3 (More) Tactics of Manipulative Parents

How do some parents exert manipulative control on their children?

Posted Aug 31, 2020

Last year, I published a popular blog post that sought to outline a few go-to methods for manipulative parenting. As stated therein, parenting is all about guiding a child's development. But when behavior goes awry, or parents feel like they're at the end of their rope, some parents employ manipulative tactics as a last resort. Unfortunately, commonplace manipulations are something of a gateway drug: "C'mon make mommy happy and give me a hug!" can devolve into "If you don't give me what I want, I'm going to blame you for whatever unpleasant emotions spring up for me."

Inspired by that post, additional research, and ongoing clinical observations, I will now discuss 3 (more) tactics of manipulative parents.

Project Insecurities

Insecurities: we all have them. I'd be willing to bet that at the mention of the word "insecurity" one or more physical features jumped to mind. I know it did for me! But what happens when a parent projects their own insecurities onto a child in a conscious, or even unconscious, attempt to manipulate them?

Imagine a relatively small 12-year-old boy comes home from his first football practice excited about the game, the coach, and his teammates. His dad, an ex-high school player himself, asks how it went.

"Dad I had such an awesome time at practice today! Coach said I might make a good running back!"

"Well maybe you could, but you're gonna have to bulk up if you want to make the varsity team when you get to high school! A skinny little kid like you is gonna get torn apart on the field."

Admittedly, this dialogue alone is not catastrophic. Kids can be surprisingly resilient [1] and are not made of spun glass. But imagine that similar interactions between dad and son played out during future conversations about football. Let's think about what is motivating dad to direct his son's attention to his body size.

Dad knows that it's important to be big and strong to play football well. Dad was cut from the first-string team in high school because he wasn't as strong as his peers. Dad, while perfectly successful in his career and relationships, has never emotionally come to terms with the feeling of not being good enough. While dad may be technically correct that strength and size will help his son be successful in football, he has utterly failed to receive the message his son is communicating. Instead of reflecting back his son's excitement "wow that sounds great, I'm so happy you're liking football!" he directs his son toward insecurity and self-doubt.  

Dad's intentions may be relatively pure: to ensure his son's safety, to help his son get a leg up on the competition, and ultimately – hopefully – to ensure his son doesn't have the same negative experience he did in high school. But the content of his communication is mismatched with his intention – because dad is unable to empathize with his son's football-related excitement due to his own personal insecurity about not being able to play in high school.

Undermine Caregivers

This section is not explicitly focused on the harmful effects of parents undermining their coparent in front of their child. While that effect exists and it's good sense to avoid that behavior, this section seeks to discuss more broadly the behaviors that undermine any of a child's other caregivers [3].

For example, a parent may perceive their child's teacher to be ineffectual at teaching geometry. And in some cases, the parent may be right! But what effect does sharing this belief with one's child have? It lessens the psychological value of that individual in the child's life and forces the child to navigate difficult relational waters.

Suppose mom is picking up her daughter from a weekend at grandma and grandpa's house and casually asks "so was grandpa spending the whole time watching TV like usual?" – the implication being, obviously, that mom thinks grandpa watches too much TV, that the behavior is problematic, chronic, and shameful, and that grandpa is not a good role model.

Imagine that the daughter had a wonderful weekend and had a great time curled up on grandpa's lap watching old movies, cartoons, and football – but most importantly – spending time with her grandpa. Mom's seemingly innocent statement which may have been intended to communicate to her daughter that watching TV all day is not a healthy behavior, may have instead initiated some internal turmoil. The girl loved her weekend at grandpa and grandma's and was looking forward to going back soon. But now, she wonders is she wasn't supposed to enjoy spending that time with her grandpa.

In this instance, mom has (regardless of intentionality) manipulated her daughter towards viewing her grandparents more similarly to how mom herself views them. Thus, if and when daughter begins to share mom's point of view, mom's opinions are validated, and she feels a sense of solidarity with her daughter – selfishly furthering her own agenda.

Threaten Social Isolation

Particularly with teenagers, some parents employ forced social exclusion as manipulative tactics when they feel that other methods of discipline are not having the desired effect. With few exceptions, there is nothing that most teenagers value more highly than their social relationships. Some savvy parents notice this development in their child's life and begin to manipulate it in order to modify behavior.

Don't get me wrong – I'm not anti-grounding or anti-consequences! I'm anti-threat. Let's explore the difference between the two.

Consequence: clearly explained, reasonable, predictable, consistent, meaningful, and does not elicit resentment.

For example, a parent may rightly say: "my expectation for you is that you are home from the party tonight by 10pm and I want you to understand that if you miss that curfew, the consequence will be that you will not be spending any time with your friends next weekend."

Threat: sudden, reactive, inconsistent, manipulative, and overly-harsh.

Whereas, a manipulative parent may say: "I told you to get home by 10pm and now it's 10:30, this is unacceptable! You need to learn a lesson! You're not going to prom this year, I'm sick of this. You're gonna learn to come home for curfew."

There's no question that the teen in this example deserves a consequence. But the manipulative parent brainstormed the consequence in about a millisecond, in the heat of the moment, influenced by their own volatile emotion. Was that consequence chosen because the manipulative parent truly thought it'd be the best way to help their child learn the importance of curfew? Or, was it chosen because the manipulative parent was angry in the moment and it felt good to hurt their child by enforcing social exclusion?

Parents who are seeking to guide their child(ren)'s development without employing manipulative tactics should carefully examine the following three aspects of their parent-child communication. Why am I saying X? Is saying X going to help my child become an adult that I am going to be proud of and admire? And, even if I mean X, is it possible that my child is going to hear Y?

Finally, If you are the child of an emotionally manipulative parent, it may be helpful to process that experience with a trusted other or therapist.

Facebook image: LightField Studios/Shutterstock

References

Cicchetti, D. (2013). Annual research review: Resilient functioning in maltreated children - past, present, and future perspectives. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 54(4), 402-422. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2012.02608.x

Finkenauer, C., Engels, Rutger C. M. E, & Baumeister, R. F. (2016;2005;). Parenting behaviour and adolescent behavioural and emotional problems: The role of self-control. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 29(1), 58-69. doi:10.1080/01650250444000333

Merrifield, K. A., & Gamble, W. C. (2013). Associations among marital qualities, supportive and undermining coparenting, and parenting self-efficacy: Testing spillover and stress-buffering processes. Journal of Family Issues, 34(4), 510-533. doi:10.1177/0192513X12445561

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