Many adults believe that childhood crying or anger is a child’s attempt to manipulate parents or other adults to get what they want, whether it’s going to the park or playing for longer. When children lose control completely, crying, getting angry or yelling because they don’t get what they want or something hasn’t gone right, it’s easy to assume that they are having a tantrum to try to break the will of their parents. But it’s not always like this. In fact, this is almost never the case. And if parents respond by assuming that their young child is trying to manipulate them, the problem is likely to get worse.
Expressing emotions is not manipulation
Labeling a child “manipulative” means assuming that his/her anger, sadness, or frustration is on purpose. It also implies assuming that there is a conflict between the child and the adult. But generally young children do not have a problem with adults, but rather with managing their emotions.
Behaviors such as rejection and agitation are nothing more than the expression of internal anguish. When emotional hijacking occurs, children do not control their responses, so they simply cannot use them to manipulate their parents or other adults.
Young children are not capable of intentional manipulation because their brain is not yet prepared for it. Manipulation is a complex act that involves resorting to cunning and concealment to achieve a unilateral advantage. So, at what age do children start manipulating?
A study conducted at the Volgograd State Pedagogical University concluded that children can begin to manipulate as early as 5 or 6 years old. Because? Simply because at that age they begin to assimilate moral values and feelings, as well as understand the attitudes and actions of the others.
Since the effectiveness of children’s manipulation depends largely on the development of the ability to control the expressions of their own experiences and those of others, before that age, it is very difficult for children to “stop stormy and dramatic expression of feelings”, as these psychologists indicated.
Therefore, when a small child cries, it is because he/she needs something. Not because he/she is aware that by crying he/she can achieve certain things. Tantrums, which usually occur between 18 months and 3 years, are also an expression of their inability to manage their emotions.
The control of emotional reactions is a complex process that fundamentally depends on the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is precisely the last to mature throughout development. This means that children have a low frustration tolerance, infinitely lower than that of adults, and when they reach the point of no return, it is difficult for them to control their emotional reactions on their own.
On the other hand, children also have a very limited emotional vocabulary. This means that they cannot express exactly what they feel, so they experience the need to convey those emotions and feelings through their body. That is the reason why they express their anguish, sadness, anger or joy in such a vehement and physical way. They need to release the energy generated by those emotions and they cannot do it through words, like adults.
Obviously, each child is different and follows their own pace of development. There will be children who are able to control their emotional reactions sooner and others will take longer. Characteristics of their nervous system, such as excitability, also influence their reactions, so some will be more sensitive than others. Of course, the education they receive also influences emotional management, so some will be able to develop greater self-control and tolerance for frustration.
Assuming that children are manipulative, a wrong starting point
What happens when we assume that children are trying to “manipulate adults” and we are wrong? The answer is simple: if we cling to the wrong explanation, we will apply wrong solutions. We will not understand the difficulties that child is experiencing and, as a result, we will not be able to help him/her deal with the real problem.
When we assume that the child is trying to manipulate us, we respond by becoming defensive. Instead of validating his/her emotions, we ignore, punish him/her, or increase the pressure. It is likely that this lack of empathy will end up generating more distress in the child. To their frustration over what happened will be added frustration over the adults’ lack of understanding.
Thus we end up feeding a vicious circle. If we blame him/her for something he/she cannot control without our help, we activate his/her emotional circuits even more, making it more difficult for him/her to control himself/herself and satisfy our demand. In fact, there are not rare cases in which the added pressure is the straw that ends up unbalancing children, although most parents don’t realize it.
Only when we truly understand what is happening to them can we seek a solution to the underlying problem. We could, for example, try to give them more time or adjust our demand. We could also comfort them and try to reflect on what happened later to promote more appropriate responses.
In any case, we must remember that the term “manipulative” is pejorative and is often used to blame children for situations over which they actually have very little control. Sometimes it is even used to transfer emotional incomprehension from the adults to the child.
If we eliminate that word from our list of preconfigured inferences when the child cries, gets angry or frustrated and look for other explanations, we could better understand their difficulties and develop more successful intervention strategies that are truly respectful and developmental.
Ultimately, we must remember that most children do not want to feel sad, frustrated, or angry. Most strive to meet the expectations that adults place on them, even if they are not always able to achieve it. These moments of frustration and anger are also part of their emotional development.
The way adults deal with those moments of loss of control is key for children to learn to calm down. You have to validate the emotion with serenity, even if it is sometimes difficult. And that doesn’t mean that parents are spoiling their children or being permissive, it just means that they are guiding them to develop self-control and become emotionally mature adults.
Fink, C. (2023) No, Your Upset Child Probably Isn’t Trying to Manipulate You. In: Psychology Today.
Kozachek, O. V. (2018) The age and the psychological conditions of the manipulative behavior of preschool children. J Psychol Clin Psychiatry; 9(4): 350-352.
Warming, H. et Al. (2018) Beasts, victims or competent agents: the positioning of children in research literature on manipulation. Childhood; 26(1): 10.1177.