Do Children Manipulate?

Recently, on another blog there was a discussion I participated in about how to deal with children’s negative behaviour.  One comment determined that a child who is crying, or whining to get attention is just ‘manipulating’ the parent.  I agree there are times, as a parent I could believe that my children are manipulative little heathens, but I know that will not do any good for the connection that I try to maintain with them. Especially in times of disagreement, anger and stress.

So, can children manipulate?  My short answer is ‘no’.  Children act out in response to an unmet need they have – whether it is hunger, thirst, connection, belonging or they just need to pee!  Our job as their parent is to truly seek to understand how our child is feeling due to their needs.  This is not easy…I know!  Especially if we have more than 1 child or we are making supper or in the middle of cleaning up and you have a toddler behind you making a mess again.  However, if we believe our child is a manipulator it elicits a reaction in us that is one that promotes disconnect, withdrawal, isolation, punishment, and we search for ways to control.  These are all natural responses when we believe we are being manipulated by anyone. However, it is not conducive to a connective relationship with our child.

This is where we are told by parenting ‘experts’ that we must take away their favourite electronic, or use other forms of ‘punishment’ in order to get more ‘control’ over our child/teen.  This makes parenting NO fun for us, and NO fun for our child either!  This ‘manipulation’ that we may feel is something that comes within us…not something that children “DO” to us.

So what do we do? You may ask. Well, reality is that we all feel like we are being pulled in a million different directions – that’s what happens in the busy life of being a parent.  But attending to our children doesn’t have to feel like one ‘last’ string before the next World War breaks out.

One prominent step we can make as parents is to shift our own thinking about our child’s behaviour.  We can start thinking that our child has needs, just as we do as adults.  Imagine yourself in a stressful situation where your own need of sleep and nutrition have not been met.  Are we better able to handle the situation once we’ve had a good sleep and a healthy snack?  The answer is yes!  Think of a situation with your own child and they are having a tantrum, what could be their unmet causing this behaviour?  Have you been preoccupied since picking them up from school?  Do they have a need to connect with you for 15 minutes reading a book before you make supper?

Imagine for a moment that your child is not trying to push your buttons on purpose, or trying to manipulate you.  What if your child is trying to reach out to you because they feel disconnected?  Will this change the way you deal with a situation?  What can you do so your child will feel connected and loved?  Is a lack of feeling connected to you the motivation behind your child’s behaviour?

We can use these questions to understand what our children need at that moment.  Their whining or intentional ‘bad’ behaviour is something we can seek to understand through a lens of connection, instead of disconnect.  Look past the behaviour to see the message your child is really sending to you:  “Mom, I really need to connect with your right now! I feel lonely and scared”.  Children cannot verbalize this, so they act out, whine, pick on their siblings or display some other form of undesirable behaviour.

By changing the way we think about a situation will elicit a different response from us.  Listening to your child, staying close to them, and acknowledging their feelings, addresses their need for connection.  You may find yourself responding in a completely different way because you have changed the way you think:  from your child manipulating you, to them wanting to feel connected to you.

You can read more about situations in my own family on these posts about patience.