Why Is My Kid Manipulating Me?

When our kids manipulate us, we can feel frustrated or angry that our kids seem to be resorting to such means. They might use yelling, tantrums, lying, name-calling, or making us feel bad to get what they want. In more extreme cases, kids might call child protective services on us, make threats, run away, or engage in self-harm to manipulate parents and others. Why do our kids do these things?

Trying to Fulfill Their Needs

When kids resort to manipulation, they attempt to control their environment to get their needs met. We can always look to the need to understand the motivations for manipulative behaviors. Even the need for control can be motivation enough for kids to use manipulation. 

Kids are still developing their coping skills and learning how to get what they need. Manipulation can be a means of testing limits or utilizing a behavior that has worked in the past. For parents, dealing with the frustration that follows manipulative behaviors can be challenging. We can reach our breaking points, asking things like, “Why would you do that to me?” 

It’s okay to feel frustrated by manipulative behaviors. However, there is a connection between “manipulation” and “crisis,” as Fire Mountain’s Aaron Huey points out. Often, manipulation means that there is a crisis occurring.

The Connection Between Crisis and Manipulation

For our kids, the causes of a crisis can vary. Viewing things from their perspective can give us better insight into understanding what a crisis can be for our kids. We might look at a crisis as a significant event that puts a person into immediate harm. However, things that our kids define as a “crisis” might be something that we know can be resolved quickly without resorting to manipulation or other problem behaviors. From their point-of-view, our kid’s world could feel like it is ending. As parents, we can guide them through resolution and help them fulfill their needs.

If our kids knew the proper way to get their needs met, they would most likely not resort to manipulation. Manipulation is a base-level, quick-to-action response to being in “crisis mode.” When kids resort to things like tantrums, yelling, guilt-tripping, or other behaviors, they are communicating this message: “I am in a crisis and need help.” When you see manipulation, that means that your kid is already in crisis. The solutions can be relatively simple depending upon what event or occurrence triggered the crisis. Other times, a crisis can require long-term guidance to resolve. 

The Hierarchy of Needs

Humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow developed the “Hierarchy of Needs” to explain human motivations that drive behaviors. Human needs are presented on the hierarchy in order from survival at the base to “self-actualization” at the top. The base needs of the hierarchy need to be fulfilled or satisfied before moving to higher levels. When our kids are in a crisis, signified by the presence of manipulation or problematic behaviors, we can look at the need they are trying to fulfill to help them.

For example, a child throwing a tantrum in a grocery store over wanting a chocolate bar. While we may see these as a “want” more than a “need,” the child might not understand the difference and genuinely feel that they need the chocolate bar. We can try a few things to resolve this crisis:

  • Being proactive: 
    • Bringing snacks to the grocery store or ensuring that a child has a snack before being “triggered” in the candle aisle
    • Talking with the child about choosing a snack to purchase at the end of the grocery shopping.
  • Resolving the crisis by giving in:
    • Sometimes, we have to consider the circumstances in the moment. 
    • Many parents want to set a boundary and “hold their ground” during these kinds of power struggles. However, if your child’s tantrum continues to escalate, you may need to fulfill the need to prevent worse consequences, such as property damage or bodily harm.
    • Giving in to resolve a crisis does not make you a weak parent if you prevent the situation from getting much worse! 
    • If you resort to this action,
      • Learn from it! What did your child need? What were they communicating?
      • Talk with your child about the crisis when they are calm
      • Work out a compromise and agree to solutions
      • Employ proactive approaches the next time

These strategies can be applied to other needs as well. For example, when a child is staying out past curfew, what need are they trying to fulfill? Are they trying to socialize or “fit in?” Can we help them find better ways of fulfilling their social and belonging needs without staying out late?

The critical thing to remember is that when your kid is manipulating you, they are trying to fulfill a need and have entered a crisis as they feel out of control in the moment. As a parent, we can guide our kids to learn better ways to meet their needs.

Kids might resort to manipulation or other problem behaviors to control their environment and get their needs met. Teenagers and children are still learning to get their needs met properly and might resort to manipulation when they feel a loss of control. Though the situation might not appear to us as a crisis, to our kids, this loss of control can send them spiraling as they feel their world falling apart. We can help them by looking for the need driving the manipulation and teach our children the proper way of getting what they want. Once we understand the need and the triggers of manipulative behaviors, we can take proactive steps to prevent a future crisis. If your child struggles with problematic behaviors like cutting, addiction, running away, promiscuity, or others, then residential treatment might be the next right step. For more information, call Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center at (303) 443-3343. We’re here to help your family’s fire burn brightest.

Leave a Reply