Are You Blackmailing Your Children?

Boundaries"Every time I disagree with my mother, even on little things, I feel this terrible sense that she's not there anymore," mused Ingrid over coffee with her friend Alice. "It's like she's hurt and withdrawn, and I can't get her back. It's really a horrible feeling to think you've lost someone you love."

Let's be honest. None of us enjoys being told no. It's difficult to accept another person's refusal to give support, to be intimate, or to forgive. Yet good relationships are built on the freedom to refuse and confront. Proverbs 27:17 says, "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another."

Good relationships are built on appropriate no's. Even when we're children, young or old, we need to know our boundaries will be honored. It is crucial that our disagreements, our practicing of saying no, and our experimentation will not result in a withdrawal of love.

How often do we hear the statement that "God loves the sinner, but hates the sin"? It's true. His love is constant and never fails. When parents detach from a misbehaving young child instead of staying connected and dealing with the problem, God's constant love is misrepresented.

When parents pull away in hurt, disappointment, or passive rage, they are sending this message to their youngster: You're lovable when you behave. You aren't lovable when you don't behave. A child translates that message something like this: When I'm good, I am loved. When I'm bad, I am cut off.

God created people with a need for attachment and relationship. In essence, parents who pull away from their child, whether young or old, practice spiritual and emotional blackmail. The child can either pretend to not disagree and keep the relationship, or he can continue to separate and lose his most important relationship in the world. Thus, he will most likely keep quiet.

Children whose parents withdraw when they start setting limits learn to accentuate and develop their compliant, loving, sensitive parts. At the same time, they learn to fear, distrust, and hate their aggressive, truth-telling, and separate parts. If someone they love pulls away when they become angry, cantankerous, or experimental, children learn to hide these parts of themselves.

Parents who tell their children, "It hurts us when you're angry" make the child responsible for the emotional health of the parent. In effect, the child has just been made the parent of the parent -- sometimes at two or three years old. It's far, far better to say, "I know you're angry, but you still can't have that toy." And then to take your hurt feelings to a spouse, friend, or the Lord.

By nature, children are omnipotent. They live in a world where the sun shines because they were good, and it rains because they were naughty. Children will give up this omnipotence gradually over time, as they learn that needs and events besides theirs are important. But during the early years, this omnipotence plays right into boundary injury. When children feel parents withdrawing, they readily believe that they are responsible for Mom and Dad's feelings. That's what omnipotent means: "I am powerful enough to make Mom and Dad pull away. I'd better watch it."

A parent's emotional withdrawal can be subtle: A hurt tone of voice. Long silences for no reason. Or it can be overt: Crying spells. Illness. Yelling. Children of parents like these grow up to be adults who are terrified that setting boundaries will cause severe isolation and abandonment.

Please don't misunderstand this. Parents setting boundaries with their children is crucial. Children need to know behavioral lines that should not be crossed. They need to suffer biblical, age-appropriate consequences for acting out. (In fact, when parents do not set and maintain good boundaries with their children, the children suffer another type of boundary injury.

What we're talking about here isn't allowing the child free rein. Parents need to stay attached and connected to their children even when they disagree with them. That doesn't mean they shouldn't get angry. It means they shouldn't withdraw.


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  • Jen on

    Rebecca, I am so sorry you’ve been through this. Your story is eerily similar to mine with my dad. It’s so painful coming to the point that it’s better to not have much of a relationship than continue the pain. I’m at that point now and appreciated that you shared your story.

  • John on

    A boundary without grace becomes just a wall.

  • Faye on

    When I first started reading this article I thought it was about emotional blackmail. But it seems that you wrote the article from the perspective of the parents being the emotional blackmailors only. Let me just tell you a short story that happened with me. My husband has a son who is 37 years of age, and a married father of three children. This is my stepson, of course. Once we retired, apparently he and his wife got the impression that we were now available and on call at all times to babysit their children whenever they wanted us to. This particular time he brought his then five-year-old daughter over to my home at seven in the morning for me to babysit. I had not been informed and I was not feeling well at the time. When I told him that I wasn’t feeling well he became angry and to make a long story short, he took his child and we hadn’t seen them in two years. Eventually they came back around after they saw that I wasn’t about to play any manipulation games of give in to power plays…this is MY life What he tried to do to us was to punish us for not doing things the way he wanted us to do things. So you see, emotional blackmail can occur with children as well as parents being on the receiving end!

  • Wendy on

    I am just another parent, learning boundaries myself, but have learned a lot in regard to your question. I used to use tools such as “time out” when my kids were little, but have been learning a beautiful way of loving our kids with boundaries and discipline, while remaining connected through an online parenting resource called, “Connected Families.” Another ministry that supports similar ways of nurturing relational connections with boundaries is called Empowered Hearts. There I learned the power of “time in” was far more effective in reaching my kids hearts than “time out.” Hope these resources bless you on your parenting journey~ they both advocate and use Boundaries concepts.

  • Kelly on

    So hard to break the cycle when thatbis all you have known, due to a childhood of these behaviors! Thank God for the Holy Spirit, the Word of God and articles such as this.
    Under Construction with Christ

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