Why Your Kids Aren’t Manipulating You

by | Mar 27, 2024 | Child Counseling

It’s fair to say that one of the most common phrases I hear from parents is “my child is so manipulative”. This seems to be a common myth about children. Although your child’s behaviors may appear manipulative, I’d like to share an alternative explanation.


Kids Don’t Have Abstract Reasoning


Let’s start by thinking about manipulation. When we think about manipulation, it is something that is done with intent and a plan. It requires a child to think through cause and effect. This is a cognitive process. This requires forethought and intellect. And it requires abstract reasoning. However, we know that children do not develop abstract reasoning until around age thirteen. Therefore, while children may engage in a behavior, they do not possess the ability to plan in advance. There are very much in the here and now.


Do manipulative behaviors sometimes occur? Yes but maybe not in the way you have understood it up to now. Let’s take the example of going out to dinner. You have dinner and your child is begging for dessert. You know that you planned on having dessert later at home. So you tell your child that dessert will be at home tonight. And then your child has a meltdown. They are crying, yelling, begging for dessert at the restaurant. And to save the embarrassment of a scene at the restaurant, you comply and let your child get dessert. So, did your child plan to beg and cry for dessert? Was this a thought out cognitive process? Your child is not developmentally capable of that. In the moment, your child wanted dessert and when they heard no, they were stuck in the emotions without the emotional vocabulary to articulate their feelings.


Kids Are Trying to Get Their Needs Met


So what just took place? Your child learned in that moment that if they want something and they have a meltdown, they will get the result they desire. This is conditioning. So next time your child wants something they remember “this worked before” and so they try again. And perhaps this time you decide you are going to stand your ground. So what happens? Your child figures out they must increase their emotional response to get what they what they desire. This is how the conditioning begins and patterns of behavior occur.


In summary, your child does not yet possess the necessary cognitive skills for complex reasoning, planning and manipulation. Children do not yet know how to anticipate consequences. They live in the here and now and are focused on getting their immediate needs met. They are emotional and not yet cognitive. As children grow, they develop impulse control, emotional regulation and better tools for communicating their needs with others.

About the author:

<a href="http://collectivehopecounseling.com/about" target="_blank">Stephanie Rodenberg-Lewis</a>

Stephanie Rodenberg-Lewis

Stephanie is a licensed professional counselor, a registered play therapist, a national certified counselor and a certified school counselor. She has over 17 years of experience working with children as a classroom teacher, school counselor and licensed therapist. She founded Collective Hope Counseling in August 2020 to help serve her community. With her extensive experience in child development, she knew she wanted to work with kids and their families. Stephanie completed additional training in child centered play therapy and became a certified+ play therapy professional in 2024.