What Is A Manipulative Parent
A manipulative parent is one who uses various tactics to control, exploit, or influence their children to get what they want or serve their own needs, often at the expense of their child’s well-being1.
Manipulative tactics can include emotional manipulation, lies, guilt-tripping, threats, and other forms of psychological abuse.
This kind of behavior can have a negative impact on the child’s mental and emotional health. And it can lead to toxic family dynamics and relationship issues.
Types of Things Manipulative Parents Say
Manipulative mothers or fathers often say things to gain control, influence, or achieve their own personal goals or desires. These goals or desires can range from simple things like making their children do chores or follow the family rules to more complex or self-serving goals like fulfilling their unmet emotional needs or living vicariously through them.
These experiences create an unhealthy dynamic in the family and negatively impact the child’s mental health.
Here are the different types of things manipulative parents say to their children.
Narcissistic parents are notorious for gaslighting their children.
A gaslighting strategy undermines a child’s self-esteem and confidence by making them doubt their own reality.
Parental manipulation is often used to gain power and control over a child. A toxic parent may also try to shift blame onto the child for any problems.
Parental alienation is also commonly associated with gaslighting by parents2.
- “You’re just being too sensitive.”
- “I never said that.”
- “That never happened.”
- “You’re just imagining things.”
- “Everyone else thinks the same way I do.”
Manipulative parents may use guilt or shame to control their children’s behavior or actions. When their children do not comply with their demands, these parents play the victim role to make children feel guilty3.
Some parents make their children feel responsible for their emotional reactions or problems. They create a sense of obligation and make children prioritize their parents’ needs over their own.
- “If you really cared about me, you would do what I’m asking.”
- “I gave up so much for you, and this is how you repay me.”
- “I’ll never forget how you treated me.”
- “You’re just like your father/mother, always thinking of yourself.”
- “You’ll never be able to find someone who loves you like I do.”
Emotional blackmail is a classic manipulation tactic.
While guilt-tripping manipulates through the feeling of guilt, love withdrawal uses the feeling of fear to control children4.
The parent may threaten to withdraw love or support unless the child complies with their demands. Or they may make the child feel like they have to do something to earn the parent’s love and approval.
- “I’ll never be able to forgive you if you don’t do this.”
- “I thought you were better than this.”
- “I can’t believe you would be so selfish.”
- “I can’t believe I trusted you with this.”
- “I always knew you weren’t capable of doing this right.”
This form of manipulation involves isolating children and limiting their interaction with others to control them5.
An abusive mother or father controls their child’s access to information, resources, support systems, or family gathering so that the child becomes entirely dependent on them. The child cannot grow up to be an independent adult.
In such life situations, children feel helpless and hopeless. They have no choice but to listen to their parents.
- “You can’t trust anyone else, only me.”
- “You don’t need anyone else, I’m here for you.”
- “They don’t like you, they’re just using you.”
- “You’re not ready for the outside world yet.”
- “Don’t talk to them, they don’t understand us.”
Playing favorites is manipulative parenting. Parents show favoritism toward one child over another to make the non-favored child feel bad.
These parents say things to instill a sense of insecurity, jealousy, and inadequacy in children and to make them feel like they are less loved or valued.
- “I always have to clean up after your messes, but your sibling never causes any problems.”
- “I love your sibling more, they just get me in a way that you never will.”
- “Your sibling is just so much easier to get along with.”
- “Your sister can play more video games because she listens to me.”
- “Why can’t you be more like your brother/sister?”
Confusing affection with control
Manipulative parents confuse their children into thinking that control is love.
The child is led to believe that the toxic relationship is normal or acceptable, and that’s what loving parents behave.
- “If you really loved me, you would do what I say.”
- “I only do this because I care about you.”
- “I’m just trying to help you, why can’t you see that?”
- “I’m just trying to teach you a lesson.”
- “If you loved me, you wouldn’t question me.”
Involving other people or siblings in conflicts to turn them against each other is an intentional manipulation tactic used to control a child’s relationships with others.
Such manipulation is often used in by malicious parents involved in marital conflict. Distrust and insecurity with the alienated parent allows the malicious parent to control the child and keep them on their side6.
Meanwhile, manipulative parenting instills loyalty, trust, and dependence in the child.
- “You’re the only one I can rely on.”
- “I need you to keep this between us.”
- “Your father/mother doesn’t understand me like you do.”
- “You’re the only one who understands me.”
- “Don’t tell your father/mother what we talked about.”
A silent treatment is ignoring or isolating a child to punish them for not meeting their unrealistic demands or unreasonable expectations.
This manipulative tactic pressures the child to give in while avoiding direct family confrontation.
Here are some things manipulative parents say to send a clear message that they are using silent treatment.
- “I don’t want to talk to you right now.”
- “I don’t have anything to say to you.”
- “I don’t want to be near you.”
- “You need to learn to respect my boundaries.”
- “I can’t deal with this right now.”
Some parents use children’s fears, insecurities, or weaknesses to control them.
Children are manipulated by these vulnerabilities into giving in to what the parents want.
- “You’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t listen to me.”
- “They don’t love you for who you are, but I’m different.”
- “You’re not strong enough to handle things on your own.”
- “Listen to me. You only have one chance to do it right.”
- “You’ll regret this.”
Lying or distortion of the truth
By altering the child’s understanding of events, manipulative parents use lies to control the story and shape their children’s perceptions of what has happened.
Lying is often used to hide flaws, rationalize mistakes, and avoid accountabilities. Gaslighting parents use lies extensively to fit their narrative.
- “I don’t remember it that way.”
- “I never said that.”
- “You made that decision yourself.”
- “You must be mistaken.”
- “Everyone liked it but you.”
- 1.Buss DM, Gomes M, Higgins DS, Lauterbach K. Tactics of manipulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 1987:1219-1229. doi:10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1999
- 2.Harman JJ, Kruk E, Hines DA. Parental alienating behaviors: An unacknowledged form of family violence. Psychological Bulletin. Published online December 2018:1275-1299. doi:10.1037/bul0000175
- 3.Baumeister RF. Inducing Guilt. Guilt and Children. Published online 1998:127-138. doi:10.1016/b978-012148610-5/50007-2
- 4.Soenens B, Beyers W. The cross‐cultural significance of control and autonomy in parent–adolescent relationships. Journal of Adolescence. Published online March 2, 2012:243-248. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2012.02.007
- 5.Seng AC, Prinz RJ. Parents Who Abuse: What Are They Thinking? Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev. Published online June 12, 2008:163-175. doi:10.1007/s10567-008-0035-y
- 6.Etkin RG, Koss KJ, Cummings EM, Davies PT. The Differential Impact of Parental Warmth on Externalizing Problems Among Triangulated Adolescents. The Journal of Genetic Psychology. Published online March 4, 2014:118-133. doi:10.1080/00221325.2013.813437