When a Child’s Emotions Seem Fake and Manipulative

A parent feels drained by her 5-year-old’s extreme emotional reactions to even the most minor disappointments. While she and her husband encourage both their children to express all their feelings, their son has recently begun “to jump to a level 100 in tears the instant he gets frustrated or isn’t given what he wants.” His sobbing, screaming, and complaints that he’s sad or hurt in these situations seem false and manipulative. This parent is wondering how to approach her son’s “mock emotion” while still communicating to him that his feelings are valid.

Transcript of “When a Child’s Emotions Seem Fake and Manipulative”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m responding to a question that I received from a parent who’s concerned about her son who seems to be faking emotions, and manipulating. And this parent is doing a wonderful job, it sounds like, helping her children to perceive their emotions as all acceptable and healthy. But she’s getting a bit stuck here because it seems like her five-year-old is using emotions to manipulate situations.

Okay, here’s the note I received:

Dear Janet,

My husband and I have been fans of your method since we were introduced to the No Bad Kids book through our eldest son’s school. We find ourselves returning to your materials for our reframing of our perspectives whenever either of our sons is exhibiting behavior we’d like to understand better. I haven’t found anything that resembles what we are going through with our son. So I’m hoping to share what’s going on and hopefully gain that perspective and advice from you.

Our five-year-old son has been having trouble regulating his emotions for the past month or so. I say regulating rather than controlling, because we are a very open family about emotions, and talk about how all emotions are valid: sadness, happiness, silliness, anger, annoyance, et cetera. We talk about the most appropriate ways to express them, but we do not try to suppress them. So our children are encouraged to feel whatever emotions come up. And we validate those as real, helping them to process and regulate as we do so.

Our son has begun to jump to a level 100 in tears, the instant he gets frustrated or isn’t given what he wants. Everything from someone else turning off the TV (with appropriate heads up), to not wanting to brush teeth, to his younger brother, who’s two wanting a toy or taking a turn. He immediately goes into a false sobbing, screaming, complaining mode. I have no doubt he’s angry and frustrated, but the tears and sadness are what’s false. He tells us “that really hurt my feelings!” Or “I can’t do __, I’m too sadS” These last two expressions are usually yelled at us rather than describing his state. We believe that he is using this emotional outburst to try to manipulate the situation since there are times when he gets what he’s after. For example, if his brother did pull a toy away from him, and he gets it back. And then he immediately stops his outburst and goes back to a calmer state.

When he’s in this higher emotional state, he doesn’t want to be touched or hugged, runs away, and will listen to what we have to say only if he thinks he will get his way.

We recognize there is likely something else at play here. Perhaps the stress from over a year into the pandemic with only brother and one older friend for company. Perhaps brother getting older or not being able to communicate as clearly. Or perhaps something else entirely. What is the best way to approach this so that he doesn’t default to a “mock emotion” and yelling to manipulate a situation, but still feels like his feelings are valid? It is starting to get really draining on everyone to hear these extreme expressions and try to work through them multiple times a day. Thanks for your insights.

Okay. So as I said in the opening, this parent is doing incredibly important work by understanding and communicating to her children that all emotions are valid, and that none should be suppressed. Although, of course, we want our children to get better and better at regulating them. This 180 degree shift to see all emotions as healthy and positive in ourselves and in our children is huge, a huge challenge. I talk about it a lot, if you listen here. And it’s, for me at least, a lifelong challenge to keep remembering that there’s a reason for my feelings, that they’re healthy to have, and that I need to go through the process of feeling them and hopefully learning from them.

What sometimes happens when, as parents, we are trying to meet one of these incredible challenges, shifting emotional cycles from generations where feelings were shut down… most of us were not raised with the attitude that our feelings are all welcome… So when we’re doing this huge work, it’s sort of natural for it to become a big focus for us. We’re putting a lot of energy into this, because it’s new and we’re trying to change something. And it requires us to really pay attention to it. And it sounds like that’s where this family is. And again, it’s laudable.

But what I would like to help them, or any family in this situation do is to get to the next step, which is not only accepting all feelings, but perceiving them as normal, daily happenings with young children, therefore allowing them to pass by as billboards on the highway. We’re not going to pull over and stop and address and go over each sign on the highway. We’re going to let them pass by. We’re going to take note of them because some might be important, but we’re not going to hit the brakes, and make a big event out of any of them. Because it’s that normalizing of emotions that will allow for this flow in our children’s lives to feel more acceptable.

And also it will give us clarity. Because what it sounds like might be happening here is these parents are getting convoluted in the way that they’re seeing the different ways that their son is expressing feelings right now. They’re judging some as genuine, some as fake or manipulative, and that he’s mislabeling. That he seems more angry and frustrated, but yet, he’s saying that he’s sad. They’re getting sort of in the web of it, instead of having one very clear perspective: acceptance. Not easy, because as I said, this is a lifelong challenge, but simplified, clarified, which makes it not only easier for our children to pass through the different feelings that they have and do what this parent says at the end she wants, which is: she wants her child to feel like his feelings are all valid.

So it not only gives them that, but it gives us clarity. We don’t have to wonder, and decide, and have a different response to a meltdown, than a tantrum, or an angry emotion than a sad emotion, or something that seems fake vs. something that seems more genuine to us. We can respond to emotions all the same way, with acceptance. Just allowing them all to be, because even if a child was manipulating, which I don’t think this child consciously is, at all. I know it can appear that way with children, but even if that was the case, us getting angry and annoyed is not going to make the situation better. It’s not going to help us to be able to respond in a way that helps children just pass through.

So often, raising children, or working with children, teaching children, it is our judgments that get in our way. Our judgments close the door to understanding what’s really going on. They also make our child feel distanced, which then of course amplifies their discomfort, and their emotions, and their behavior.

I’m all about streamlining. I do not do convoluted well. I do not want to be trying to figure out the right response. I like the one-size-fits-all response to emotions, which is accepting, allowing, even encouraging them all to be expressed. None of them are my responsibility to make better or change. None of them are more important than other ones. They’re all just normal.

So I don’t know exactly why her five-year-old has been seeming very edgy lately, seeming quick to tears. But there’s something. There’s something that’s going on with him. And this family will have a much better chance at figuring it out or not. It may just blow over. But they have a better chance of figuring it out if they stop trying to judge each one as it comes up.

My guess is also that, in terms of what seems to be manipulative or fake, my guess is that this boy has sensed as children do, that his parents have a focus on and commitment to handling emotions in a positive way. And sometimes again, when we have this commitment and it’s a new, very challenging commitment, we maybe get a little too focused on it. Children will sense that ultra focus in us, and it can be become kind of a vulnerability in us, that this is really important to us and we’re working really, really hard on it and we want to do it right. And when our children feel that vulnerability or they feel, they sense, this is a place where I really get heard. I’m not saying that I think he’s faking anything, because I don’t. I think he’s falling into a little bit that trap of the parents’ commitment to, and therefore, maybe vulnerability around this issue.

So that’s another reason that I would like to help this parent move through this now to the next step, which is the final step. And that’s that we see the feelings as normal, and just passing through. And what we can do then is we don’t have to figure out, again, if it’s real or false, we just take it as it comes. We don’t have to do what this parent says at the end… That kind of stood out for me. And it was what I was sensing from her note, but then she said it — that it started to “get really draining on everyone to hear these extreme expressions and try to work through them multiple times a day.”

So it’s the working through them…  this shouldn’t ideally be work. We want to get to the point where, again, it’s no more work than passing by a sign on the freeway and noticing it. So I don’t know what that work is looking like for this parent, but that is a responsibility that I would love to clear for them, because I think it’s getting in their way more than anything. And of course, making them drained and exhausted when they feel they’ve got to do something with these feelings that are coming at them. They really, really don’t.

Even when he maybe gets his way with his brother over having a feeling, I would let that go. It’s not a big deal. It’s not for us to judge. It’s just about the relationship between him and his brother that they’re figuring out together. And really it’s not our place to decide if he should have gotten his way with his brother or not. That’s really up to them. Nobody’s getting hurt here. It’s okay.

Again, the judgments will distance us, make us less likely to figure out what’s going on with him and also make it really hard for us to respond in an accepting way.

And there are times when children do hyperbolize their feelings. I’m guilty of this myself, “Oh, this, it feels like the end of the world!” Or, “It’s the worst day ever!” And children are even more likely to do this. It’s really okay.

So this parent says, “I have no doubt he’s angry and frustrated, but the tears and sadness are what’s false.”

It could also be that this parent, like all of us, has an easier time responding to the hurt feelings and the sadness, than the anger. She includes anger as one of the emotions that they consider valid in their family and that they’re working on giving their children that message. And they talk about the most appropriate ways to express them. But the thing is, that part children can’t be rushed to. The way they learn the appropriate ways to express the feelings is actually through our modeling, and the way that we interact with them and handle our own feelings and handle our feelings with them, especially.

So maybe there was some talk or he got some message, he got an inkling that: Well, you can be angry, but you can’t yell at us. Or, you can be angry, and we want you to just say “I’m angry” and not actually express that feeling of being angry. Children this age have a really hard time with that. When they’re angry, it’s coming out of their pores. They can’t just talk about it and express it that way. Very, very tough.

So it’s possible that this boy got the message that the hurt and sadness will engender his parents’ empathy. So I’m going into that mode when I’m angry. I mean, that makes sense. A lot of us feel like that. It’s much easier when someone’s not angry with us. It’s much easier when we see that they’re hurt and they’re sad. It’s much easier to have compassion and empathy and accept their feelings in those states. It’s the biggest challenge for all of us to accept anger with our loved ones.

So it makes sense that he’s defaulting to expressing it these other ways. But again, we don’t have to try to figure it out. We don’t have to judge it, just let them all come.

So let’s look at this. She says: “…everything from someone else turning off the TV, with appropriate heads up.”

“Aaah! The TV, you turned off the TV,” and he’s having this huge melt down.

“Whoa. You really didn’t want us to turn off the TV.” But we’re not going to turn it on for him. We’re going to keep going. We’re not going to stop and sit there and wait for him to feel better about the TV. We are going to keep doing whatever we’re doing. Just fully accepting that feeling. It doesn’t take time. It just takes, I guess, this sort of holding ourselves together, holding our own, perceiving all the feelings as healthy and normal. Not getting into judging them. And not feeling threatened or responsible for any of them or that we have to get our child through them somehow and make it better. Exhaling. Just letting the feelings flow.

Not just saying words about it like, “You’re angry about the TV.” But, “Oh gosh, that really brought the tears.”

Also knowing that the feelings are seeping out of him. Again, they may be related to a lot of other thing, as his parent is aware. And so they’re just seeping out in all these ridiculous small situations that aren’t in themselves bothering him. But those are causing little cracks and then tears are seeping out. That’s how I would imagine this. But all you have to say is, “The TV. You don’t like when we turn that off. That’s so sad for you, my love.”

Keep going. If he wants to come over and say it in your face, you can nod, and “yeah, yeah. I’m hearing you.” But you’re not getting sucked in.

So to his younger brother wanting a toy or taking a turn… Yeah, everything’s overwhelming, it sounds like. He sounds overwhelmed. And the false sobbing, he’s going into this dramatic place, but I would really, really trust it and just allow it. Honestly, you will see him pass through this much more quickly if you trust these feelings in all their forms. From the most minor to the strongest, they’re all good.

She says, “I have no doubt and he’s angry and frustrated, but the tears and sadness are false. He tells us ‘that really hurt my feelings.'” So yeah, I wouldn’t question that. I wouldn’t push back on it.

“That really hurts your feelings, when we turn the TV off. That made you sad.”  It’s safe for us to let all those feelings be, and acknowledge them just as they are.

He doesn’t want to brush his teeth. “Oh gosh, you can’t brush your teeth you’re so sad. It feels so hard. Here, I’m going to help you,” or “just do a little bit tonight.” I wouldn’t make a big deal about something that he has to do like that — those things that we can’t force a child to do, like brush their teeth. I would look at the bigger picture in terms of let’s do this a little earlier in the day or when he’s not tired, to set him up for success.

She says, “These last two expressions are usually yelled at us rather than describing his state.” Yeah. So it could be angry. And he’s saying, he’s sad. Just agree with his right to say it the way he says it.

“When he’s in this higher emotional state, he doesn’t want to be touched or hugged.” Yeah. So I think there is anger. I think he just wants his feelings to stand as they are for that moment that he expresses them, and not have them hugged away, or calmed down, or worked through by someone else. Just let all the feelings stand, let them all be.

And again, this is so much easier for us if we can get into this mode and trust it and believe in ourselves. That’s what welcoming all emotions really looks like. However they come, whatever costume they’re in, we’re allowing them, as long as they not physically hurting somebody.  Then we stop that part, but we still try to welcome the emotion of wanting to hit, of wanting to hurt, while we clearly say no to that, we clearly stop that from happening.

“He will listen to what we have to say only if he thinks he will get his way.” Yeah. So I wouldn’t say anything about it. I wouldn’t talk about the feelings. I wouldn’t make a whole situation around them. I would just, again, acknowledge, have the attitude of welcoming them all, and letting them be.

And that is the way to get what this parent wants. Well, it’ll make her life a lot easier and a lot more comfortable, which is what I want to help her do. And again, she’s doing laudable work. And this is the next step, normalizing it.

She says, “What is the best way to approach this so that he doesn’t default to a mock emotion?” So the best way to approach it is to let him have all the mock emotions or whatever kind of emotions he wants to have. And understand they will not hurt us. They are not ours to fix or to do any work around. We hold our boundaries, whatever they are. And we allow them. It’s that simple.

And then children will feel like their feelings are valid, because we’re not differentiating, telling them: Well, these ones are valid and these aren’t.  Or, These are valid if they’re in the right package, but these aren’t. We’re just…  all feelings allowed, all feelings valid. There’s a reason that you feel that way right now and that it’s coming out this way. It’s really okay.

It won’t drain you, if you just stand tall and know that your little sweetheart is going through a rough time, and he’s all over the place. But he will be all right. Just be that safe person that allows.

And I just want to add that there will be some feelings that children share that you sense do need more of your attention and you will want to stop for. And most parents are able to sense when that needs to happens. For instance, the same uncomfortable reaction keeps coming up in a certain situation, at a certain lesson your child takes or school or with a certain friend, you see that there’s all these residual feelings every time. That might be something where you’d want to address and talk about, “I wonder what’s going on there. It seems really hard for you when that person’s here, and it’s upsetting to you.” So that kind of work.

Or something that comes out of the blue where we weren’t able to see our child’s perspective, and suddenly we realize that they saw something differently and it really did hurt their feelings. There will be those.

So I’m not saying everything is just to let pass by. But the majority of these are. So that would be my default, to let them pass by. And then again, I think you will get a clear sense of when you need to stop and really be present and hear the feelings.

I also want to quickly share something because it is on topic for what I’m recommending to this parent. A couple of you had suggested that you would love to hear follow-ups to some of these podcasts where I answer parents’ questions. You would love to hear how it’s going with them, how my response maybe helped or didn’t. And I’m not hearing from the people who it didn’t help, so that could be a lot of people, I don’t know. But I did get a note here from the mom who wrote to me about her son constantly saying no to everything. And here’s what she said:

“Well, as you probably knew, things are much better. The biggest thing that has stuck with us is not trying to convince him that whatever he is saying no to is really awesome, but just being okay with no. For example, this morning before school, we had a big, “No!” Before you, I would have told him: “It will be so fun. Campbell will be there. I’ll bring you a treat at pickup.” Today, I just said, “Ugh, yeah, Mondays are hard.” And helped him put on his shoes. The ‘no’ ended, and we moved on.”

So yes, this parent was, in a way, trying to work through each no, trying to fix it, trying to get her child to the other side of it, rather than just letting those no’s be, fully accepting, agreeing with his right to feel no about it. It makes it so much easier.

So I really hope some of these thoughts will help this family as well.

Also, please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon: No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in e-book at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or Barnes & Noble and in audio at audible.com. You can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.

Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. yes, and. It is important to ask yourself “whose problem is this?” I remember a child running on the playground while his parents were talking. The child fell. Before the tears came he looked at his parents and fifteen seconds later began to cry when he say the look on his parents faces. The is a pretty good chance that if they hadn’t even noticed, he would have just gotten up and gotten back to what he was doing.
    The empathy and concerned look on their faces was (I think, but I don’t know for sure) the cause of his crying. They both stopped their conversation and came over to him and “took care of him” even though there was no blood or broken bones.

  2. Carrie Carbo says:

    I can see how stopping progress and talking about the child’s negative emotions can communicate to them that negative emotions are a bigger deal than positive emotions – but I am struggling with how to approach being “present” and “accepting” of big negative emotions while still moving forward. Hearing “you were mad I turned off the TV” and promptly walking away into the kitchen (or whatever the next thing was) rather than stopping to talk about it feels really invalidating. If someone did that to me I’d feel really offended. Could you extrapolate on that?

  3. Glad to read this one today as I’m struggling with the same drama with my three year old. I’m pregnant and not sleeping well so some days feels overly tired and not really able to cope with him. Sometimes I am able to get my husband to take over for a while whilst I recover some energy but on the days I can’t I find myself hating the way I’m responding to him, as if I’m fed up with him. I think, like the mum in the story, I feel i have to say or do the right thing when he reacts and be present with him until he is ok and if I did that we would be here all day!!! So I really like the billboard metaphor. I also find that my reaction is tied up with my anxiety about him barely wanting to eat anything I make. He will have a whole meal with veggies about three times a month, otherwise he is happy on a diet of bread, cream cheese, fruit, yoghurt and cereals…and of course anything sweet that happens to be on offer. He has such a lot to process at the moment, starting preschool and expecting a new baby soon. It just also happens that I am also processing these things too!! And my ability to cope is really challenged by all this and being tired. Anyone with advice or the same experience please do share, thank you x

    1. As long as he is getting enough nutrients over a two week period, he will be okay. Also, are there a few specific fruits and veggies he likes? Go with them. My daughter was willing to eat yams and broccoli, so that’s what w are regularly. She would also like at carrots as long as there was ranch dressing. Sure, that worked for me. We found a few healthy foods and as she tried new foods we could add more to the list. He will be okay. Don’t let food stress you out. You’ve got this mama!

  4. Elise Parker says:

    You’re so undeniably WRONG. Not all emotions are valid because some are extremely destructive, hatred-rage (so much emotion that you “have” to physically react), like turning the tv off is not only wildly inappropriate it’s concerning. Emotion is important but not at the expense of everything and everyone around you, and why kids don’t have this reaction as they grow is because their parents, parent; they educate their kid that tantruming over everything won’t make anything better. As well as later in reality when you do that in public or in your house to a spouse, friends, family, their future kids; police come, legal actions are taken, there’s no place for that in the world around us. You’re teaching them that all that they feel is good and right, even encourage it. It is hurtful to them and it robs them of the tools they need for their future in adulthood. “One size fits all” then there’s no difference between their friend passing or a booboo on their toe and that is lazy and disrespectful to them as young people trying to navigate the new world and people around them.

    1. But they ARE educated their kid that tantruming over everything won’t make anything better. She says to acknowledge the emotion then hold to your boundaries. Do not turn the tv back on.
      The main alternative that I see is the parents responding very frustrated, even yelling. “Stop crying. Why are you crying? It’s just TV!” Who is that helping? Parents constantly invalidate their kids’/teens’ feelings because we value different things, and our brains are different. Who is that helping?
      Meet children where they are. Acknowledge their feeling. Hold to your boundaries.

    2. I agree. I had a brother who “parented” this way and now has a college aged child who expects everyone to “acknowledge “ her feelings. Understanding why a child is mad is one thing, accepting it is another. Teach your child how to properly express their emotions so their life is not more difficult than it needs to be. There is nothing wrong with saying to your child “Why are you acting that way. It’s just a TV”. Let them know there are boundaries and they crossed them. Give them something to process and grow from. This is why we have kids wanting litter boxes in schools. Parents didn’t take the time to parent and guide their child through their attention seeking behaviors.

  5. Janet, what if the child is almost 10? Yes, my child has had some trauma, and I have done/ am always doing my best to support them through this. They have come a long way, I am proud of them and let them know. I am always praising the good, and helping them work through the rest. But there are some behaviours that shock me, because they seem like things they should have grown out of/ learned how to manage better. Such as deliberately upsetting younger siblings, throwing wobblies over minor upsets, pushing endlessly at bedtime, refusing medical assistance (we haven’t had a large history of medical care, nor a bad experience, so…). It’s very frustrating. They are my eldest, so I don’t have any experience that might inform me how normal or abnormal this is. I use methods like yours as much as possible. Like I said, we’ve made a huge amount of progress, but given the child has a Narcissistic ex parent I feel triggered by some of these behaviours. Yes, I recognize why I am triggered, and am pretty good at managing my emotions most of the time. At least I hope I’m modeling how to be human in the healthiest way possible. But I have to ask, is this normal? What can I do better? How else can I support them? I am not specifying gender to protect the identity of my child.

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