Parents have options for communicating with a manipulative teenager, reducing fights and frustration, and correcting dysfunctional communication. Below are effective ways to respond to manipulative verbal statements hurled by your teen. The right words in the right tone of voice can help you regain your authority.
- WHAT you say and do depends on your unique situation, your teenager, and the problem. Below is a list of responses that work, BUT the ‘magic’ words that work for your child aren’t the same for everyone. You’ll want to experiment and modify them over time. It’s up to you to thoughtfully choose which responses below best address your child’s negative behaviors and improve the relationship.
- HOW you say it may be as important as what you say! Controlling your voice and attitude is a critical skill, and pulling it off means getting an iron grip on your own feelings and behavior.
1. Identify what goes wrong
Difficult teenagers will sabotage a dialogue for many different reasons.
As an adult, you know why we must manage emotions, but your difficult teenager doesn’t have a clue and is too young to articulate what he/she means or needs anyway–and they know it. Talking with you makes them anxious or insecure, defensive, or resentful of your authority and boundaries.
These are typical manipulative techniques teens use. Learn to spot them the moment they come up and plan ahead how you’ll respond.
- Make excuses – It’s not my fault; I forgot; I had a headache…
- Lie – Deflect, keep secrets to avoid a conversation or a discovery.
- Exaggerate – Revise history or express extreme insult: “Stop screaming at me” when parents use a normal tone of voice.
- Catastrophize – Assume the worst and that it’s going to happen forever.
- Entitlement – The teen has all the rights and the parent has all the responsibilities
- Hostility – Insults, verbal abuse, gaslighting, threats
- Overconfidence – The teen feels exceptional and omnipotent, and that the parent is stupid, ignorant, and uninformed.
- Self-pity – I’m broken and all you do is keep hurting me.
- Minimize – Make light of others’ needs and feelings, deny that their own actions have consequences
- Vague – Guess what I’m thinking/feeling. If you’re wrong it means you (don’t love me, don’t care, are stupid). Keep digging to prove you care and give me attention.
- Silent treatment – I plan to make you crazy by ignoring you.
- Keep score – They ‘win’ and you lose, and it means they should get their way and you’re stupid.
- Righteousness – “I’m an adult and I have rights and can make my own decisions.”
- Pet me – Praise me, flatter me, agree with me or I’ll make you regret it.
- Harp – Nag, persist on a sensitive issue to keep parents upset, whine about things long resolved
Don’t waste precious energy fretting about your teenager’s immaturity. Work with what you got.
2. Prepare yourself emotionally and learn techniques used by therapists
Be more of a witness than a participant
To talk to a manipulative teenager, psychologically take off your parent hat and become an emotionless neutral observer. This is absolutely critical because you must be able to remove negative tone or emotions in your voice. This is how you lose your authority. Your child reacts to tone of voice more than what is said. Your feelings are important, but they undermine your power when your child triggers you.
How to manage your feelings and remove them from your tone of voice.
- ‘Channel’ your inner therapist like an actor who gets into character. “I’ve got this; I’m cool calm and controlled. I am a competent parent doing good parenting. I have the best intent.” Faking it also works, and may even help you be more effective. Honestly, this may be a way to be manipulative for a good outcome.
- Practice quieting your thoughts, and beliefs, and feelings. They are not important. Stopping manipulative behavior is important.
- Keep your child’s strengths in the back of your mind. Bringing them up and praising them undermines manipulative behavior.
- Absolutely avoid justifying or explaining yourself. Your teenager can pick up on something you say and use it against you.
3. Use techniques therapists use to respond to manipulation
Reframe – Present a different point of view of the facts, or reveal details that show the ‘facts’ aren’t what they seem to your child.
Teen: “If I don’t do well in this class, you’re going to punish me by sending me to stupid summer school because that’s all you care about are grades.”
Parent: “Last year you had the same concerns at the end of the term, and then I saw you focus and pass the class with a really high grade, and your were really proud of yourself. I think you will do this again.”
Paraphrase – Say the same thing you heard them say using different words. This helps your child know if you heard them, and gives them the chance to clarify and provide details.
Teen: “You stupid effing b1tch, you never care what I think and keep trying to control me and I hate you!”
Parent: “I hear you saying you just want to make more of your own decisions. Is that true?”
Use “I” Statements – Always avoid saying “you” because your child can interpret it as blame or insult regardless of your intent. An “I” statement is a fact that can’t be argued with. You share your observations or feelings in a matter-of-fact tone without putting your child on the defense.
Teen: “You said you would help me but all you want to do is see me fail. You could care less about me and even my friends think you’re a bad parent.”
Parent: “I definitely care; I explained the best I could why I can’t afford the time/money right now. This is a frustrating situation for both of us.”
Validate feelings and explore why
Teen: “You didn’t listen to me when I told you my teacher hated me.”
Parent: “Maybe I misunderstood. I met him and he seemed to care about all his students. I’m listening now; can you give me more details?”
Check the facts
Teen: “My friends judge me and hate me and I never want to spend time with them again.”
Parent: “What happened?”
Teen: “They called me a narcissistic bitch.”
Parent: “Were they responding to something you said, or do they push others away too?”
Reflect on the bigger picture
Teen: “School sucks. It’s never helped me and everyone there is an a55hole and I already know what I need to know anyway. I’m never going back no matter what you say.”
You: “OK, school isn’t working for you. What’s another way to finish your education? You will be on your own someday and you will need to make your own money. Do you have a plan for getting the skills you need?
Deescalate a heated moment without placing blame or accepting blame. You might apologize or change the subject or simply end the communication.
Teen: “Stop f**king treating me like you’re my therapist!”
Parent: “I did not intend to sound that way. I’m not your therapist but a parent trying to communicate the best I can. If now is not a good time to talk, I will check in with you later.”
Other ways to deescalate:
Take a time out so you and your difficult teenager can calm down and gather your thoughts. Go to the bathroom. Change the subject–be sure to have subjects saved up in advance.
Text instead of talk, even in the same house, even in the same room. This works surprisingly well.
Talk to your teenager through a door, you do not need to look at each other, and you both teen may feel psychologically safer.
4. Improving is more realistic than ‘fixing’
The goal is not to stop your manipulative teenager’s behaviors but teach them how to be appropriate with others someday. Don’t put pressure on yourself to “fix” your child. This just takes time, so it’s best to expect it to go slow.
5. Pay attention to what improves or wrecks a conversation.
Your manipulative teenager is a wild creature and you’re an animal trainer trying to teach them to perform a task. You try various techniques and expect the animal to resist. You persist with training until resistance diminishes, and then you start supporting your teenage creature with positive feedback. Some of the techniques below will work; some will fail spectacularly. When you find those that work, mix them up or your difficult teenager will catch on and try other manipulative tactics.
A healthy conversation means both parties:
- Feel heard and understood even if there’s disagreement
- Feel safe because they expect no emotional assaults
- Feel enough trust and to talk again later
Let your manipulative teenager rant for a while. Teens often vomit out emotions regardless of how they sound or if they make sense, and parents don’t need to respond.
Ask why and how. Explore the underlying cause by asking simple questions that can’t be answered with Yes or No. This makes them ponder and hopefully articulate what they really mean and need underneath.
Redirect. Change the subject, or have a pre-planned list of actions for ending a tough dialogue.
Deflect manipulative statements:
“Consciously ignore” Mentally or physically avoid interaction, but stay alert. Pretend you didn’t notice when he/she resorted to blaming, demanding, or something else manipulative etc.
Change the subject – Ask what they want from the grocery store; ask if they remember an upcoming event.
Escape (like taking a time out above). Say you forgot to call someone back who left an important voicemail as if you just remembered.
Encourage and show support if your child whines, is anxious, or obsessing on something.
“We’ll get through this together;” “I am looking after you.” “Our family has your back.”
Confidently reassure, and point out what’s going well.
Deny false charges against you without explaining, just state the facts: “I did not say that;” “I am not accusing you…” “You are not being abused and mistreated.” Period.
Apologize immediately if you are guilty. “You’re right. That was not the right thing to say and I apologize,” nothing more. You may be guilt-tripped into apologizing multiple times, so say something like: “I apologized and it was the right thing to do. I haven’t done it again and won’t apologize again.”
Set simple boundaries like you might for a fussy young child. “You can get angry and run to your room, but you can’t slam the door.” Remember that anger is normal, but harm is not acceptable. Screaming is normal, but ugly insulting words are not acceptable. Depression and sadness is normal, but isolating or passive-aggressive silence is not acceptable.
Don’t use reason, logic, or rational explanations. Conflict is not a teachable moment. Your teenager absolutely cannot reason when they’re being difficult and manipulative. Trying to teach something can feel patronizing or disinterested in their concerns.
Appeal to a higher self: During a fight or argument, listen carefully for something your child says (without prompting) that reflects good values and character, even the tiniest teensiest thing. Incorporate their stated good values in all your communications.
“You’ve been very persistent, and persistence is a good trait. You made your point very well.”
6. Help your teenager think about their future
You may have tried to motivate your child to think about their future, but ultimately your teenager will take responsibility eventually, ready or not. You can be mentor though by asking important future-oriented questions. Ask open-ended questions which cannot be answered “yes” or “no.” Examples:
- What do I care about most?
- How can I feel better when I’m upset?
- How can I cope with boredom?
- What am I good at?
- What are three things I’m most thankful for, why?
- Who do I trust and why do I trust them?
- Where do I see myself in 5 years? How will I get there?
Ideally they share their answers with you but this is optional. If your child gives answers, absolutely avoid guiding or correcting answers even if you think they’re wrong! The point is to start them pondering and exploring. If they write “kill myself” or “run away” or “use drugs” it might be manipulative. But they may also be reaching out for help. Probe more. Repeat what they said and ask if that’s what they mean. For threats of self-harm, see “Use the “S” word: talk openly with your child about suicide.”
Pace yourself for a marathon
Teens in general are innocent and pure in a way adults are not. You get to experience the difficult stuff, yet your manipulative teenager probably has standards and values, and you can reinforce these. Look for evidence of decency and caring of others or self, for example. Show appreciation for the little things they do even if your praise is met with abuse. They WILL remember what you said someday.
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If you want help with your difficult teenager. I may be able to support you with one-on-one coaching. Find out more about my history and parenting support at this link. I have been a peer counselor for parents for over 22 years.