Familial manipulation refers to behavior within a family unit, in which a family member will use manipulation tactics to hold power and control over another family member.
Manipulation involves a person using certain tactics to get a person to behave in the way they want. Familial manipulation may occur in dysfunctional families and can include gaslighting, isolation, and withholding affection.
This article looks at common tactics of familial manipulation, some red flags, and how a person might be able to respond. It also provides some resources on where a person can find support and seek help.
Below are possible tactics a family member may use to manipulate someone and examples of what familial manipulation may look like.
Trivializing a person’s feelings
Trivializing is a way of invalidating another person’s feelings. A person may use phrases such as: “You’re being too sensitive” or “There’s no need to get angry over such a small thing.”
Trivializing makes a person feel as though their feelings or needs are not important.
Using emotional blackmail
People use emotional blackmail to imply something bad will happen if the other person does not comply. A person may use guilt, shame, or fear to get a person to act the way they want.
Gaslighting can cause a person to question their feelings and mental state and may leave them feeling confused and helpless.
Learn more about the long-term effects of gaslighting.
According to a 2019 study, withholding love is a tactic that people may use to emotionally manipulate another person.
Love withdrawal occurs if a person withholds affection or loving attention until a person complies with what they want.
Playing the victim
A person may play the victim in order to manipulate others. A person may cover their abusive behavior by blaming other people and placing responsibility onto others.
A person may use victimhood to make others feel sorry for them, leading the other person to blame themselves instead.
A person may use aggressive language, behavior, or threats to control another person. This may include:
- humiliating a person in front of others
- using put-downs and insults
- getting angry in a way that feels frightening to the other person
- threatening to hurt themselves, the other person, people they care about, or a pet
- making a person feel stupid or pretending not to understand them
- refusing to listen to the other person, or constantly changing the subject
A person may use isolation to manipulate others.
A person may keep others away from people who could offer them emotional support, in order to gain greater control and power over them.
Signs that a family member is using isolation as a manipulation tactic may include:
- discouraging or preventing people from seeing their friends or other family members
- making people feel guilty for seeing other people
- wanting to always know what people are doing and for a person to be in constant contact
- restricting a person from leaving the home, such as preventing access to transport
- expressing jealousy at people spending time with others
The warning signs or red flags of familial manipulation may include:
- feeling pressurized into doing something or unable to say no
- feeling unable to do anything right or not being good enough
- feeling isolated from friends or other family members
- feeling confused or second-guessing themselves due to the behavior of the manipulator
- feeling guilt, shame, or self-blame over the other person’s behavior
People may find the following strategies helpful in dealing with familial strategies:
- If it feels safe to do so, and when both parties are calm, tell a family member how their behavior is making them feel.
- Set clear boundaries and practice asking for what they need, and express how they feel without seeking approval from others.
- Acknowledge how a family member is making them feel, and know those feelings are valid.
- Focus on self-care, such as exercising, eating healthily, getting enough sleep, and doing enjoyable activities.
- Limit or avoid time with toxic family members as much as possible.
- Practice techniques to help cope with difficult situations, such as meditation and relaxation.
- Know that people do not have to repeat the patterns they see in their family and avoid feeling guilt or shame for the behavior of others.
- Find ways to express and release emotions in a healthy way, such as through exercise, creativity, or journaling.
- Plan goals and things to look forward to, so one can feel positive about their own life.
- If a home environment feels too toxic or unsafe, seek other housing options if possible, such as moving in with a friend or supportive family member.
If the above steps are not effective or do not feel possible, people can reach out to a healthcare professional. If people are facing emotional or physical abuse, it is important to seek help as soon as possible.
People may want to see a counselor or family therapist who can help an individual or family to work through dysfunctional behavior.
People may want to keep track of instances of manipulation and how it made them feel so they have a clearer record of what is happening.
People can seek support for familial manipulation through the following:
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: People can call or text the hotline for help, as well as find information and advice on different forms of abuse.
- Child Welfare Information Gateway: This group provides a resource list of organizations that can give support to those experiencing family violence and abuse.
- Family Crisis Centers: This offers resources, support, and a 24-hour hotline for families in crisis.
- Domestic Violence Resource Network: This provides a list of resources and organizations to support family violence and abuse.
If people feel they are in immediate danger from a family member, they can call 911.
Familial manipulation may happen in a dysfunctional family. Causes of a dysfunctional family may include:
- family members having a history of abuse
- strict or controlling parents, which may stem from trauma
- family members that have a personality disorder
- a difficult or traumatic life event, such as illness in the family, divorce, job loss, or death
- family values, culture, and ethnicity, which may influence gender roles, parenting styles, and power dynamics within a family
- insecure family attachments
- a history of a dysfunctional family in previous generations, which passes down to future generations
- social, economic, or political instability affecting the family
- a psychological illness in a family member
- substance abuse or addiction
Familial manipulation can be a form of emotional abuse, which can have a serious effect on a person’s mental and physical health in both the short and long term.
Emotional abuse may cause:
- feelings of hopelessness or powerlessness
- guilt and self-blame
- low self-esteem
- feeling worthless
- frequent crying
- substance abuse
- chronic pain
People may be able to respond to familial manipulation by calling it out and talking with their family to address the behavior.
Familial manipulation can be a form of emotional abuse, and people may need to seek help from a therapist or family counselor.