Is Your Child Manipulating You?

Do you always end up giving into your child's unreasonable demands? And If you don’t, does your child resort to tears or tantrums to get his way? Then, perhaps your child has learnt to manipulate you.

By Divya Sreedharan  • 11 min read

Is Your Child Manipulating You?

“Mamma, I am hungry. I want a peanut butter sandwich!”

Vimal and Reena are shaken out of their deep sleep. Ria, their four-year-old daughter has suddenly woken up. She says she wants a snack. It is 2 am.

Reena tries to soothe the little girl, but she insists on eating something before going back to sleep. So, the mother groggily goes into the kitchen to fix her daughter’s snack. But when she comes back with the sandwich, Ria doesn’t want it.

“No, I don’t want this anymore. I want bread with honey, Mamma,” the child says loudly.

“But baby, you wanted a peanut butter sandwich. See, I have already made it for you. At least, have a bite and see if you like it,” says Reena trying to coax her little one.

“No, no, no. I don’t want this. I want bread and honey!”

Ria starts to cry. Vimal also tries to reason with her, but the little girl refuses to listen. She is now crying loudly. Worried that she will make herself sick with crying, the parents give in. This time, Vimal prepares the snack she wants. The child eats it and allows her parents to pat her back to sleep.

Vimal and Reena are worried and upset. Their disturbed night has left them exhausted but more than anything, it is their daughter’s headstrong ways that are beginning to disturb them. They fear that their daughter will do this again. And they do not know how to handle their child when she is like this. For that matter, they do not even understand why she behaves in this manner.

Has this happened to you too? As a parent, have you met every demand or done everything your child wanted because saying no means dealing with tears or tantrums. For that matter, has your child become anxious and clingy on such occasions? You may not realise it, but this is a kind of manipulative behaviour that children of all ages, sometimes resort to with their parents. Why does this happen? 

Here are some insights into this behaviour and how you can learn to become a caring, confident parent.

Is your parenting influenced by your own childhood? Have you ever given any thought to whether your parenting style is influenced by your childhood? And how your parents brought you up? According to Sean Grover, psychotherapist and author of ‘When Kids Call the Shots’, your childhood does make a difference to how you parent. If, for instance, you had a very strict childhood, you could probably end up giving your child permissions, freedoms or even things like toys, foods and yes, gadgets, that you were denied as a child. Unfortunately, this can lead to your child developing an unhealthy sense of entitlement. At times, he may even resort to tears or tantrums if he does not get his way. Or if you do not do what he wants. And the longer you give in to this behaviour, the tougher it will be to change it, notes Grover in an article on Psychology Today.

What you can do: Reflect on your own childhood and see if that has influenced your parenting style. When there is self-awareness, then you become more conscious about your choices and the judgements you make as a parent. You also get to decide about the kind of parent you want to be, notes Grover. After all, mindfulness and being self aware is key to building a healthy relationship with your child. This will be help you understand yourself and your responses to your child. And thereby, be more attuned and empathetic to her needs on an everyday basis.

You allow your child to dictate the terms: As parents, it is natural to give your child the best of everything possible. This means that you also do not like to see your child sad or unhappy. But sometimes, always trying to please your child sets an unhealthy pattern in the parent-child relationship. It can even have a bearing on such matters as limiting TV time or gadget usage, eating vegetables and even, curbing chocolates or snacks. For instance, a child who refuses to eat a proper meal but wants just a snack, is likely to wake up in the middle of the night saying she is hungry. Then, when you try to not give in, your child is going to be upset and try everything possible to change your mind. As psychotherapist Aparna Balasundaram points out: “The key is to remember that your child will try different tactics to change your ‘No’ into a ‘Yes’! It's almost the nature of most children to see how far they can push you.”

What you can do: When your child is having a tantrum or has resorted to tears to get his way, Balasundaram believes it is vital that you think through your response. Stay calm and firm instead of being distressed or reacting in anger. “Know that this kind of manipulation is normal, and more important, do not get emotional over it. Know that children may use emotional blackmail, tears, temper tantrums or even, comparisons to the benevolent aunty next door!” she stresses. Keep in mind that it is important for children to have structure, in their lives. This relates to everything from food to gadget usage. For a child, having limits is vital — it helps him manage emotions and impulses better. And that is necessary for robust emotional development.

“As a responsible parent, make sure you are not seen as indecisive or easily influenced. Be a confident, positive parent.”-- Aparna Balasundaram, psychotherapist

Other reasons for your child’s behaviour: Sometimes, your child’s behaviour may have roots in something deeper. Suppose you tell her to eat the vegetables on her plate and she promptly bursts into tears. Do not simply scold your child for what you think is over-reaction on her part. Remember that children can sometimes ‘act out’ because they are sleep-deprived, dehydrated or because of other external factors. If this is a pattern of behaviour you see in your child then, try and find out if there are underlying problems. Is your daughter being bullied at school? Is she frightened about something? Or, does your child have an undiagnosed learning problem, which is affecting her self esteem? It could also be that your child is unable to tell you or express what is really upsetting her.

What you can do: First, make sure your child gets enough sleep every day, as being sleep-deprived can leave him feeling irritable, moody and prone to tears. When your child has calmed down enough, sit with him and gently get him to open up. Try and find out if something in school has upset him. On the other hand, if you suspect that he could have a learning problem and is distressed because of that, do consult his teacher. And then, if required, do not hesitate to seek expert help. Also, keep in mind that school-going children are quite often dehydrated. In fact, a 2015 Harvard study in the US, found that one in four children drank almost no water during the course of a day. The study notes that dehydration, in turn, can impair cognitive function and lead to headaches, irritability and fussiness, in children. So, ensure your child drinks enough water. Remind him to keep sipping from his water bottle.

Are you taking care of yourself? As parents, are you doing too much on your own? It is quite possible that you are juggling too many responsibilities and feeling fatigued, stressed and irritable, as a result. This can mean that you find no time for a healthy lifestyle or exercise. A hectic schedule can also leave you often sleep-deprived. All this can lead to parental burnout. As a consequence, you may find yourself reacting to your child in a harsh manner. For that matter, you may even sometimes be too tired to try and change your child’s behaviour. The result: you end up giving in to your child, every time she demands something new. 

What you can do: As a parent, it is true that your role is to cherish and care for your child. But remember that you have a responsibility to yourself too. Also, you need to be a good role model for your child as well. Hence, a better work-life balance is essential. You need to prioritise your own health and take care of yourself too. This can mean anything from getting some ‘me-time’ every day, to asking for help with child care duties. Do not hesitate to ask your spouse or your immediate family for support. After all, being a healthy, happy parent is as important as being there for your child.

Know that how you interact with your child really does make a difference. Be loving but firm so that your child grows into a healthy, well-rounded individual. But instead of being arbitrary with rules, be open in communicating these with your child. And, use these insights to restore a positive and loving relationship with your child. 

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