Parents often use the presence of “manipulation” as justification to ignore a child’s request.
But if we think about it, what aim is being sought through the manipulation?
If their need is not legitimately the thing they are requesting, they are using that request because they do not trust that their need will be met if they communicate it honestly.
And let’s consider how that came to be?
Children do not instinctively manipulate. They’re adapting to the conditional response of the parent.
If the relationship with my parents sees that I am put to bed on their schedule and told to remain there (which I obviously do not recommend) I know that if I do not remain there, I need a reason that nobody could refuse; bathroom, thirst, illness or injury. It feels really uncertain what could happen if I instead confess that I am lonely or scared or just not tired. I can lie and chance having my need met as a byproduct or I can be honest and risk punishment or simply being denied, dismissed and ignored. What would you do?
Either your child feels the need to lie to you in order for you to care or feels like even a lie wouldn’t work and they just shouldn’t bother. Neither is an ideal scenario.
So, should you meet a need when you suspect manipulation? Yes. Always. If you would like nurture trust within your relationship with your child.
Meeting them at their word, says that you will hear them. Even when it’s not convenient for you. It tells them that there are no conditions to your care.
Either they will continue to ask for what they had been asking because it is the genuine need or the actual reason will emerge as you build trust because they will no longer feel the need to mask their actual need. They will feel safe that you will be there for them, regardless of the reason.
In the end, if a child is manipulating a parent, it’s a clear indication that your connection needs more investment. It’s a sign of distrust and insecurity in the relationship, the answer then is to be trustworthy and a place of unconditional security for them.