stop manipulation adoption RAD

Tips for Parenting Manipulative and Controlling Behaviors

There are few things more frustrating than when you’re battling your child for control. Kids with a history of adverse experiences have a strange sixth sense that allows them to know exactly how to push your buttons through manipulative and controlling behaviors.

Whether it’s losing a primary caregiver either through death or abandonment, having to transfer cultures (maybe multiple times), or a more acute trauma, our kids live in a constant state of anxiety, fear, and insecurity. They feel like their lives are wildly spinning out of control and their belief that people (especially adults) cannot be trusted runs as deep as your belief that gravity is for real. This feeling causes them to claw and grasp for any sense of control they can muster.

Whatever behavior problems you are having, be assured they’ve subconsciously been carefully calculated to maximize the reaction from you. Depending on the age, stage, and personality of your child, this fight for control can present in countless ways.

As hard as it is, we have to pull up our big girl panties and accept that there is deep fear and insecurity driving the behaviors we hate the most.

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These are common areas where kids exercise control in an attempt to feel safe.

Bathrooming and personal hygiene.

With so much seeming out of their control, kids learn quickly that bodily functions are something they can control. This can look like deliberate accidents, finger painting with feces, or refusing to shower for weeks on end.


Hurt kids hurt others are some of the meanest people I have ever met…especially during dysregulation. Phrases such as, “I like my real mom better,” “You always do things for other kids and not for me,” “I wish I had a different family that wasn’t as mean,” “I could kill you when you sleep,” and “I’m lying whenever I tell you I like it here or love you,” are meant to tear our hearts out, and we often let them.

Physical Aggression.

This can be physical aggression toward people or material possessions. Remember, hurt children hurt people. It’s a coping mechanism to control a relationship. Children want to force you to reject them for their behavior before you can reject them for a reason they don’t understand. Destruction of property can either be to manipulate the caregiver (if it’s the caregiver’s property) or because the child has such low self-esteem from repeated relationship trauma that he does not believe he deserves to have any possessions. Too many things can also create a feeling of chaos in children so destroying them is a common reaction.

Feeding Issues.

Similar to bathrooming issues, food is another area kids learn they can control since caregivers can’t really make a child eat.

Education Issues.

Just you like can’t make a child eat under normal conditions, you can’t force a kid to learn. If education is the hill you choose to die on, you can be assured your child will underperform just to push your buttons.

stop manipulation adoption RAD

So if your child is trying to manipulate and control to feel safe, what in the world can you do?


Chances are that your child knows he needs to eat, how to use the bathroom appropriately, and that mean words and physical aggression are not acceptable. He wants an emotional reaction from you. Entering into an emotionally-charged confrontation gives an adrenaline rush he might be addicted to plus he gets the satisfaction of being in control of you. However, you decide to address the issue at hand, do it with calm and consistency.

Share Control Whenever Possible.

I am by no means asking you to let your child control your house, but there are dozens of opportunities to help your child maintain a sense of security through shared decision making. Basically pick your battles wisely. It doesn’t really matter if your child wears the same mismatched clothes 5 days in a row or if she wants bagels and cream cheese for EVERY. BLESSED. MEAL. If your child has control in more appropriate areas, she’s less likely to fight for control in inappropriate ones.

Slather on the Love.

Figure out what your child ’s love language is and slather it on liberally. The more secure your child feels in his relationship with you, the less likely he will need control.

Some Parting Words

  1. Manipulative and controlling behaviors will not go away overnight and may come and go in waves. Hunker down and stay the course. They are testing you…this is only a test.
  2. Through mirror neurons, we have a lot of power to diffuse situations or escalate them. It’s important to check-in with and regulate yourself first before addressing a behavior. Our children take in 11 billion bits of implicit information for every 50 bits of explicit information. For a description of the difference click here.
  3. Most importantly, whatever you’re experiencing, YOU ARE NOT ALONE and YOU ARE NOT CRAZY or a bad parent. If you need support and community from friends who get it, join our Facebook community by clicking here.
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