7 Signs You’re a Manipulative Dad

There’s an old Saturday Night Live skit called Head Games. Phil Hartman played a game show host, and the contestants were his son, his ex-wife, and his new wife. In his best game show voice, he starts the game by laying out the rules. “Here’re the rules: I’ll ask a question, you give the answer. The questions are simple, and our contestants shouldn’t have any problem answering them, unless, of course, they don’t truly love me.” As the game goes on, the poor contestants grow more and more tense, unable to give satisfying answers to the host. The host ridicules and demeans them, and when they protest, he makes them feel like they are overreacting or immature. The signs of manipulation are everywhere.

The skit is hilarious, unless you’ve been the victim of manipulation. Then it’s just too real and painful. The host is infuriating. At the same time, I have to wonder whether he knows how manipulative he is. Sure, there are plenty of manipulators who know exactly what they’re doing. But there are others who are so steeped in their dysfunction that they’ve lost the ability to see their actions for what they are: manipulation. So, let’s all evaluate ourselves. Have an open mind and see whether these apply to some of your tendencies and behaviors. Here are 7 signs you’re a manipulative dad.

1. You use guilt as a weapon.

We want our kids to feel guilty when they do something wrong. That’s how they learn boundaries and build a conscience. But that guilt shouldn’t last or be used against them.

Self-evaluation: Do you find yourself reminding your kids of past offenses? Do you use those past offenses to affect their current behavior?

2. You withhold affection.

Our kids should receive affection from us regardless of their behavior. Kids see affection as a sign of our love for them. When it’s withheld, it’s like saying “I don’t love you right now.” Affection should never be used as a behavior modification tool.

Self-evaluation: Have you ever withheld a hug or kiss because of how your kids have behaved?

3. You trivialize feelings.

One of the strongest manipulative tactics is to delegitimize someone’s feelings. It’s telling our kids that they are wrong for the feelings they are experiencing, which teaches them that they can’t trust themselves. Typically, this tactic is used to gain control of a situation rather than walking them through it.

Self-evaluation: Do you trivialize your kids’ feelings? Or do you listen and empathize, even when you think the situation’s not as serious as your child sees it?

4. You use intimidation tactics.

In the movie The King’s Speech, Prince Albert has a stutter, and his father, the king, gets angry and yells at him in the midst of his struggle. Albert reveals that his father used intimidation as a method of control. When he was a child, his father said, “I was afraid of my father, and my kids will be afraid of me.” The king’s sternness and aggression fails to rid Albert’s stutter. More than likely, it made it worse. Using intimidation is one of the common signs of manipulation. In an attempt to control our kids, it causes fear, hurt feelings, distrust, and distance.

Self-evaluation: Do you use aggression and fear tactics to get your kids to obey?

5. You play the victim.

This is similar to the point about guilt, but slightly different. This is trying to make them feel guilty so you can gain the upper hand. It’s painting yourself as the wounded victim of your kids’ thoughtlessness, selfishness, or cruelty. Focusing on your own hurt instead of the needs of your kids will make you less effective as a dad. Meanwhile, it will ultimately push your kids away.

Self-evaluation: Do conversations with your kids primarily focus on your feelings? Do you routinely accuse your kids of hurting you or not loving you?

6. You isolate them.

Parents will isolate their kids for a number of reasons. Maybe they are jealous of their kids’ time with friends. They may be divorced and jealous of the time the child spends with the other parent. Perhaps they have favorites and they isolate the children they like less.

Self-evaluation: Do you make your kids feel guilty for spending some time outside of the family with their friends?

7. You gaslight your kids.

Typically, people gaslight either to control or to avoid accountability. All parents make mistakes, but healthy and mature ones take responsibility and apologize for it. Kids are easy targets to gaslight, so it’s easy to avoid owning up to failures as dads. But in the end, we twist reality, cause confusion, and model self-righteousness.

Self-evaluation: Are you unwilling to take responsibility for your mistakes and shortcomings? Are you focused on giving your kids a clear picture of reality or just a flattering picture of you?

Sound off: Are there any more signs of manipulation we missed? What would add to this list?

Huddle up with your kids and ask, “What do you think manipulation means? Do you think you’ve ever seen or experienced it?”