“They’ve got you wrapped around their little finger” says some probably well-meaning person…stranger at the bus stop/elderly aunt/family friend. I always felt it came with judgment; that they thought I was giving in to my baby, allowing them to manipulate me and use me in ways that I should not allow. This kind of comment usually comes when you pick up a grizzling baby who calms, or when a baby makes eye contact with you, and your face melts and you instantly focus on them and engage them in a game. You know, those moments of parenting where you feel like you have a superpower, the ability to calm your baby, or communicate with them with no need for words. (Because, by the way, you do have that superpower, and it is amazing!)
It’s a weird comment, really. It’s saying “they communicated with you, and you responded and met their needs and that’s a ‘bad thing.’” Why on earth is that a bad thing? That’s an amazing thing. Even though your baby or toddler who can’t express themselves in words yet, you are so attuned to each other that you can communicate. You can engage each other and you understand and can calm them.
‘They’re manipulating you.’
This “wrapped around your little finger” thing is all about manipulation. That’s what they think is going on. They think that sticky jam covered toddler or your tiny 8 week old who relies on you for literally everything, is using cunning to get you to do exactly what they want. If you don’t look out you’ll raise a supervillain who’ll turn the whole world into their own personal puppet show. Ok, I may be exaggerating slightly. It’s in the same kind of realm of unhelpful comments as “you’re making a rod for your own back”.
Your baby can’t manipulate you
Effectively they are saying ‘You know, if you respond to a baby when they cry then they will grow to expect you to respond to them when they cry?’ And what, may I ask, is wrong with that? If my baby is crying, then there is something wrong. I want to know what’s wrong and to put it right if I can. I want them to trust that I will do that whenever I can. Think about a friend or partner; if they’re crying, I’d go to them. You wouldn’t say “I’ll be with you in twenty minutes, I want to give you a chance to learn to self soothe and get over your sadness.” would you?
I think it is probably reasonably clear to most people who think about it that a little baby isn’t quite a budding supervillain. If they calm down when you pick them up, then it’s probably because they needed to be picked up. It is not because they are training you Perfect Pooch Puppy School style.
Your toddler is manipulating you?
But what about a toddler? That sticky fingered whirlwind with the cheeky grin, they really could be the next evil genius, right?
Well, maybe. Your toddler may have been granted superhuman powers of mind-control, that you, oh naïve parent, are allowing them to practice. Perhaps one day the world will say “if only their mum hadn’t hugged them when they were sad, or fed them when they were hungry rather than making them wait another hour until dinner time, then they would have turned out to be an accountant and not the worst supervillain in history.” Maybe that will happen.
That’s a lot of responsibility to have on your shoulders so we had better look into it in a little more detail. Let’s take a bit of a dive into toddler brain development. Yes, really! Remember, we need to put Freda from the bus stop’s mind at rest!
So, what does it take to manipulate somebody? Because it sure can feel like a toddler is manipulating you when they make that screeching noise that cuts right through you. The noise that makes you want to do anything in the world to make it stop. The one they make when you have said no to them having an ice lolly because you don’t have any ice lollies, or because its 2am or whatever it is. Is that manipulation? Or when you tell them ‘no’ so they go and ask someone else the same thing. Surely that is manipulative?
Step-by-step guide to toddler manipulation
OK, let’s break it down into the thought processes and understanding that your toddler requires for effective manipulation.
Theory of mind: the basics of manipulation
The first thing your little one is going to need for entry into the class ‘Mind control and manipulation 101’ is known as “theory of mind.” This is subdivided into 4 aspects, which develop in sequence:
Cognitive theory of mind – thinking about thoughts, knowledge, beliefs, and intentionsWestby et al 2014
Affective theory of mind – thinking about and experiencing emotions
Interpersonal theory of mind – thinking about the thoughts and emotions of others
Intrapersonal theory of mind – thinking about how one’s own thoughts and emotions relate to those of others
So, your toddler will need to be capable of thinking about thinking in the abstract. They need to be consciously aware of what is going on in their own mind, and considering their own emotions. From there, they need to recognise that other people have minds too, and that they think and feel emotions. From that point they can begin to develop an understanding of how their thoughts and feelings and those of other people relate to each other. Phew, that is pretty complex stuff. And that is just step one!
At its most basic level we are looking for toddlers who realise that you, their parent, can think, make decisions, and feel emotions.
Next up, your toddler needs to understand that your behaviour is a manifestation of an internal mental state or thought process. They need to understand that people are motivated to act upon thoughts and emotions.
A lot of adults don’t consciously recognise this, so if your toddler does then they’re a seriously bright spark.
Your toddler must be able to figure out which of your behaviours correspond to which of your internal mental states. For example, when you do x you are feeling y.
To figure this out toddlers need to consider how their own feelings motivate their behaviour. Then they can project this onto you, so that they can extrapolate. For this to work, other than having a complex psychological self-conception, they need to experience emotions and motivations in the same way as you. Otherwise their projections will be totally inaccurate and ineffective!
Manipulation: choose your emotion
From this stage they can work out which internal state would be most effective to motivate you to do what they want. Will pity be more effective than anger for getting that cuddle? Is a happy parent or a stressed parent more likely to offer an ice lolly? Having projected what could motivate the desired behaviour in themselves, they have decided that pity will best elicit a cuddle, and that a happy and relaxed parent is most likely to offer an ice lolly.
Next up, they need to understand what experiences you need to have to create that emotion. When do you feel pity? You appear to feel pity when they appear to be sad, so to motivate that change in your emotions they need to work out which behaviours you perceive as them being sad (OK that is about 6 stages in one, but you see the complex mental gymnastics they are doing here).
Role play: lights, camera, action
They need to be able to perform that action on cue: this can mean pretending. If they are not actually sad, they need to be able to put on a good show, so not only be able to express sadness, but be able to pretend to express sadness.
Context: the influence of other factors
To make you happy and relaxed they realise that you need to feel like you have achieved what needs to be done today,. that you aren’t worrying about, for example, what is for dinner, their mind isn’t on a problem at work, they haven’t tripped over something in the hallway and are stressed by the mess, so the toddler has sensibly planned the meals for the week, tidied the hallway, moved all the clutter off the stairs, and spoken to that client who you are working with, neatly resolving the latest issue. They have also fixed you a latte, given you a biscuit, and let you go to the toilet without keeping you company. They have succeeded in creating a scenario in which you are happy and relaxed.
Lastly, they need to be able to respond sophisticatedly and quickly to your reaction their behaviour to ensure the creation of that desired emotion or internal mental state, and to ensure that you act upon it in the desired way, so all this thinking has got to be split second.
So, in short, your toddler cannot possibly be manipulating you. They don’t have you wrapped around their little finger by virtue of their incredible manipulation skills, and if they could do all of this, then they could probably also coherently explain their beaker preferences in such a way that you would never again get it wrong making everybody’s life much calmer.
Well, what are they doing then?!
I am sure that at some point during that list you realised that your toddler doesn’t quite have the techniques required. These complex neocortex functions begin to develop around 5 years old and there is evidence that the development of empathy, which underpins manipulation, continues into the twenties.
So, what is going on when we feel like our toddler is being manipulative? They seem to be purposefully trying to upset you, right? Often parents share their exasperation at how toddler behaviour can make them feel, and in the language they use adults characterise toddler behaviour and motivation through the lens of adult thinking., ascribing to them all those psychological functions listed above that they simply cannot perform. If we look at these behaviours without seeing them as a result of cognitive reasoning, because that isn’t possible for them, we start to uncover the real situation. These behaviours, instead of being a complex manipulation are, like all behaviours, a consequence of an unmet need.
Expressing needs or emotions
Often, they are simply examples of genuine distress, or in terms of human needs theory, emotional dysregulation. Toddlers are expressing how they feel, and they don’t have the neocortex function to make their expression socially acceptable, or to recognise what they are feeling and work out how to improve the situation. When they experience sadness or frustration they experience this with their entire being. Their developing neocortex goes totally offline, they can’t be reasoned with, they need to be soothed and calmed and they cannot do it themself.
Is fake crying manipulation?
OK, but what about when they aren’t sad, but they pretend to be? What is that about? That is manipulation for sure? Still no. They may have noticed, if that you seem to pay them attention or pick them up when they cry. They notice patterns. Fake crying is something they sometimes start to do when they need you to pick them up and other communication of this has failed, like lifting their arms to you.
They need a cuddle and they are trying to get you to meet their needs. It isn’t manipulation because they don’t understand what is going on in your head. They have just connected them crying and getting a cuddle, not that they cry when they are sad, you perceive their sadness, this is undesirable for you and so you pick them up in order to replicate it. Simply, they cry and get a hug. How can I get hug I need? Cry.
Modelled empathic behaviour
Sometimes toddlers can appear to be doing things that require empathy and understanding of others, even though we know that that is not what is going on. For example, they have seen that when the baby cries, you pick them up and kiss them and sing to them, and so when the baby cries they rush over and kiss them and shush them and tell them it is OK. It is a beautiful thing to see, like a heartburstingly amazing thing, seeing your toddler being so kind and caring that they want their sibling/friend to be happy and are trying to ease their pain. Only they aren’t, because they have no capacity to understand the feelings of others.
Actually they are simply replicating the behaviours that they have seen you do. This is modelling at its best. You have been a wonderful kind and empathetic parent, and so that is how they know people behave, and they walking the walk, without yet having the emotional understanding that goes with it. That is still wonderful, it still shows what an amazing job you are doing, but it makes it much less sinister when the next day they push over the baby who is sitting up unsteadily. They are just seeing what happens. They don’t realise the baby feels pain, and they certainly aren’t intentionally causing them pain. Toddlers don’t have that level of emotional understanding. The more you model acceptable compassionate behaviour, the more that is normalised as the way to act and the more intuitive it will be as they develop the emotional understanding that underpins it.
Not the next super villain
So, it turns out they don’t have you wrapped around their little finger, they probably aren’t the next supervillain, and they are communicating their needs, expressing their feelings, are exploring the consequences of actions without any emotional understanding or empathy, or they are copying modelled behaviour. All of these things are fine.
So, what should you say to Freda at the bus stop? Well, personally I’d probably go into a lecture on toddler brain development because I find it endlessly fascinating, because I am a bit unusual like that. Freda would either be fascinated and learn a lot or never speak to me again. It’s win-win really. If you don’t fancy that option then nod, smile, and ignore knowing that you know what is best for you and your family, and you don’t have to justify that to anyone: not to Freda and not to me either.