Parents have many options for communicating with a manipulative teen or young adult child, reducing fights or frustration, and regaining the authority to be a good parent. It’s in your child’s best interests to stop them from using manipulation. Key concepts:
- WHAT you say depends on your unique situation, your child, and how they manipulate you. Below is a list of responses that work, but the magic words aren’t the same for everyone. You’ll need to try things until you discover what’s best.
- HOW you say it is as important as what you say! Control of your tone and attitude is an essential skill, and you may need to get an iron grip on your own feelings and behavior first.
1. Identify what goes wrong
A manipulative child sabotages parents for different reasons.
Which of these does your child do? These are typical things they think and say. Learn to spot them the moment they come up and plan ahead for how you’ll respond.
- Make excuses – to deflect attention they don’t want: “It’s not my fault; I forgot; I had a headache… “
- Lie – Deflect, keep secrets to avoid punishment or an unwanted reaction, or simply get something they want that they can’t have
- Exaggerate – Overemphasize for effect, revise history for aggrandizement or insult, or play a victim to undermine parents resolve: “you always…” “you never…” “you abused me…”
- Catastrophize – Assume the worst and that it’s going to happen forever. The point may be to get parents to rescue them, elicit sympathy, imply blame, and allow the child to avoid something.
- Entitlement – The child has all the rights and the parent has all the responsibilities. Parents have a duty to give a child what they want or they’re bad parents. If parents fall through, they are pestered, blamed, or insulted.
- Hostility – Insults, verbal abuse, gaslighting, threats, to punish parents or take complete control
- Overconfidence – The teen feels exceptional and omnipotent, and deserves freedom without consequences or responsibility.
- Self-pity – Whining, complaining… for attention, to elicit rescue, or to avoid something they find difficult.
- Minimize – Make light of others’ needs and feelings, deny their actions have consequences, and deflect responsibility
- Vague – Guess what I’m thinking/feeling. If guess 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 – Hold the parent accountable and defend their own bad actions
- Righteousness – I’m an adult and I have rights and can make my own decisions. You are a bad parent.
- 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 child’s immaturity. Work with what you got.
2. Emotionally prepare yourself, and use techniques from therapists
Limit your emotions by becoming a witness instead of a participant
To talk to a manipulative teen or young adult, psychologically take off your parent hat and step back and observe your situation as if you are watching a video. Mental distance helps you remove negative tone or emotions in your voice. When your child manipulates and you respond emotionally, your child reacts to tone of voice anyway, regardless of what you said. Your feelings weaken your power.
How to manage your feelings and remove them from your tone of voice.
- ‘Channel’ your inner therapist like an actor who gets into character. tell yourself: “I’ve got this; I’m cool calm and controlled. I am a competent parent doing good parenting. I have good intent.” Now this is unorthodox, but faking it also works and may even help you be more effective. Don’t let the idea offend you if it leads to a good outcome. Use rarely or lose trust and respect.
- Practice quieting your personal feelings. They are about you and they undermine your authority and a parent. It’s more important to be in the moment and handle your manipulative teen or young adult child. You can work on your feelings later.
- Keep your child’s strengths in the back of your mind. As you wrestle with your child for control, insert praise and recognition for their positives. Appreciating them can undermine their manipulative behavior by taking them by surprise.
- Scrupulously avoid justifying or explaining yourself. Your child 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.”
Text instead of talk. Texting eliminates tone of voice, allows time for parents to ponder word choice, and a few extra second for their child to ponder what’s texted. Text your child 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.
Take an abrupt time out and tell your child you’ll get back to them shortly. This helps you and your child calm down and gather your thoughts. Go to the bathroom. Check email. You might even quickly change the subject as if you just remembered something, but be sure to have subjects saved up in advance.
4. Reducing manipulative behavior is more realistic than stopping it.
You take one step at a time to get to your goal. Don’t put pressure on yourself to “fix” your child, only to end up frustrated and stressed. Your child’s manipulation has been successful, or they are just stuck, so it will be hard to get them to change. Expect it to go slow.
5. Pay attention to what improves or wrecks a conversation.
Your manipulative teen or young adult child is like a wild creature that needs to be tamed. You are the tamer who expects the wild creature to resist. You persist with taming towards little victories over time until resistance diminishes. Some of the techniques below will work; some may fail spectacularly. When you find those that work, mix them up or your child 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. Remember that anger is normal, but harm is not acceptable. Set rules and expectations for reducing harm without forcing it to stop. For example: 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. A situation with negative emotions is never a teachable moment. Your teen or young adult child absolutely cannot reason when they’re being difficult and manipulative. All they can do is manipulate more and more until they get the result they want. Don’t waste time on reasoning.
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 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 child will take responsibility for themselves, ready or not. You can become a 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’s manipulation. So 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 and young adults are still innocent and ‘pure’ in a way adults are not. Most troubled teens and young adults still have standards and values, and you can reinforce these. Look for evidence of decency, caring for others or self, gentleness and consideration, 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 teen or young adult child, I am available help identify what can work for your child and how you restore your authority and effectiveness as a caring parent. Find out more about my consultations for parents at this link. I have been helping parents turn things around, restore authority and trust, and guide their child towards maturity for over 22 years.