Family Manipulation

The holidays are right around the corner. For some people, spending time with loved ones is an exciting and cheerful time. For others, it can be stressful and emotionally exhausting to deal with manipulative and difficult family members. It’s easier said than done to cut toxic people out of our lives completely, especially when these people are family. Sometimes, cutting off family is just not an option. There are ways that we can recognize manipulative behaviors, set boundaries and still maintain the peace.

Read on to recognize the signs of manipulative behaviors and what you can do about them.

Many people are not intentionally manipulative. Sometimes in childhood, one needed to be manipulative to have their needs met, resulting in the development of certain behaviors. Manipulative people often want you to give them something that they want, even if it is to your own detriment, it is inconvenient, or goes against your own values and beliefs.

Signs you might be being manipulated include:

  • Feeling guilty even if you logically recognize the situation is unfair
  • Feeling, stuck, cornered, or threatened
  • Feeling as though there is no “right” choice or option.
  • Afraid to say no, due to the family member becoming angry or upset with you

Signs of manipulative behavior:

  • Speaking over you or not giving you the opportunity to speak
  • Twisting your words around to make themselves the victim
  • Phrases to instill guilt, such as “Well I guess it’s just all my fault”
  • Withholding affection if they do not get what they want from you
  • Denying what you have to say is true or “forgetting” certain events (gaslighting)

There are healthy ways to respond to these manipulation tactics and the unpleasant feelings that ensue.

  • Acknowledge their manipulation, using “I statements” For example, “I am sorry you are upset, and things are not going the way you would like, however, I do not need to feel guilty about this. My needs matter too. When you invalidate my needs, I feel used and disrespected.
  • Set boundaries and do so ahead of time if possible. This might look like telling a family member over the phone what they can and what they cannot expect from you.
  • Create space from the manipulator if you need to. This could be removing yourself from the situation until everyone involved has calmed down or informing the manipulator that you will have to get back to them after you have time to think.

Engaging with manipulative family members does not always need to be a nightmare. Setting healthy boundaries and improving communication skills can make things easier. Remember, however, that there is no shame in reaching out for extra help if the manipulation becomes too much to handle on your own. Sometimes speaking to a professional can give us the confidence we need to defend ourselves.


About Shelton Poulter, MSW: 

Shelton is a Supervisee in Clinical Social Work and provides services at our Fredericksburg location. She graduated from the University of Mary Washington with a B.A. in Sociology. Shelton received her Master’s Degree in Clinical Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University. Throughout her time at VCU she has worked with elementary, middle school, and high school students in the Spotsylvania Public School system. To learn more about Shelton, visit here.

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