Most family dynamics involve some degree of manipulation.
Some manipulative behaviors, like your mother’s yearly guilt trip, are fairly harmless: “I spent 27 hours in labor bringing you into this world, so the least you can do is spend a few hours having a nice holiday dinner with your family.”
In a family with a healthy dynamic, you might crack jokes with your siblings and even recite your mother’s words before she can say them. Sure, she’s making an emotional appeal to get what she wants, but since you’re all on the same page, this tactic doesn’t trigger any negative feelings.
At the end of the day, you know you can directly express your feelings whenever you want.
But family ties evoke a lot of strong emotions, and some people make deliberate use of these feelings. They might, for example, exploit a weakness when they want you to do things you’d rather not do — including things that cause you pain.
The tips below can help you recognize common manipulation tactics and respond effectively.
What it looks like
Manipulation involves an attempt to control someone else.
You can generally boil it down to one common behavior: Someone wants you to give up something — time, a personal possession, autonomy, power, or anything else — for their benefit.
Recognizing manipulation within families can be particularly difficult when the person is a parent, older sibling, or relative who has some authority.
If you believe you’re supposed to do what they say no matter what, you might struggle to challenge this pattern, even in adulthood.
You may not recognize manipulation immediately, since it’s often subtle. But you might notice these key signs:
- You often feel tricked or pressured into doing things.
- It seems as if you can’t do anything right.
- It no longer seems possible to say no.
- They often twist the truth.
- You often feel guilty or confused.
- Your efforts never seem good enough.
Invalidation of feelings
Someone who wants you to go along with their desires might try to make you believe your feelings don’t matter.
A family member might invalidate your feelings by:
- not giving you a chance to share
- interrupting or talking over you
- dismissing your concerns
- reprimanding or punishing you for showing emotion
- telling you how you should feel
For example, you tell your mother you won’t attend your grandmother’s birthday party because you know that the cousin who abused and bullied you in childhood will attend.
She replies by commenting on how selfish you are: “Haven’t you forgotten about that by now? It was so long ago. Nothing’s going to happen at a party, so can’t you just be polite for a few hours?”
Her continued attempts to persuade you invalidate the pain and distress you experienced, leaving you hurt by her lack of support.
Over time, invalidation can make you internalize the idea that your feelings really aren’t important. This belief can then extend to other relationships, increasing your vulnerability to further manipulation.
A family member using emotional blackmail will make a deliberate appeal to your feelings to try and convince you to do what they want.
This tactic follows a clear pattern:
- They make a demand.
- If you resist or outright refuse, they pressure you into giving in. This often involves flattery or threats designed to engage your emotions or sense of obligation.
- When you agree to do what they want, they might “reward” you with kindness and affection.
This won’t last, though. Now they know you’ll go along with what they want if they use the right tactic. So, they likely won’t hesitate to blackmail you again.
A pattern of gaslighting often leaves you confused, doubting your memory, and questioning your perception of reality. Over time, this manipulative tactic can have a serious impact on your self-perception and mental health.
Someone trying to gaslight you may:
- counter your memories by denying events (“I never said you were stupid. How could you accuse me of that?”)
- insist they told you something important when they didn’t
- pretend to forget they made a promise
- try to convince you something never happened (“Your father never punched any wall. You must have dreamed that.”)
- insist you’re imagining things or lying
People often use guilt to get you to take responsibility for something that isn’t your fault. When you feel guilty, you’re more likely to do what the other person wants. This includes trying to resolve the problem for them.
Guilt isn’t always malicious. In fact, feeling guilty when you’ve done something wrong and someone expresses their feelings to you isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
But when a family member regularly uses guilt to make you feel bad or do things you’d rather not do, this usually suggests manipulation.
A family member offering conditional love or affection will demonstrate kindness and other caring behaviors only when you do what they want.
When you make a mistake or disappoint them in some way, they may:
- punish and criticize you
- imply they don’t love you
- blame you rather than external circumstances for mistakes or failure
This type of manipulation often involves isolation tactics, such as:
- the silent treatment
- saying no one else cares about you
- threatening other family members with punishment or isolation if they support you or show you affection
Some people manipulate by taking on the role of a victim.
They might blame others for difficulties, downplay their own responsibility, and avoid doing anything to help themselves.
You may also notice they often turn situations around to make it seem as if you’re to blame: “If you hadn’t moved out, I wouldn’t forget to take my medication so often. If I get sick, it’s your fault.”
A pattern of this behavior, often referred to as victim mentality, can involve exaggeration of problems and weaknesses.
These concerns might have truth to them — some people really do keep getting dealt a bad hand. But this behavior becomes manipulative when someone uses these difficulties to earn your sympathy and make you feel as if they can’t function without support, particularly when they make no effort to change their situation.
Aggression or personal attacks
Aggressive manipulation tends to involve more obvious attempts to control your behavior, including:
- shaming or mocking you
- scapegoating, or blaming you when things go wrong
- put-downs, insults, harsh criticisms, and other tactics designed to make you feel inferior
- threats and intimidation
The person trying to manipulate you often rationalizes verbal abuse by saying things like:
- “I’m just telling you these things for your own good.”
- “You’ll never amount to anything without some tough love.”
- “Learn to take a joke. You won’t get far in life if you’re always so sensitive.”
Shifting the goal posts
This type of manipulation can leave you feeling inadequate and unworthy.
One key sign someone might be doing this is when you can’t seem to meet the goals they set, no matter how hard you try.
But this failure doesn’t stem from your shortcomings; instead, it’s because they set overly demanding criteria, nitpick at tiny mistakes, or add new expectations every time you think you’ve finally succeeded.
Here’s an example:
You want to study abroad over the summer but can’t afford it. Your parents offer to pay half, as long as you do promise to help out with some projects around the house over spring break. You eagerly agree, and you spend your break doing practically everything around the house without any reminders.
When you check in with your parents, they bring up your GPA, even though they hadn’t mentioned anything about grades when making the deal.
They say, “You’re only pulling a 3.0? You must not be studying. College is expensive enough. Why should we pay for you to go party in another country? Bring your grades up first, and we’ll talk about studying abroad another time.”
How to respond
Dealing with family manipulation and other toxic behaviors can be stressful, to say the least.
When you feel uncertain about how to handle the situation, you might avoid responding at all. This may help you avoid conflict, but it also allows the manipulation to continue.
The strategies below offer some ways to react productively and protect your well-being.
Call out the manipulation
A good first step is to acknowledge that you’re aware of the manipulation.
It’s normal to feel upset or pressured, but remember: That’s how they want you to feel. Try grounding yourself or using breathing exercises to cool down and relax.
Use respectful language and “I” statements to avoid sounding confrontational. This means expressing your own feelings and thoughts, rather than simply making accusations about the other person.
Some examples of things to say include:
- “It’s upsetting when something doesn’t go as planned. I wish things had worked out — but since I wasn’t involved, I have no reason to feel guilty.”
- “We made a deal, and I did everything you asked. When you go back on your word, I feel deceived and disrespected.”
- “I understand you might not remember saying you’d pick me up from the clinic, but I still have your message if you’d like to see it.”
Let them know how it makes you feel
Though good intentions sometimes lie behind manipulation tactics, it doesn’t excuse a person’s behavior. By telling them that their behavior affects you negatively, you can help them realize that manipulation isn’t the answer.
You might try these approaches:
- Acknowledge their perspective. “I know you’re stressed because you have a lot to do for this gathering.”
- Express your anger and hurt in a calm and polite way. “I’ve asked you before not to shout at me. When you don’t respect that request, I feel angry and sad.”
- Explain how the manipulation affects you and the relationship. “When you lie to get my help, I lose trust in you. I also don’t feel much like helping when that happens.”
Your safety comes first, so if you don’t feel comfortable talking to them alone, bring someone you trust, or try a letter or phone call.
A boundary clearly states your needs and helps outline the things you will and won’t do.
For example, you might say, “I need honesty in my relationships. If you keep lying, I’ll limit our communication to essential conversations only.”
When you set boundaries with someone, they may accuse you of “withholding” or punishing them, but remember that boundaries exist to protect you first.
They give you an opportunity to decide which behaviors you’ll accept — before any potentially harmful actions take place. Others can then choose to respect your boundaries and continue interacting in a way that works for you.
You can set boundaries for yourself, too. These might help you limit involvement with a manipulative person, such as choosing to leave when they use a certain tactic, or deciding to see them only when others are present.
Boundaries can also help you curb how much you offer someone emotionally. This might mean you avoid sharing details about your personal life with that person.
Avoid isolating yourself
While it’s not always easy to talk about manipulation and other abuse, it often helps to discuss what’s happening with someone you trust — another family member, a friend, a teacher or mentor, or a romantic partner. It can be a huge relief when even one other person understands and offers support.
Avoiding some family members entirely can be difficult. Instead, you might try to prioritize connections with the ones who treat you with sincerity and offer unconditional love and kindness.
Dysfunction in your family doesn’t affect just your immediate well-being.
It can also damage your self-esteem and affect your ability to develop healthy relationships as an adult. It can even show up in your own parenting.
A family counselor or any therapist who specializes in family relationship dynamics can help you (and your family) address problematic behaviors and prevent these long-term effects.
A therapist can also help you navigate ongoing situations by:
- offering guidance on setting healthy boundaries
- exploring positive communication tactics
- teaching skills to cope with distressing feelings
- helping you get comfortable with speaking up for yourself
In therapy, you can get help for depression, anxiety, and other mental health symptoms often associated with toxic family dynamics. A therapist can also help you explore strategies for getting to know people if you find it difficult to open up.
The bottom line
Addressing problematic behaviors with a manipulative family member sometimes improves the situation. If it doesn’t, just remember: You can’t change anyone who doesn’t want to change.
You might feel a sense of duty toward your family — but in the end, you have to put your own well-being first. You have no obligation to maintain a relationship with someone who continues to hurt you.
Sometimes, loosening (or snipping) your family ties is the healthiest option.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.