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6 Ways to Manage Emotionally Manipulative Parents or In-Laws

It happens. Here’s how you can loosen their grip

When we’re young, our parents can do no wrong. They are our whole world and we live only to please them. As we get older, that relationship naturally changes and the role our parents occupy in our lives changes as well. In most cases, that is a healthy thing. However, in some cases, the relationship not only doesn’t change, it becomes progressively more unhealthy. Parents can’t let go of adult children. To do this, they might perpetually behave like victims, block out a daughter- or son-in-law, blame their children for things that are going wrong in their lives, or they put conditions on the love that they give. If any of these situations seem relatable, then you might be the victim of emotional manipulation. 

Emotional manipulation by parents can lead to devastating consequences for children, leading to low self-esteem, anger, resentment, and shame. Ironically, shame and guilt are primary tactics of emotionally manipulative parents, according to experts. They lean heavily on guilt as a means of getting their way and will imply that, if their son or daughter (or son-in-law or daughter-in-law) isn’t complying, then it must be a sign that they don’t care.

“In many cases, the person to who the emotional manipulation is directed will feel disrespected, angry, or irritated,” says Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist in Santa Rosa, California. “When these feelings arise in a well-balanced person, this is often a good indicator that emotional manipulation has occurred.” 

Dr. Toni Falcone, a licensed psychologist in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, adds that, in order to fully understand manipulative parents, it’s key to make the distinction between “manipulation” and “persuasion.” Manipulation, per Falcone, is a desire for one’s own needs to be met, at any cost, without considering the consequences or impact on others. Persuasion, on the other hand, is more of a desire for the other person to want to comply with the request. “Some tactics used in manipulation or persuasion may be similar,” she says, “but the intent, intensity, and persistence used in the interaction can help us figure out which is at play.”  

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So what can adult children dealing with emotionally manipulative parents or in-laws do? Here are a few suggestions from Dr. Falcone. 

Determine the Intent

When a parent or in-law that frustrates us, it can be very easy to assume that any request or query is coming from an emotionally-manipulative place. And that might be, but it’s important to exercise empathy and step back and evaluate the entire situation. Is your mother-in-law asking something of you because she wants her way or because she wants to spend time with you? Is your dad trying to bend you to his will or is he just lonely? “Determine this by looking at the whole picture, not just the words being spoken or the immediate interaction,” says Falcone. “What is the backstory of the relationship? Are boundaries commonly respected or disrespected? Does she show concern for what is going on in your life, or is she completely self focused? Answering these questions can help build empathy for our parents and in-laws and reduce mislabeling or overuse of the term manipulation.”  

Establish Boundaries

Parents with manipulation issues love to push until they get their way. They chip away at a person’s vulnerabilities until that person eventually gives in. In order to keep that from happening, establish a firm boundary up front and hold to it. Make sure that you have come to terms with those boundaries within yourself. If you have doubts about your ability to stick to them, a manipulative parent could take advantage. “If you have to leave at 9 pm, be confident in this and understand why you have to leave,” says Falcone. “This will help you to firmly communicate and hold the boundary when the potential attempts at manipulation increase. 

Ask Questions

A little fact checking is in order when it comes to parents who like to use guilt and shame as motivational tools for their children. If a parent makes some kind of a claim (“I need you to come over and help me, and if you love me you’ll do it.), ask questions. What do they need you to come over for? Is it something that can wait? What are the circumstances? Don’t be afraid to ask questions and be a little skeptical. By remembering to double check the facts you can quickly see if your family member has left out or falsified information they shared,” says Falcone. “Knowing the facts allows you to make a reality-based, educated decision, and allows you to remain in control.” 

Listen to your Body

Emotional manipulation can be draining and taxing on a person, especially after years of dealing with it. Even if you don’t realize it, a parent’s behavior and its accompanying stress can take its toll on you. Be mindful of how your body reacts when dealing with a difficult parent. It could be sending you important signals. “If you notice that you feel exhausted, down, begin doubting yourself or feel bad about yourself after the interaction with this relative,” Falcone says, “there may be something unhealthy, toxic, or manipulative occurring in the relationship.” 

Seek Help

Having a family member who’s got your back can make a big difference when struggling to cope with a parent or in-law’s demands. Whether it’s a spouse, a sibling or a trusted confidante, it’s important to have someone you can turn to when things get tough and who can hold you accountable and make sure you are protecting yourself and your boundaries. 

“Having one person as an accountability partner is helpful,” Falcone says, “but use caution to not turn boundary setting into bashing or ostracizing the other relative.” 

Put Pen to Paper

When in the middle of an emotionally manipulative situation, a person’s feelings can be tangled up and almost impossible to process. When you have a moment, take a journal and write everything down about how you’re feeling. Write about what you observed, how you felt and the overall impact of this person’s behavior. Falcone says it’s important to use this writing as  an opportunity to ask hard questions and gain insight that, hopefully, can open the doors to more productive discussions. “What impact does the family member continuing this pattern of behavior have on your relationship?,” Falcone says. “Consider having an authentic conversation with the family member at a later time.”