FAQ – My Child is So Controlling and Manipulative! What do I do?!

In a large Facebook parenting group that I was recently asked to help moderate, we see certain questions come up over and over again. One of those questions is some form of the following: “My child wants to be in control of everything,” or, “My child is so manipulative,” or “My child is constantly engaging in control battles with me,” all followed by the query, “What do I do?!?!”

I recently wrote a post for that group in an attempt to provide a broad framework for understanding how to address that question, and I’m sharing the response here more publicly.

There are a couple key points to understanding how to respond and what to do. First – it is worth noting that control, in and of itself, is not generally a need. As one of my co-moderators pointed out, if you look at hierarchies of needs proposed in the field of psychology, “control” is not one of them. For instance, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs lists physiological needs (like food, water, and shelter), safety needs, belongingness and love needs, esteem needs, and finally, self-actualization. Nowhere in there is “control” listed as a need – but rather, it would be understood as a means to pursuing the meeting of those needs.

The obvious and important follow-up question would be: what need is my child attempting to meet by pursuing control? If control is not a need in and of itself, but rather an attempt to meet a need, what is the need our children are trying to meet? We need to be detectives and attempt to find the answer to that question. Our children are precious souls. One of our core values in this group is that, “We believe that every child is precious, infinitely valuable, and worthy of love and respect, regardless of their history or challenges.” Let’s really commit to viewing our children that way. When we tell their stories, even to ourselves, with words like, “My child is a manipulative jerk,” we are not honoring our children or their stories. We can, instead, ask ourselves what underlying need is beneath the behavior, working to view our children in the best light possible and understand them and their stories.

Many of our children have come from hard places. They may have learned, through years of experience, that adults are not reliable. They may have learned that there will not always be enough food. They may have learned that they can trust no one else to provide and care for them. Is it any wonder that they would crave control? It often takes years of consistency in our provision and care, years of building trust, before the strength of the messages we’re trying to send – “I will care for you. You are safe here.” – can truly begin to rival the strength of the messages our kids have internalized from their time before us. Even for children who are not from hard places, their desire for control has sources and reasons – and our job as their parents is to help them figure out what those are.

Then we can acknowledge our children’s fear. We can put words to their feelings. We can empathize with them. As they grow, we can help them to understand why their brains operate in this way.

We can also provide the combination of structure and nurture that begins to combat our kids’ feelings of lack of safety.

An essential part of that is sharing control. Our children need to know that they have a voice. Yes, you are the parent, and you are in charge – of course. But your children need to see that you will listen to them, that you hear them when they communicate what they need. Prioritize your “nos” and give “yeses” when you can. Whenever possible, reserve your “no” for situations in which safety is a true concern; and try to create an environment in which you can minimize the number of “nos” you need to give. Whenever possible, say yes. Yes, you may have that piece of gum. Yes, you may have a snack. Yes, you may choose your own outfit today. Yes, we can play outside. Yes, you may have a compromise. Yes, yes, yes. I am in charge, but I do not need to have sole control over every area of our lives.

As our kids grow, we can challenge them in small ways – set the bar low and begin to build their tolerance for a “no” – but that is always done in the framework of love and wanting to see our children grow, and it’s not the first step. We, as parents, are in a unique position of understanding and building relationships with our children and ultimately teaching them that they can trust, that they can experience safety, and that they can get their needs met without attempting to take control.

Last, and this is HUGE – is the observation that if there are control battles going on between us and our children, that means that we are also fighting to maintain control in these situations. We, as parents, are seeing whatever is happening with our children from a framework of control – and that means it is worth considering whether we ourselves are predisposed to view the world in general through a lens of control. That has nothing to do with our children – it’s about us. If this is true of us, before we can help our children, we need to do some hard work ourselves. How do I know? Because this is me. I crave control. It took a lot of self-reflection, prayer, and counseling to figure out why I like to feel in control, when that tendency is strongest, how to pay attention to my mind and body to notice when I’m feeling that desire for control, and what to do when it happens. In parenting, we have a responsibility for recognizing what we bring to the table and dealing with our own junk. As I do that, I am increasingly able to understand my children’s points of view and share control with them. Let’s let control be another area in which we work with our children, not in opposition to them.

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