Parents are supposed to love, nurture and instil good moral behaviour in their children. Our parents are the first people we interact with. We learn right from wrong, we are encouraged to share, along with practising good manners and respect.

But what if you were raised by manipulative parents? How would you spot the signs? Did you mistake manipulation for love? In hindsight now, as an adult, do you now wonder about your parents’ behaviour? Do you think the way your parents behaved has affected your personality?

So what does manipulation by parents look like? There are all kinds of manipulation; some can be intentional, and others link to personality disorders. 

For example, if one of your parents is a narcissist, they may live vicariously through your achievements. Others may suffer from low self-esteem and find it hard to allow you to be independent of them.

The point I want to make is that having manipulative parents is not always the parents’ fault. It can be for any manner of reasons, e.g., learned behaviour as they were growing up, or even abuse. 

For this article, I want to explore how parents manipulate their children. 

Signs you were raised by manipulative parents

1. They get involved in everything you do

One study showed that too much parental involvement can be counter-productive. This is often described as ‘helicopter parenting’. In the study, the more involved the parents were, the worse their children performed on certain tasks involving impulse control, delayed gratification, and other executive skills. 

Lead author Jelena Obradović says there is a fine balance between too much involvement and stepping back. The problem is, society as a whole expects parents to be engaged with their children. 

“Parents have been conditioned to find ways to involve themselves, even when kids are on task and actively playing or doing what they’ve been asked to do.” Obradović

However, children should be allowed the chance to solve problems on their own. 

“But too much direct engagement can come at a cost to kids’ abilities to control their own attention, behavior and emotions. When parents let kids take the lead in their interactions, children practice self-regulation skills and build independence.” Obradović

2. They guilt-trip you

One of the easiest things parents do to manipulate children is using emotional blackmail or guilt-tripping. It usually starts with an unreasonable request, which you cannot possibly help with. If you try and say no, your parents will make you feel guilty for not helping them. 

They will use every trick in the book, including flattery or feigning sadness to get you to agree to their demands. They will play the victim and make you feel as if you are the only person that can help them. 

3. They have a favourite child

Do you remember growing up and being asked why you can’t be more like your brother or sister? Or maybe it wasn’t that obvious.

When I grew up, I was told to leave school at 16 by my mother, get a job and help with the household bills. Fair enough. But my brother stayed on at college and eventually got a university education. 

Any household chores were divided between me and my sisters. My brother had one job, to take his medication. He could do no wrong, never got into trouble, and on my mother’s deathbed, she told my father to ‘Make sure you look after your son’. No mention of the rest of us!

4. You are used as a weapon

Parents are supposed to be role models children can learn from and aspire to. However, if one of your parents likes to play the victim card, they can use this to manipulate you.

For example, a Danish study looked at the effects on children used as weapons in divorce cases. For example, one parent may manipulate the child into not liking the other parent. 

You might have experienced this with your parents and felt powerless about the situation. In the study, according to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) (1989), children’s views should be taken into consideration during any custody case. However, with one exception: 

‘The obligation to involve the child directly in the case does not apply if it is deemed to be detrimental to the child, or if it is considered unnecessary under the circumstances.’

5. They live vicariously through you

manipulative parents

Whilst I don’t want this article to be all about my mother, she does fit a lot of these categories. When I was 13 years old, I passed the exams needed to go to grammar school. The options were; an all-girls school where I knew no one, and a mixed grammar where all my friends were going.

My mother insisted I attended the all-girls grammar school because ‘when she was young, she didn’t have the chance of a good education’. You could argue that my mother just wanted the best for me, but she didn’t allow me to complete further education, remember?

I left for a factory job she had already lined up for me. This wasn’t about a good opportunity for me, it was for her to show off. 

6. Their love is conditional

One sign you have manipulative parents is if they withhold love or only dish it out under certain conditions. Are you typically ignored until they want something? Do you have to agree to a favour and then you are the best thing since sliced bread? Then next week you are back to being the forgotten member of the family

Or worse, if you don’t agree with them, they badmouth you behind your back but are nice to your face? Have they ever tried to turn other family members against you?

Some manipulative parents only give love and affection when their children perform well at school. So, when you come home with a B+ instead of an A, they act disappointed, rather than try to encourage you. 

7. They invalidate your emotions

As a child or an adult, were you ever told to not be so sensitive or that your parents were only joking? Being listened to and understood is at the heart of any good relationship, whether it is your parents or your friends. If you have parents who do not acknowledge your feelings, they are saying that you don’t matter to them. 

One tactic manipulative parents use is to talk over you or interrupt you when speaking. They might react with humour or a dismissive attitude. Either way, you won’t be heard. They may be trying to brush over something they don’t want to talk about. Or that they do not believe what you are saying. 

8. They control everything you do

gaslighting parents signs

Dr. Mai Stafford is a social epidemiologist at Medical Research Council’s (MRC) Lifelong Health and Ageing Unit at UCL. She studies social structures and relationships. A new lifelong study shows the long-term effect of manipulative parenting on children.

John Bowlby’s Attachment theory posits that secure attachments with our primary caregiver provide confidence to venture out into the world. 

“Parents also give us a stable base from which to explore the world while warmth and responsiveness has been shown to promote social and emotional development.” Dr Mai Stafford

However, controlling or manipulative parents remove that confidence, impacting us in later life. 

“By contrast, psychological control can limit a child’s independence and leave them less able to regulate their own behaviour.” Dr Mai Stafford

Final thoughts

As we grow into adults, we understand that parents are not perfect. After all, they are people just like us, with their own problems and issues. But having manipulative parents can have far-reaching consequences. It affects our relationships with others, how well we deal with problems and our identity.

Luckily, as we grow older, we can recognise the signs and work through any issues arising from our childhood.



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