Feeling manipulated by your kids?

Find out if codependency is affecting your parenting

Maybe you’ve heard of codependency in relationships, but did you know it can spill over into your parenting?

See if any of these sound familiar:

You often tolerate quite a lot of misbehavior, but then end up extremely frustrated with your children. You may also regularly find yourself angry or yelling at your children.

By the time you realize just how frustrated you’ve become, you may fear you’ve damaged your relationship with your child, and you become very focused on explaining or apologizing. You may also find yourself doing things to repair the gap.

When it comes to consequences, you may find yourself falling somewhere between being too harsh or too lenient. When there’s been a relational break, you may spend a lot of energy making sure your child feels reconnected to you. You may also offer negotiating ways to return privileges.

If you’ve ever been in an unhealthy romantic relationship, you’ll recognize that these patterns show up in similar ways. In parenting, codependent habits leave us confused and frustrated, and often it can be hard to know if we are falling into these patterns in our parenting. You may even feel that you actually do a whole lot of correcting, but nothing seems to stick.

The main culprit: Poor boundaries.

Poor boundaries are evident when our words and actions don’t match. Consequences are essential to the learning process, and when we minimize or omit them, our kids perceive that there’s not an expectation of actual change. 

When we have weak boundaries, we can also end up waffling back and forth and our parenting becomes very inconsistent. Some of our kids are particularly adept at picking this out and will use this to their advantage, manipulating us. They learn to tell us what we want to hear, and then continue on doing what they were doing before. This doesn’t mean they are terrible people; it means they are perceptive! But to channel that intelligence in the right direction, we’ve got to recognize the patterns that lead to being a pushover parent, and make the necessary changes.

Codependency in Parenting—What is it?

I don’t love the word “codependency” because I rarely find a definition that seems to accurately define my internal experience with it. The best way I can conceptualize it for you is that codependency is the tendency to avoid disconnection in relationships – sometimes at all costs.  

Having low boundaries keeps us from experiencing a break in the relationship. It’s why we often contort ourselves to fit whatever is needed to keep the relationship status quo. It’s also why we excuse poor behavior, avoid confrontations, absorb the damage caused, or shorten/ soften consequences. 

But when we do this with our kids, we shield them from the consequences that are meant to teach them the cause and effect nature of their choices. Our words become hollow, and our kids end up with more power than they were ever meant to handle.

Rewiring Patterns of Codependency in Parenting

Setting good boundaries is essential to rewiring patterns of codependency. While there are tons of great books on all things boundaries out there, there’s a simple framework from the Bible that has made all the difference for me.

Here are the basics:

Many of us who have low boundaries often feel as though we are applying grace to a situation where understanding is needed. And while that may or may not be true, this is not really the way God as the Perfect Parent guides us.

Dr. Tim Kimmel (one of my mentors and author of Grace Based Parenting) describes the nature of grace in relationships by highlighting John 1:14, which says Jesus came to us “full of grace and truth.” Tim points out that this verse reveals God is not a mixture of 50% grace and 50% truth; He’s 100% full of both attributes, which are inseparable.

As humans, we aren’t capable of doing this grace/truth thing nearly as well, but when we have poor boundaries, we end up swinging wildly between extremes. We may tend towards putting up with a lot, believing we are giving grace. But when our long-suffering is taken advantage of, we often then alternately swing towards applying truth, in ways that are critical, rejecting, and unloving. After exploding/ imploding, we then often feel the need to explain, apologize, or repair the situation, and the whole thing starts over again.

Boundaries are essential for delivering a balance of both grace and truth in all of our relationships, especially in parenting.

How Jesus Modeled Grace and Truth

Thankfully, God did not leave us to figure out how to get things into balance on our own. Jesus, being completely full of these attributes yet human in form, modeled when it’s appropriate to move more towards grace or more towards truth in our interactions with each other.

Jesus allowed grace to lead His interactions with people who had been lowered by shame (and knew it). Think of the woman caught in adultery, or Peter after he’d denied Jesus. Jesus demonstrated mercy in these instances, and in others like them, when the person before Him had been humbled by their sin. In parenting, this looks like praising a child for coming to you when they know they’ve made a mistake, and coaching them to take responsibility. 

After all, we want our children to come to us when they have a problem, rather than run and hide.

However, Jesus allowed truth to lead His interactions with people who had wrongly and pridefully exalted themselves. He demonstrated this repeatedly in confrontations with the Pharisees, who were blind to their sin and needed to be brought down to reality. In parenting, this looks like allowing for meaningful consequences that will teach our children the way to go, especially when they have attempted to cover up their behavior. 

James 4:6 sums it up like this:

“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (NLT).

The Role of Consequences in Healthy Parenting

Consequences are the natural result of choices. This is different from punishment, because punishment is about retribution. If you are doling out consequences in anger or coming down on your kids, that’s punishment. 

Punishment instills shame, which is crushing to our children. Consequences work best when they are delivered in love, with a heart of encouragement. The Bible guides us to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15, NLT). Whether moving towards grace or truth, both situations require empathy and compassion towards our children to teach them that they are safe with us and with God, even in their mistakes.

What Healthy Boundaries Look Like With Our Kids

When it comes to communicating boundaries and expectations with our kids, there are a few practices that can be tailored to meet your kids where they are at, regardless of age.

Use kind and clear language. Setting expectations is a step many of us skip, and it’s the reason why we get so frustrated when our standards are not met. Lay out clear expectations, and give your child a heads up as to what they can look forward to once they’ve met them. We want our kids to know we want them to get a win! For example: I’d like you to clean up your room, including under the bed and inside your closet. When you are done, you will get to go out and play. 

Give room. Allow your kids some freedom in how they go about meeting expectations, and offer choices as often as possible. Work at letting go of control, and give your kids room to problem solve on their own. You can still offer encouragement or suggestions, but be mindful of constantly intervening, directing, or nagging.

Let the rewards (and consequences) do the talking. Let’s face it, kids are going to push back and make poor choices. Sometimes, we end up watering down the learning process by using too many words (and too many emotions), rather than letting the outcomes of our kids’ choices do the teaching. Allow natural consequences to play out, while offering empathy (for example: I’m sorry, honey. Because you chose to wait to clean up your room, it’s too late to go outside now. Tomorrow you can try again). 

I’ve also found simply taking things away doesn’t teach as much as action-oriented consequences. Consider choosing consequences that are task oriented; completing tasks gives a child a sense of accomplishment. Consider choosing something that allows you to be present; acting out is often a bid for connection and the consequence offered can actually be an opportunity for quality time. For example, you can sit and visit with your child as they go about cleaning up their room. You’re not doing the work, but being with your child and encouraging them says, “I’m in this with you.”

Do your own work As parents, it’s our job to reflect to our kids what we see in them, not see them as little reflections of ourselves. Get help to work through any tendencies you have to get your emotional needs met through your children, so you can be emotionally available to meet theirs.

Michelle Donnelly

Michelle Donnelly is the President and CEO of PlusONE Parents, a ministry devoted to helping single parents overcome overwhelming situations to rebuild God-empowered lives and raise up a new generation. A mother of three, Michelle is also the host of The Christian Single Moms Podcast and author of Seen: Hope & Healing for Single Moms as well as Safe Haven: A Devotional for the Abused and Abandoned.

1 thought on “Feeling manipulated by your kids?”

  1. Thank you for sharing this wisdom, insight and encouragement. This certainly resonated with me. This is me as a single momma of 3.

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