Understanding Manipulative Behavior in Children: Signs and Strategies

Recognizing Manipulative Behavior

Tantrums, meltdowns, and constant shouting. These are some of the common symptoms of a child seeking attention. At first glance, it may seem like a harmless behavior, as children often try to gauge their impact on their surroundings and gradually explore their influence on those around them. However, if these innocent behaviors are left unchecked, they could escalate into manipulative behavior. But how can you detect it?

“Manipulation appeals to emotions, and when a child manipulates, they use anger, rejection, or vulnerability to induce changes in others that favor their intentions,” explains Carlos Muñoz, director of the European Institute of Positive Psychology in Valdemoro (IEPP). While the term “manipulative” may sound too strong, parents often wonder if their children are too young to exhibit such behavior. “But we manipulate from the moment we are born; a baby cries to get its mother’s attention,” points out this expert. As described in a report published by mental health experts at Newport Academy, a mental health treatment center in the United States, the traits that characterize these children can begin as early as age 10. These include ignoring parents and the rules imposed on them, punishing parents with silent treatment, acting hurtful, cruel, or disrespectful, engaging in emotional blackmail, telling lies, or even acting overly charming and obedient, among others.

In contrast to manipulative children, the psychologist warns that children who do not manipulate are capable of expressing their needs clearly and assertively. “Children who do not use manipulative tactics accept their parents’ and others’ limits and decisions with harmony, but this can change. Overprotective parenting, for example, granting excessive attention, often favors the learning of manipulative patterns that are reinforced if children get the expected results. However, it should also be noted that, in many cases, it is the behavior of adults that fosters their development,” clarifies Muñoz.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines manipulation as the exercise of harmful influence over others. People (whether children or adults) who manipulate others attack their mental and emotional sides to get what they want, seek to create a power imbalance, and take advantage to gain power, control, benefits, and/or privileges. “Many children do not manipulate out of cruelty, but simply because they see that some strategies work to satisfy their needs,” emphasizes Muñoz.

Signs of Manipulative Behavior

According to Newport Academy, children who manipulate often ignore their parents and the rules imposed on them. They may engage in acts of defiance, use silent treatment as punishment, act hurtful or disrespectful, resort to emotional blackmail, tell lies, or even employ excessively charming and obedient behavior.

Claire Lerner, a psychotherapist specializing in child development and author of the book “Why Is My Child in Charge?”, asserts that manipulation does not exist as such during upbringing but rather as a strategy. “Children are always motivated to get what they want and will use all the tools at their disposal to help them achieve their goal, but initially, they do not try to drive their parents crazy on purpose,” she emphasizes. For this expert, if a tantrum leads to more time with an iPad, staying up later, or getting more attention, and there are no limits set, it is simply a good strategy.

Thus, and as Lerner assures, the first step in not labeling a child as manipulative is to change one’s mindset: “Instead of saying that the child manipulates, it would be more convenient to say that the child has found a way to get what they want, which makes them very intelligent and strategic.” Therefore, it would not be manipulation but rather a smart and competent child, according to the expert. “They are just observing situations and discovering good ways to get what they want, a skill that will be very useful in life,” she adds. Making this mindset change, according to the psychotherapist, turns out to be a turning point: “When parents see that their children find ways to exert control over their environment and use any tactics that work to achieve their goals, they shift from imposing very strict limits or having very harsh reactions toward them to simply setting the fair and necessary boundaries that their children need.” Muñoz emphasizes that limits must be clear, precise, and balanced: “Furthermore, we can negotiate them with an open attitude towards agreement, generating the feeling that everyone wins.”


In conclusion, understanding manipulative behavior in children requires a nuanced approach that recognizes the underlying motivations and strategies employed by the child. While manipulative behavior may manifest in various forms, ranging from tantrums to emotional manipulation, it is essential for parents and caregivers to remain vigilant and proactive in addressing these behaviors. By fostering clear communication, setting appropriate boundaries, and promoting healthy emotional development, parents can help steer their children away from manipulative tendencies and towards more constructive ways of expressing their needs and desires. Ultimately, by cultivating a supportive and nurturing environment, parents can empower their children to navigate challenges and interactions with integrity, empathy, and resilience.