How To Parent: Ways That Kids Try To Control Their Parents

Masters of Manipulation: How Kids Control You With Behavior


Masters of Manipulation: How Kids Control You With Behavior“My son can be the sweetest, most awesome kid in the world,” says Tracy of 10-year-old Jarrett. “But he has ADHD, and he totally uses it to his advantage with us. He would have huge meltdowns when we asked him to go to bed and shut off the light.” The Phoenix-area mom recalls the night Jarrett’s meltdowns went over the top. “One night he had the biggest fit ever. He wound up throwing everything out of his room, including his mattress. He punched a hole in the wall and broke the door. We had just started The Total Transformation Program. We got out the workbook and were frantically looking through it when we saw what was wrong. We were his audience, and he was using this outburst to control us.”

Kids manipulate their parents. It’s part of their normal routine. They learn to use their charms and strengths to get their way and negotiate more power in the family.

“You can be sure your child knows what it takes to make you back down.”

Some forms of manipulation by kids are harmless. For example, if your daughter wants to go to a dance on a Saturday night, and she’s extra charming to you that week, but she’s getting good grades, she’s trustworthy and she’s doing her chores, there’s no reason for her not to go. The display of charm is sweet, harmless and appropriate.

On the other hand, that charm can be used inappropriately, such as when a child plays one parent against another to get what he wants. Or when a child has demonstrated previously untrustworthy behavior and tries to manipulate his parents by being overly sweet and compliant in order to get the chance to go out on Friday night.

The real problem with manipulation is when kids use behavioral threats to manipulate you, as in the case of Tracy and her son. In this type of manipulation, the child is telling you, “Give me my way or face my crap.” In other words, “If I don’t get my way, I’m going to make trouble for you.” In this situation, the manipulation becomes a power and control game for the child, and that’s where it gets dangerous for parents. When kids are wrestling with their parents for power and control over things, the child does things that are inappropriate, and the parents do things that are ineffective. The child talks abusively or pitches a fit, which is an inappropriate way to get what he wants, and the parent backs down or gives in, which is an ineffective response.

A good example of how this power struggle plays out in the home is when a child starts talking about going out in the evening and you tell him, “No, your homework’s not done, so you can’t go out until it’s done,” and the child’s voice gets louder as he resists, and his tone gets harsher. You may look at it as anger, frustration or an inability to handle stress on the part of the child. But it’s really a sign that the child is trying to manipulate the situation—and you—through power. In his mind, being harsher and louder will tip the balance in his direction. The child is making a power thrust—an attempt to use some form of behavior or verbally abusive power to get his way. It’s like an emotional sword in his hand and he thrusts it at you.

Whenever a child uses a power thrust to get his way, you need to be very careful about how you respond. First of all, you cannot give in and you cannot negotiate while the kid is in that state of mind. If your child raises his voice at you when he hears the word no or yells at you, say this: “We’re not even going to talk about this if you’re raising your voice. We’re not even going to talk about this if you’re starting to threaten me.” If a kid grumbles and gets a little mouthy on the way to his room or on the way to do a chore, that’s not a power thrust. I’m talking about intimidating, threatening behavior. This is manipulation that is designed to make you back down. Usually when kids use this type of behavior, they’ve acted out in the past. So they’ve already loaded the gun. Most parents know what’s coming. So when you see it coming, remember: the discussion about the dance is over. Now the discussion is, “You have to manage your voice and your behavior.” That’s when the parent should walk away and say, “We’ll talk about this when you calm down.”

Another appropriate response in this situation is to ask the child, (if you can do it without hostility) “Are you trying to intimidate me?” Basically, you’re asking the child, “Are you trying to bully me right now?” But remember, if your tone is hostile, it’s going to sound like a challenge to the child, and we don’t want to do that. We simply want to question it. “Are you trying to bully me” is a good question to defuse the situation. Number one, it gives the kid direct feedback that he’s bullying you and being inappropriate. It reveals to him what you’re experiencing. Number two, it takes some of the power out of the power thrust. It brings it down to its right size. Identifying it tends to neutralize it to some degree. Hopefully, the child will realize that now we’re talking about power, not about going to a dance. If he says that, yes, he’s trying to bully you, your response needs to be, “Well, that’s not going to help you solve your problem.” If he says that’s not what he’s doing, then tell him to please lower his voice. What you’re doing here is giving the child a decision tree that focuses the conversation on the new problem, the real problem. The fact that he is manipulating you to gain power and control. The new issue is not whether or not you go to the dance. The new issue is you’re trying to intimidate me, and it won’t help you to get what you want.

Another form of manipulation kids use is to split their parents. They’ll go to the parent whom they think is the weakest link or the one who has wavered in the past in order to gain power. That’s why parents have to be very coordinated in what they value and what their decisions are. If both parents agree that homework has to be done for the entire week before the kid’s weekend starts, and if the teacher says that the child’s assignments aren’t done from Tuesday, on Friday night the child can’t start watching TV or play video games or go out until that homework’s done. As parents, you both have to decide what the plan is and follow it through. There can be no excuses, whether the child is being overly sweet to get out of doing homework or whether he throws a tantrum to get out of it. Both tactics are manipulative and they should be dealt with the same way. If you have a manipulative child and you decide on certain strategies to manage that manipulative behavior, both parents have to be on the same page with their values as well as their plan. “If you don’t bring your books home, unless you borrow a book from a friend and get the work done, you don’t get to go out till next weekend.” Don’t set up a situation where dad or mom gives in and lets the child off the hook if they cry, whine, plead, resist, act out, or simply lay on the charm. Stick to the plan.

Kids watch their parents for a living. It’s their job. It’s what they do. And they know their parents have more power than they do. So they learn quickly which parent can be manipulated and how much it will take to get that parent to give in. Some parents will give in when the child applies a little more charm and warmth. Other parents give in when the child lashes out, screams and gets abusive. You can be sure your child knows what it takes to make you back down. So you need to be sure to talk about your plan for managing this behavior as parents and stay on the same page. Never say, “I’ll talk to Dad about it,” if you don’t agree with something Dad has decided. Don’t ever do that. It’s the child’s responsibility to work it out with the parents in an appropriate way. When parents disagree, they have to handle it privately. If the consequences change, they should be changed by the parent who delegated them, so that the parents remain empowered.

Tracy’s Postscript:

“So we read what to do in the workbook and I told him, “We’re not going any further until you put your room back. I’m going out front for twenty minutes. I expect your bed to be put back, everything to be put in order, and you to be in your bed with your light off before we come in.” He was still yelling at us. I said I’d come in and check on him in twenty minutes. So we all went out to the front porch. He started acting out even louder while we were out there. Any other time, I would have freaked out at that moment. He screamed and slammed things in his room. Normally, that’s when I would typically be like, ‘Okay, just calm down,’ and kind of give him his way. But this time, because of the way everything was explained in the program, I had a lot of confidence in what I was doing. I totally ignored his behavior. We sat out there, reading the workbook and just discussing how we wanted to handle it. Gradually, I heard less and less out of him. After about twenty minutes, I came back inside, and I just about fell over because his room was totally put back. He was in his bed with his blanket over him and his light off. He was quiet except to say, “Mom, you’ve could’ve at least acknowledged me.” And I didn’t say anything about what he did. I just said goodnight. He was perfectly fine. This time, he had given in and gone to bed. It was a total revelation of how badly he can manipulate us when we give in to him. We have not had one more outburst like that since.”


Masters of Manipulation: How Kids Control You With Behavior reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit www.empoweringparents.com

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James’ foremost goal was to help kids and to “empower parents.”

How To Parent: Not Letting Kids Get Away With Being Lazy

Does Your Child Say This? “I’ll do it later.”


Does Your Child Say This? Ill do it later.Does Your Child Say This? “I’ll do it later.”

When kids act out, they aren’t always confrontational. One way children get around the rules of the household is to procrastinate and put parents off until they eventually stop asking kids to help out. While many parents rationalize, “It’s easier if I just do it myself,” what you need to understand is that you are setting your child up to have a false sense of entitlement later on in life, a belief that “the world owes them something.” Here, James Lehman gives parents some effective responses in the face of your child’s passive resistance.

“I’ll do it later.”

Translation: If I put it off long enough, you’ll give up and I won’t have to do it. You’ll probably even do it for me.

Ineffective parenting response: “Ok, but make sure you get it done.”

Effective parenting response: “Well, that’s fine. But you won’t get your allowance until it’s done.” Or, “Well, that’s fine, but you can’t use the phone until it’s done.”


Does Your Child Say This? “I’ll do it later.” reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit www.empoweringparents.com

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James’ foremost goal was to help kids and to “empower parents.”

How To Parent: Behavior Problems Kids Scaring Parents

Gut Check: Do You Tiptoe around Your Child?


Gut Check: Do You Tiptoe around Your Child?“It was always like walking on eggshells around here. Very tense,” says Josephine, mother of 17-year-old Jamie. “She was totally disrespectful and condescending and I was ready to throw her out.” Josephine recalls how her “blood was always boiling” at home because her daughter’s unending anger stoked her own anger, and she dreaded the next behavioral eruption. “I would ask her to do things rather than tell her to do things just so I wouldn’t set her off. I’d get drawn into these screaming matches and the ‘Why? Why? Why?’ Now that I’ve realized how I need to be communicating with her, and what to say to her, I haven’t raised my voice and we haven’t argued in weeks.”

“A kid with behavior problems becomes a tyrant who assigns everybody in the family certain roles. To tiptoe around a child means to conform to the roles that the child assigns to you and everyone else in your home.”

There’s a difference between being considerate of your child and tiptoeing around him. We all want to be considerate of our children. If there are things that our child has to face in life that are upsetting to him, then we want to be considerate in terms of the intensity and frequency of how often he has to experience it in order to build up a tolerance. So, that means if the child can’t swim, per se, don’t throw him in the pool. But work with him on what he finds challenging and talk about it so that he builds up more of a tolerance and a skill base.

But let’s talk about tiptoeing around kids who are very reactive in a negative way. When we start tiptoeing, then we’re talking about being afraid to ask the kid to do routine responsibilities or to meet age appropriate expectations because we’re afraid of that child’s reaction. When we do this, it sets up a primary effect and a secondary effect. The primary effect is that the parent knows the kid’s going to act out at the mall, so they tiptoe around him at the mall and give in to his whims and demands because he’s thrown tantrums there in the past. The secondary effect is, the parent stops going to the mall altogether. So first they tiptoe and then they stop activities completely. Think about your own life with your child. Have you stopped going out to eat with your family because your child or children won’t behave? Have you stopped doing to relatives’ houses or do you make excuses why you “can’t make it” because you’re afraid of how the kids will act? That’s tiptoeing around your child.

The More Timid You Are Around Him, the More Power He Senses Over You

Here’s the bottom line about walking on eggshells around your child. If you tiptoe around him, the child senses that he has power over you, and he will use that power increasingly to manipulate you. As parents, we have to turn that misplaced “power” into life skills. To do this, you have to set a firm limit and then do skill building to teach him how to solve his problems appropriately.

Part of the problem parents have is that they set the limits without doing the skill building. They put the hammer down after the child acts out, but they don’t show the child how to act appropriately. If you don’t want the child to act out at the mall, it’s not enough just stop taking him to the mall. You need to take him to the mall and then teach him skills on how not to act out when things don’t go his way. In The Total Transformation Program, I teach parents how to set limits, and I also give them the tools for skill building and show them how to build those skills with their children. If you do this with your child, you don’t have to “walk softly” around him anymore. You can simply communicate with him.

A kid with behavior problems becomes a tyrant who assigns everybody certain roles. To tiptoe around a child means to conform to the roles that the child assigns everyone in your home. So his siblings are his victims. One parent is the martyr. One parent is the boogeyman. The child assigns all these roles to the family members, and, without thinking too much about it, they fall into those roles because if they play these parts, the child doesn’t act out.

So if you’re the martyr, your child basically created that role for you and is saying, “I won’t direct my acting out at you. I’ll direct it to the school. If you don’t want me to act out toward you, you just have to keep blaming the school. Once you start to hold me responsible, I’m going to act out against you.” So you can see why so many parents find it easier to fight the school than to fight their child.

Some kids send their parents this message: “If you buy me things, I won’t act out against you.” So, they don’t act out with the deep pockets parent, and they rebel against the parent who can’t buy them things. Deep pockets parenting is essentially tiptoeing around your child. To avoid confrontation with him, you buy him things.

Let’s be honest. We all tiptoe around each other to some degree. If somebody’s upset, that’s not the time to tease him. If somebody’s embarrassed or humiliated about something, that’s not the time to be sarcastic and rude. But these kids teach you to tiptoe around them in all cases where there’s some demand that they perform appropriately. They want to have the choice and the power. They want to be able to say, “Hey, if I feel like doing it I will. But if I don’t, don’t you try to make me.”

Remember: our basic theory is that kids use behavior to compensate for poor problem solving skills. So if you have a kid who has not solved the problem of authority, the problem of give and take with others, the problem of getting along with people, or the problem of respecting adults, your child will develop these different power behaviors to avoid learning these essential problem solving skills.

To change this behavior, parents need a process through which they draw the line and then they start to follow it. But they also need to develop more skill building and a consequence structure that is geared toward skill building and not just punishment. They need a new set of glasses through which to see their child’s behavior, and a new way to talk to their child.

How You Can Stop Tiptoeing around Your Child Right

Tiptoeing is giving in to the child’s behavioral blackmail. What happens is that the child will give signals when he doesn’t like what’s going on. When he’s asked to do something he doesn’t want to do. Or when he’s asked to stop something he’s doing. Tiptoeing means giving in when he gives those signals. You read the signals and change your demands. Not giving in is a matter of keeping the expectations firm and consistent even when he starts to escalate.

An example of escalation is when you tell the child to do their homework. They say “No!” and slam their book down on the table. Instead of giving in, give it a minute, and remind him that if he doesn’t start now, he’ll lose a minute of computer time. You can leave the room or wait a minute. Take that time to build yourself up, and then explain what the consequences of his actions will be. If he continues to escalate, tell him he’ll lose any time he could have had on the computer that evening. That’s how they’re going to learn. The parent should avoid yelling and avoid overt conflict.

Your tone should be firm and businesslike, not unpleasant. Often with these kids their behavior will escalate when they’re being told to do something. So it’s not accepting those cues or giving them any attention at all, and then redirecting the child, giving him a minute to calm down.

The truth is, parents can get into patterns that become increasingly more ineffective as the child gets older. Parents want to do the right thing, but sometimes they’re overwhelmed and they take shortcuts. Before they know it, the kid is nine, twelve or sixteen and he’s got them backed into the corner. But parents should not expect less of a child because of the behavioral blackmail and they shouldn’t accept less.


Gut Check: Do You Tiptoe around Your Child? reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit www.empoweringparents.com

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James’ foremost goal was to help kids and to “empower parents.”

How To Parent: Should Parents Try To Be Friends With Their Children

Your Child Is Not Your “Friend”


Your Child Is Not Your FriendThere is a purely emotional part of the parent/child relationship that is built on affection and esteem. Parents and children are genetically geared to love each other, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.

But there’s a stage where parenting becomes a functional role, not just an emotional role. With infants, the emotional role shows when a mother demonstrates her love by holding, talking and singing to the child. The functional role involves feeding, changing diapers and bathing the baby. One without the other is damaging for the child. So if she just loved that child but didn’t do the responsible functional things, that child would be at great risk and would be harmed and neglected. If she just took care of the functional things and didn’t show that child any love, it would have long term effects on the child’s emotional development. The emotional and functional parenting roles go hand in hand. It’s not healthy to emphasize one at the cost of the other.

“I think parents often make the mistake of making their child their confidante. The child is not morally, emotionally or intellectually prepared to play that role.”

I think as kids grow older, the parent’s role becomes more functional and less emotional, which is a hard lesson for parents who want to be their child’s “best friend.” As parents, they may feel those emotions inside, but they really have to do more for their child functionally, and set limits with the child. Limit setting is a very healthy function. It’s how kids learn to figure out what’s safe and what’s not safe. What’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate. The functional role changes for parents as the child grows. With a one-year-old, it involves changing diapers. With an eight-year-old, the functional role involves getting homework done. With a fifteen-year-old, it involves enforcing a responsible curfew.

Why You Shouldn’t Make Your Child Your Confidante

I think parents often make the mistake of making their child their confidante. So when they say, “I want to be his friend, and I want him to be my friend,” what they’re really saying is “I want be his confidante.” And that just does not fit with the functional role of a parent.

It’s a very well-meaning trap that parents fall into. They want to share with the child how they really feel about their grandmother. How they really feel about their neighbor. How they really feel about their teacher. But it’s ineffective because the child is not morally, emotionally or intellectually prepared to play that role. If you’re forty years old and you want a confidante, find another forty-year-old. Find a fifty-year-old. Find a thirty-five-year old. But don’t look for a ten-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a five-year-old.

If parents think teachers are in error, they should keep that to themselves and their peers and deal with the school directly. If you think the teacher’s an idiot for not letting your child chew gum in the room, you can be your kid’s “best friend” and say, “That’s a stupid rule and that teacher’s a jerk.” Or you can be a functional parent and say, “Boy, I really disliked that rule when I was in school too. But I had to follow the rules.” Two different responses. Both responses empathize with the child, but one makes him a confidante, which is ineffective. The other teaches him the importance of following rules. Remember this: if you punch holes in authority figures, thinking you’re being a confidante with your kid, don’t be surprised when he disrespects that authority figure. And then if you give him consequences for that disrespect, he’s going to look at you as a hypocrite.

When you make your child your confidante, you are saying that you and the child are co-decision makers. But the fact is, you and your child are not co-decision makers in any realistic way. Kids can offer you their opinion. They can tell you what they like and dislike. But certainly decisions, especially important ones but even certain minor ones, have to be made by you, the parent. Kids have to understand that the family moves as a unit and the adults make the decisions.

I think you can certainly share some things with a child without turning him into a confidante. One of the things you can share with a child is the statement, “We can’t afford that.” It’s a factual statement that explains the limits under which you must live. What you shouldn’t share with the child is, ”I don’t know how I’m going to pay the rent this month.” It’s something that the child is not prepared for, and it develops in him a way of looking at the world that is unhealthy and not realistic.

If you have a tendency to treat your child as a “friend,” you should understand this important interpretation of friendship: friends are a group of people that have the same notion about ideas and life. The truth is, children and adults have very different notions about what they should be doing. They have entirely different notions about what’s right and wrong. They have very different notions about what they want to do tonight. So I think that you need to be a parent to your child and be loving, caring and responsible. But I think you have to find your confidantes outside of that family structure.

Don’t Try to Parent Your Child The Way You Wish Your Parents Had Parented You

Many parents try to raise their child in a way that they wish their parents had parented them. It sounds nice on paper, but it just doesn’t work. So if your parents were distant or rigid with you, or they seemed uncaring to you or they seemed self-involved to you or they made horrible personal mistakes and didn’t give you the guidance you needed, you shouldn’t overcompensate for that by violating parent-child boundaries with your own child. This can be characterized as a “reaction formation.” In reaction to deficits you saw in your own parents, you form a way of parenting that’s not healthy for you or for your child.

Remember that anything done in a reactionary way is going have unforeseen consequences. And the biggest problem with parent-child friendships is all the unforeseen consequences. Parents tend to look only at the foreseen consequences. For example, my child will like me more if I’m his friend. He’ll trust me. Parents don’t look at the unforeseen consequences, such as, he won’t listen to the word no because I never used it with him or taught him how to deal with it.

The goal of adolescence is individuation–separation from adults. That means that the child is going to have his own business, beliefs and rules that he’s not going to want to share with adults. You need to know that it’s not a violation of the parent-child relationship for that child to develop his own set of friends and his own values. Those friends and values may not be healthy from a parent’s point of view or an objective observer’s point of view. But it’s the child’s job to work through that. People who don’t individuate from their parents in pre-adolescence and adolescence end up with emotional and social problems in life.

Many parents see this individuation happening in their adolescent children and feel abandoned by the child when they have parented too much in the emotional role and have acted as the child’s friend. They feel a remarkable sense of loss, and they compensate for it by blaming the child.

Friends Don’t Let Friends Not Do Their Homework

I want to draw an important distinction for you here. In the end, you can be your child’s friend—just not his confidante. The key is having a responsible friendship with your child.

You know the saying, “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk?” Well, friends don’t let friends not do their homework. Friends don’t let friends make excuses for failure. Friends don’t let friends badmouth the teacher and defy the rules in the classroom. That’s the type of friend you need to be to your child. A responsible friend. And the model of responsible friendship is identical to the model of responsible parenting.

How to Stop Being Your Child’s Confidante Now

If you’ve “shared” too much with your child and not set the kind of limits they need, for whatever reason, all in the name of being your child’s “friend,” you can change to become more effective. It begins by talking to your child—about what you’re going to talk about from now on. Say, “I’ve decided that there are some things I should be talking to other adults about. So I’m not going to talk to you about them anymore because I think it hurts our relationship.” You don’t have to be specific about the subject matter. Just be clear.

Then you need to learn how to respond differently to your child, not simply demand that the child communicate differently. For instance, if you and your child have been talking about what a jerk a certain teacher is for years and the child brings it up, you can’t simply come out and say, “Don’t call that teacher a jerk anymore.” Instead, say this: “I don’t think it helps us to label that teacher. Let’s figure out how you can handle this situation successfully.” An irresponsible friend will sit around and badmouth the teacher with their child. A responsible friend will help their child solve the problem he’s having with the teacher.

Parents in divorced families will often both try to be the child’s confidante, and the child gets stuck painfully in the middle. The mother’s telling him what the father’s like, what he’s doing and not doing. The father’s talking about what mom is like, how crazy she is, how controlling she is. I’ve heard kids in divorced families say that their mom is “so controlling, she’s awful. I can’t live with her.” They were just parroting what the father said to them. The most poisonous thing is that what the parents are saying might be true to some degree. And the kid can see it. But he can’t react to it properly because he doesn’t have the maturity to do it. These parents might point out defects in the other parent that are accurate. But the way they point them out—by treating the child as a confidante–empowers the child to attack them.


Your Child Is Not Your “Friend” reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit www.empoweringparents.com

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James’ foremost goal was to help kids and to “empower parents.”