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 “It’s like she’s hurt and withdrawn, and I can’t get her back.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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  1. Jennifer says

    With great sadness I nod my way through this very helpful article. I grew up in an atmosphere of fear wherein compliance with parental requests – actually demands – was non-negotiable. There was the unspoken threat of abandonment that kept me fearful into adulthood and reached its terrible conclusion in my forties. When after years of therapy and holistic healing I began to assert myself. In a very gentle way, but saying ‘I cant do that thing you ask, but I do want to help you, let us see what that could be’. But the tyranny was absolute and I was exiled from the family. ‘Children of parents like these grow up to be adults who are terrified that setting boundaries will cause severe isolation and abandonment.’ This was indeed the prophecy I was born into – through Christ I am being healed of this deep wound, and afterwards will come compassion and love. Though the extent of this traumatic wounding and impact on my mental health means that we may never be able to participate in relationship again.
    Thank you for your work, it is vital to have ourselves affirmed and validated when we practice boundaries, as it can feel so alien and ‘wrong’ after so many years of self-abnegation.

  2. Mr. and Mrs. Rhoades says

    Helpful article–and we have a question about this statement, above:

    “Parents need to stay attached and connected to their children even when they disagree with them.”

    What does that entail when a Time-Out, either on the “Time-Out Rug” downstairs (by the front door) or in their bedrooms? In other words, how do we maintain attachment when we have to physically remove them to a different room in order to drive home the message that a particular behavior–such as hitting–will not be tolerated?

    Thanks for your time.

    • Wendy says

      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.

  3. Linda says

    This is a very important topic and I’m so glad that you brought this up. I question the term spiritual blackmail; however, for certain the silent treatment and rejection that people practice when they don’t get what they want is a form of emotional blackmail. It’s a control behavior. People do it to try to control the other person. The sad part is that this behavior is most damaging with children who don’t have other relationships to turn to. They suffer in the present and they learn to either dish this behavior out to others or take it from others when they get older. That’s how the cycle continues.

  4. Linda Mullin says

    Thanks got some inner work to do. Thanks for your wisdom and help.
    God bless
    in Christ
    not yet fully grown
    Linda Mullin

    • says

      get your spouse help I lived like that until our daughter was 14 years old we are in therapy now and it hurt her and me please I beg you do not allow it to go on any longer please, it is hurting you and your children, let God lead you God Bless, after 18 years of it, I do not trust men any longer but through Gods sweet love I am slowly getting better

  5. Michelle says

    So very true…. How do you set boundaries as the “other parent” who see’s this type of damage being done by the other parent? Often I see this as well as emotional tongue lashings and even sometimes body language that evokes fear, being done to my children and though I point out that the situation shouldn’t be dealt with this way, I am always just accused of taking my children’s sides. Though this is not my intent, it is how it is perceived and then what I say is just dismissed. Or is this just another form of attempting emotional control? Is my spouse trying to control me and my behavior and views as well? This just now dawned on me…. hmmmm


    • Sarah says

      Parenting is meant to be team work. You should be free to have your concerns listened to and not merely dismissed. Having lived in this same situation, I feel safe in saying your new revelation is correct – the other parent is attempting to control you, as well.

  6. Pam says

    So glad I opened this article. I’m definitely guilty of blackmailing my children when they are not behaving the way they should or studying as hard as they should..I am learning to show more Grace just as God shows me each and everyday. I think if we can remember the New Mercies He gives us each day, we can learn to apply it to our own children just as God does with us, His children. He doesn’t give us the cold shoulder or silent treatment.. Let’s not do it to our beautiful children He Blessed us with.

  7. Amy says

    I wish this article talked about when you have this same scenario in marriage. This is NOT exclusive to the parent/child relationship. After having read several books, I am solidly convinced I am married to a manipulator. I’ve been married just a few years and did not see this side of his personality during our short courtship. His behavior mimics that described for the parent. I also recognize some of the aspects of how the child learns to respond in the way I evaluate our interactions. This article tells a well meaning parent how to recognize and change their own behavior, which is wonderful. In my situation, the spouse doesn’t see his behavior as wrong, just a reaction to something I have done and I have caused him to refuse to speak with, dine with, and sleep with for days at a time. There are no doubt parents who are blind in a similar manner. It’s figuring out what do here that is so tricky for me. I read a quote recently that says, ” At some point you have to realize that some people can stay in your heart but not in your life.” A sad but true statement I’m afraid.

    • Miss C says

      I can understand your situation because I was once in a marriage similar to yours and unfortunately it did not last past 5 years. It may have been worst then your situation as the not speaking lasted for weeks……………even months at a time. I am in a second marriage now and very happy to experience a loving, kind and considerate person. We’ve attended counselling before marriage and participated in many of our church’s Marriage Ministery workshops which helps so much. We each own and look at issues of our own and try to blame one another of the way we can feel when angry, hurt, disappointed etc….. We’ve learned a lot in the last workshop we attended about “Overcoming emotions that destroy” by Chip Ingram. Wishing you all the best…..”God bless”

  8. Rebecca Hyzer says

    Thank you for your article. I am a mother of a two and three year old. My father plays mean emotional games, has been all my life. A year ago, he became upset over some circumstances in his life and lashed out at me, not for the first time (or second, or third) in my life. He also wrongfully accused my WONDERFUL husband of essentially being a selfish, bad son in law. Of course, he said those things to hurt me because he was hurting. NOT okay though and I said so and he hung up on me. THEN he turned around and wrote an email to my husband outlining in literal fine detail point-by-point how much in the wrong I was AND later told him that he had no idea why I was yelling (of course he never once repeated any of the slanderous things he said about my husband). The only reason I yelled is because he was ranting and raving and the ONLY thing I said was, “Stop it”. No name calling on my end, no accusations on my end either, just “stop it” (and he hung up).
    A few days later from the incident, my mom called starting that my dad felt “just awful” about the whole situation. So, i tried to be the bigger person and I extended an olive branch to him. I started that we must have caught each other at a bad time so why not write the slate clean but he declined. Then he called up my husband to let him know that side he was hurt so deeply by me, that he needs his space. THAT DID IT FOR ME! Growing up, he’s always expected me to be the peace keeper and to hide his words and actions. I knew he thought that I would never tell my husband what he said BUT I DID THE SAME DAY OF HIS REMARKS. So, I wrote a letter telling him such and that he OWES it to God and to me to forgive. Knowing he got caught by the short hairs, He left a message on my husband’s phone saying he “guessed” he needs to apologize for some words he “might have” said about him. And because I DARED to challenge him, he then decided he was going to teach me a lesson by cutting not only me but my husband and BOTH my children off from him completely for six months solid. No phone calls. Wouldn’t pick up or return our phone calls. Never responded to any emails I sent of the kids. FINALLY, I stopped but most importantly, I stopped feeling guilty. I did NOTHING wrong so why should I take responsibility for his actions?
    Where are we today, over a year from that incident? He’s never apologized. He sent a letter on our wedding anniversary that my husband read and deleted. I don’t want to read it and never have.. Why give someone like him a voice in my life?? He’s never asked to see the grandkids, never has come up or tried to since my oldest has been born. He sure has blasted us to his friends about how neglected he is and all he’s tried to be is wonderful. Don’t care, I know who my true family and friends are. When I visit my mom, he’s civil and warm to the grandkids, so am I and I’m happy with that. But when my mom leaves for Florida, things are estranged and I’m fine with it too. Now that my kids are (on the young side of) two and three, he’s asked for the first time to see them. He’s leaving for Florida for 4 months in less than two weeks. I’m not against him seeing them but I’m not going to bend over backwards to move mountains either to make it happen. I figure he can rip off to Pennsylvania and Indiana for auctions, he can drive to Michigan (where I live) to see his grandchildren if it’s so important (he lives in Ohio, 75 miles one direction, all on interstate). It surely is lots easier for him to pack himself and travel vs. me packing up three people and traveling.
    Sometimes I feel sad about it all, sometimes angry. Lots of times I doubt myself. I just pray and move on. He sure had a lot to be proud of over his family. I’ve NEVER EVER asked for money or for him to even help us out at all. Not to put a tiara on me but I have always been a really good kid (never did drugs, went to church, graduated high school early and went to college on full scholarships, never slept around, never did drugs or tried with cigarettes even, volunteered enough to become fluent in a second language, etc) and married a really good man that is warm to my dad despite all the games he’s played through the years. I work hard at forgiving him for it all but I can’t allow a person who has unremorsefully used my children to hurt me to have a full share in our lives and my husband agrees. He still has lots of good in him, I’m not blind to it. However, the parts that are dark and dirty about him have hurt me so much that the good isn’t enough to for me to trust him or to want anything more than what we have today. And as long as he behaves around the kids, there will be SUPERVISED visits when i am visiting my mom. I figure if he wants more than that, he can both ask AND more importantly, give us something to trust first.

    • Jen says

      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.

  9. Kelly says

    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

  10. says

    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!

  11. Nancy says

    I still have a lot to learn about boundaries. When raising our kids, we corrected behavior with common sense consequences and assurance that they were always loved, even when the action was not. What do I do about an adult child that really likes to set boundaries, but not get boundaries? When a respectful boundary is expressed, they withdraw affection, unfriend, and block calls, for weeks or months at a time.

    • Sue F says

      Sounds like they are punishing you for your boundaries. We never know the outcome when setting boundaries. Boundaries are for what we accept and what we don’t. They are not meant to punish, control or change others.

  12. Tonia says

    Can you give any suggestions on appropriate consequences for tweens and teens? I’m out of ideas, all I can come up with is to take away electronics. It doesn’t make a difference.

  13. Angela says

    I have some questions about this article. First off I grew up with a mom who very much did this. Still to this day my sisters and I say, “we all know, if mom isn’t happy she will let us know.” She either withdraws, moving on to another sibling as her favorite for the week, or makes everyone miserable.
    As a parent myself I try to be very cautious of my responses to my children. For instance as a child I would just want a hug. My mom would refuse bc we had a disagreement. I often didn’t even know what we were arguing about. I always give my children hugs. Especially when we have been in a tiff.
    My children have however seen me cry because of their acting out. Also I have stated I need a break. “Your behaviors are taking me to my limit and I need to get away. I still love you but I need a break. “I’ve also recently said in his ear shot “if he keeps acting like this I won’t want to be around him.” I then explained no one wants to be around someone who yells at them, or will purposefully do something they know you don’t like to see how you react.” I know my son learned some of these behaviors from his older sibling who was adopted and has reactive attachment disorder.
    Still a parent can’t always control when their tears come, and if a child has been in meltdown mode due to anxiety, or oppositional for a while just because their strong will, a parent gets tired. Is that really making the child responsible for our emotions? Lets face it other people’s behaviors do effect our emotions.

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