Three Tactics of a Manipulative Parent

How manipulative parenting can inflict long-term damage.

Posted Dec 02, 2019

The act of parenting unavoidably involves making choices that influence the life of your child. Passive parents allow their children to make their own decisions and communicate an attitude of indifference. Over-controlling, so-called "helicopter" parents attempt to shape their children's life in the manner they deem most appropriate.

To a certain extent, both passivity and control can be developmentally appropriate; parents would expect a teen to take responsibility for brushing their teeth but would not expect the same from a toddler. Unfortunately, some parents who see the extent of their control over their child diminishing as he or she matures can turn to emotional manipulation in an effort to regain their previously held influence.

The manipulative parent can choose from a wide variety of tools to influence their child. Recently published research identifies three such behaviors [2].

Personal Attacks

Manipulative parents attempt to establish psychological control over their children by diminishing their self-esteem. In a recent study, facets of parental behavior labeled "personal attacks" included parents who: blame their child for other family members' problems, bring up past mistakes, tell the child they are not a good family member, remind the child of what they have done for them, and place blame for their own feelings on the child.

For example, consider the following situation: A teenager comes home well past curfew and is confronted by their parent.

Parent: "How could you do this to me? Do you know how much I worry about you? I can't believe how careless you are. It makes me so angry, you're going to make me lose my mind!"

At face value, this response doesn't seem too unreasonable, a parent is rightly scared for their teenage driver's safety. But, this parent – perhaps unknowingly – exerted psychological influence on their child by blaming his or her own feelings on the child. The problem here isn't that the parent is fabricating these feelings (they are very real after all), it's that the parent is using the feelings in an attempt to regain psychological control over their child. This type of manipulation meta-communicates that personal emotions are fair game in a family confrontation. They shouldn't be surprised when their child pulls one of these: "I couldn't help it, you pissed me off so much. Of course I stormed off and slammed my door! What else was I supposed to do?!"

Invalidating Feelings

Feeling invalidation is an insidious relational manipulation tactic prevalent in all sorts of close relationships. Adolescents who have experienced feeling invalidation from their parents report that their parents finish their sentences, interrupt them, act like they know what their child is thinking or feeling, and try to change how they feel about things.

It'd be difficult to find someone completely innocent of invalidating feelings. It's human nature to believe our own feelings over and above those of others. In general, I would encourage adults who sense their feelings being invalidated by other adults to respond, at least at first, with patience – interpreting the invalidation as a self-defense mechanism rather than an attack.

But for adolescents who are just beginning to form their personal identity, feeling invalidation by a parent can be destructive. This attack moves on two fronts: It damages the parent-child relationship by establishing an emotional hierarchy (the parent's feelings are more important than child's) and damages the child's sense of individuality (that their feelings are real, personal, and important).

Love Withdrawal

Research on attachment suggests that infants form a deep, emotional bond with their parents. Explanations for this include, but are not limited to, the warmth and tenderness of physical touch in infancy, the learned association between the parent and safety, and the release of reinforcing neurotransmitters when interacting with an attachment figure. Typically, the attached relationship between two people is conceptualized as love.

For the manipulative parent, however, the attached, loving relationship can be leveraged as psychological control. In Romm, Metzger, and Alvis' study [2], parents who withdraw love will avoid looking at their child who has disappointed them and will stop talking to their child until they are appeased.

From what I've seen, no parents are out there thinking, "Boy, how can I use the attachment bond I formed with my child when they were a little baby to attack them and manipulate them into doing what I want." Instead, parents tried many other things first. And, for a variety of reasons, the sticker chart didn't work, the time-outs didn't work, taking the phone away didn't work, changing the Wi-Fi password didn't work, and grounding didn't work. They're left feeling inadequate, perhaps resenting themselves for failing their child, and grasping onto anything that works. They're left with the nuclear option: love withdrawal.

Yomare
Source: Yomare

Why is it that parents manipulate? Certainly, there is a litany of reasons like the one listed above: a sense of desperation and shame. A study of parents [3] identified two cognitions that predicted manipulative parenting behaviors: sensitivity to hurt and disapproval of negative emotion. It seems like the old adage may apply to parenting as well: Hurt people hurt people. Research shows that emotionally abused children are more likely to be emotionally abusive parents [1].

That correlation isn't a prescription. It's my opinion that a therapist's work is to look forward to solutions rather than backward to find fault. If you are the child of an emotionally manipulative parent, it may be helpful to process that experience with a trusted other or therapist.

References

McCullough, C., Harding, H. G., Shaffer, A., Han, R. Z., & Bright, M. (2014). Intergenerational continuity of risky parenting: A person-oriented approach to assessing parenting behaviors. Journal of Family Violence, 29(4), 409-418. doi:10.1007/s10896-014-9593-6

Romm, K. F., Metzger, A., & Alvis, L. M. (2019). Parental psychological control and adolescent problematic outcomes: A multidimensional approach. Journal of Child and Family Studies, doi:10.1007/s10826-019-01545-y

Walling, B. R., Mills, R. S. L., & Freeman, W. S. (2007). Parenting cognitions associated with the use of psychological control. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 16(5), 642-659. doi:10.1007/s10826-006-9113-2