome! I'm Nicole Schwarz.

I'm a Parent Coach, Licensed Therapist and Author of It Starts with You. I help stressed, overwhelmed, confused parents find calm, confidence and connection with their kids. No one is expecting perfection here. But, if you’re willing to examine your parenting, find encouragement, or try something new, this is the place for you.

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