Manipulation: The kid habit you have to break!

by | Mar 20, 2010 | Character and Moral Intelligence, Discipline & Behavior, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions

Learn the sneaky tactics kids use to get her way—and what to do about them.

Dad said I could.”

“I promise I’ll do it tomorrow.”

“My stomach hurts; I can’t go to school.”

Do these manipulative tactics sound rather familiar? I’ll bet. As a mom, educational psychologist and former teacher, I know all too well that kids are masters at this particular art: Making excuses, blaming, and fibbing are just a few of the devices they use to get what they want.

The thing is, kids aren’t born scheming and strategizing; they learn these “useful” skills. For instance, a 3-year-old discovers that meltdowns are amazingly effective in getting Dad to buy her a toy, and a y-year-old realizes that guilt-inducing comments (“You don’t love me!”) can make Mom agree to, well you name it.

Letting your kid use these moves to get her way is disastrous. For starters, a manipulative attitude hurts a child’s ability to manage life’s ups and downs; instead of learning ways to cope (with her fears, frustrations, schoolwork), she’ll take the easier path and shirk her troubles. And that stifles her potential for developing self-reliance, resilience, and self-esteem. Then, too, each deceptions rips a little more from your child’s conscience and moral growth. And there’s one more issue: a manipulative kid can cause family arguments, make you less trustful of her, ad drive you crazy. So stop being manipulated already. Here’s how:

Step 1. Recognize your kid’s Tactics Here are some common manipulation tactics kids use to get what they want. Mark ones that apply to your kid:

  • Tells lies. “I did it already.”
  • Plays one adult off the other. “But Mom said it was okay.”
  • Makes excuses. “I thought it was Sally’s job.”
  • Uses affection or charm. Sorry Dad, I forgot. How about a hug?”
  • Pretends to be helpless. “I just can’t do it Dad, pleeeeease can you help me?” 
  • Uses guilt. “If you were around more to help, I’d be getting better grades.”
  • Fakes a physical ailment. “I have a headache.”
  • Uses self-pity. “It’s too hard!”
  • Exploits emotions. He uses tears, cries hysterically, trembles, clings, pleads, mopes.
  • Other:

Step 2. Discover what’s causing the child’s attitude. There are two parts to this step. First you need to learn what’s behind your kid’s manipulative ways. To figure this out, review what you marked in Step 1, then ask yourself if there’s a pattern. For example, does she seem to be trying to escape from something unpleasant? Another possibility is that a child is just plain and selfish and manipulates others to get what she wants. Check the possibilities that reflect your kid’s behavior:

  • Avoiding humiliation. She is saving face from possible failure or embarrassment.
  • Avoiding a penalty. She is trying to escape possible punishment if her actions are discovered.
  • Not wanting to lose approval. She is afraid of losing the approval or love of someone she cares about.
  • Lack of skills and experience. You’ve been doing so much for this little sucker, that now she hasn’t the ability to do it on her own.
  • Feels insecure, fearful or anxious. The situation creates one or more of the above feelings in her, so she’s steering clear of it.
  • Dodging responsibility. Your child is avoiding being accountable for her actions.
  • Not wanting to work. She is getting out of doing chores or other tasks that she’s not crazy about.
  • Other:

Compare your notes with others who know your kid well then write down your best guess as to the real purpose of her deceptive attitude. (You’ll use it in the next step.)

Step 3. Expose the underlying deception. Once you recognize your kid’s tactics and motivation behind them, let him know you’re onto him. As soon as you see him starting to be manipulative, stop him on the spot (and that means anywhere you are—in a restaurant, on a soccer field, in a super market, or in your family room).

If he is agitated or losing control, wait until he is calm enough to talk. Then confront your kid with his deception and your theory as to why he is using it. Use a calm, firm voice and stick to just the facts. Cut out judgments, lengthy sermons, and admonitions (as in, “You keep this up, you’ll get expelled from school”): they’re never helpful.

For instance, you might say, “every time Mrs. Castro carpools, I’ve notice that you can’t seem to find your backpack, so I end up drive you. Is something going on that makes you not want to be in her car?” Or, “You’ve been pretending that you can’t lift your toy box to that upper shelf. But I’ve seen you stand on a chair to get down that heavy box of video games so I don’t want to hear anymore about being so helpless.”

Remember, your goal here is just to have your kid hear you out and let him know in no uncertain terms that the attitude will not be tolerated. Make sure that others he tends to manipulate (such as your husband, the babysitter, a day-care worker) are aware of your new policy so that you’re onboard together.

Step 4. Help your child face her fears. If she’s using manipulation to avoid a situation that causes her anxiety or fear (say, she pretends to have a cold so she can stay home from school and not take a test), don’t be too quick to let her off the hook. If she’s capable of the task and the expectation is fair and reasonable, then don’t give in; insist that she face her fear.

How? Consider her by acknowledging that you understand how she feels (in this case, that she doesn’t like taking tests). Then let her know you believe in her and are confident she can succeed. Tell her, “I know it seems hard, but you can do it.” Or, “I know how scared you are, but I’m here if you want to talk about it.” Be very clear that you will not rescue her, but will help her cope until she prevails.

Also key: Show her some healthy ways to deal with her anxiety, such as saying a soothing statement (perhaps “Chill out, calm down” or “I can do this”) inside her head. Or ask her to think of a place she’s been where she feels relaxed (e.g., the beach her bed, the park). When anxiety kicks in, tell her to close her eyes and imagine that spot while breathing slowly.

Step 5. Set a consequence. Beware: Confronting kids with their deceptions after the fact (“Your teacher last year said you had cheated” Or “Remember when you lied to me about your chores last month?”) is useless. For consequences to be effective in curbing bad attitudes, they must be enforced immediately and “fit the crime. And I always think the best consequences are ones that also right the kid’s wrong. With that said, here are some consequences that tune up kids’ moral attitudes, face their wrongdoing, as well as learn that manipulation is not acceptable.

  • “If you take something, you will return it to the owner with an apology.”
  • “If you break something, you will pay for it out of your earned money.”
  • “If you are dishonest, you owe the person a sincere apology as an admission of your wrongdoing.”

Don’t expect your child to immediately get the connection between the consequence and the moral-message you’re trying to instill. Right now he needs to recognize that anytime he commits an ethical infraction (such as a dishonest, manipulative act), he must make face his wrong and try to make things right.   If he doesn’t get it at first, he will eventually because you will continue to hold him accountable.

The key to a successful manipulation-free policy is simple: Don’t accept any excuses, guilt, pass-the-buck, tactics from your kids. Manipulation only works if you allow it to work–so don’t.

This article is adapted from The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. For more parenting ideas follow me on twitter at @MicheleBorba