One of the most baffling and infuriating parts of parenting can be trying to decipher our kid’s feelings. Even as infants, they cry for a multitude of reasons and it falls on us to scramble around trying to figure out which need must be met. We eventually learn to distinguish one “type” of cry from another and respond accordingly.
When they become toddlers, our kids begin to learn to communicate their specific needs more clearly even as they simultaneously become more volatile and irrational. But toddlers also pick up another useful little tool to add to their arsenal: they discover they can manipulate the world around them — including us, their parents.
There are gigabytes’ worth of articles claiming that a little kid throwing a tantrum is basically on par with an infant crying. A tantrum is a bid for attention, they say — a crackling white flag of surrender, the only way they know to communicate that they have an emotional need not being met. Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes a tantruming kid isn’t really mad about the thing they’re screaming about. Sometimes they just need a nap.
Except, any parent who’s had their toddler poke out their bottom lip and pretend to cry because they’ve been told they can’t have an extra popsicle knows that sometimes a tantrum is purely, 100%, a kid just trying to get their way. Kids can be manipulative AF. It’s a fact.
It’s easy-ish to deal with a toddler, or at least, there are plenty of articles filled with ways to manage a toddler tantrum, but what about when your older kid starts to manipulate you? I’m not even talking about tantrums. I’m also not talking about more obvious emotional manipulation like sulking, door slamming, and other clear histrionics. I’m talking about more subtle uses of emotional manipulation. The more devious, clever type of manipulation older kids — and adults — are capable of. Cases where you’re honestly not sure what the best course of action is.
For example, when your tween daughter tells you she’s “scared” to go to school, but your gut tells you she’d just rather stay home and watch YouTube videos. Or when your kid accuses you of working too much and not spending enough time with them — and then asks you to drive them to the store to buy a gadget for their gaming computer.
How do you deal with information from your child that, if it’s honest, would require your sympathy and attention, but really you know it’s just a form of emotional extortion?
If you have even the slightest suspicion that the complaint is a legitimate one, deal with that first. Call their bluff. For a kid who says they’re scared to go to school, offer to go with them and meet with the school guidance counselor or with a private therapist. Once they realize they’ll have to put in a whole lot of effort to maintain their ruse, they’ll likely give it up. And if the fear turns out to be real, you’ll uncover it and help your kid overcome it.
For the kid who accuses you of not spending enough time with them (this may or may not have recently happened in my household), go ahead and allow that punch to the gut to settle. Then look at the situation and see if the complaint is really valid. (It was a teensy bit valid. I work from home and wasn’t available much over the summer for hanging out.) Then rectify it. (We watched some movies and did a big puzzle together. However, no gadgets were purchased.)
But, you’re not done yet. My son, in his desperate attempt to get something he wanted, hurled out hurtful words at me. I do spend a lot of time with my kids. Yes, the summer was rough. We’d just moved, and I was trying to balance a full work schedule while having my kids home with me all day every day. They were expected to entertain themselves a lot. Still, it felt like all my efforts had been taken for granted. So, I had a conversation with my son about how it hurt me that he’d thrown out that accusation in a way that made it look like he was only trying to guilt me into buying him something. It would have been different if he’d just asked for more time with me. Trying to get something material out of it wasn’t okay. He understood and apologized immediately.
We parents must teach our kids not to be emotionally manipulative, but more importantly we must model emotionally honest behavior. Think about how often adults use emotional manipulation to get a child to do what they want. Sometimes it seems almost harmless, like when Aunt Josephine pretends to cry when your child doesn’t want to give her a hug. Or any variety of withholding affection in order to get a child to do what they’re told. All of it is emotional manipulation.
Children need to understand that emotional honesty is important, not just when it comes to being a decent human being, but even for their own safety. Being in the habit of being emotionally honest fosters an environment where, when something really does go wrong, you know it. There is no question or confusion about how your child is feeling, either in your child’s mind or yours. This matters in your relationship with your child, it matters in their friendships, and it will matter in romantic and professional relationships. If emotional honesty is your child’s baseline, they will recognize when someone else is trying to emotionally manipulate them.
Whether it’s by outright tantrums or door-slamming or sulking or other manipulative behavior, or if it’s more this subtle variety I’ve described here, allowing our kids to manipulate us enforces dangerous habits that can be carried into adult relationships. We definitely don’t want that for our kids, so we need to both model emotionally honest behavior and expect the same from our kids.