Is Your Child “Cheeky” or “Manipulative”?

Learn what to say to build empathy, kindness and confidence

Image Credit: Unsplash, Mi Pham

Many of the words that were considered acceptable for describing kids’ behaviour in the 1970s and ’80s are now recognized as judgmental or damaging to self-esteem. They teach our kids to be hard on themselves and cause anxiety rather than confidence.

For instance, I heard a parent recently mention that her child was cheeky, or “sassing back”. The parent was annoyed with her child, and I could definitely relate. Who hasn’t sometimes run out of patience with a child who isn’t cooperating, and is telling us in no uncertain terms that they’re not going to?

However, if we want to raise empathetic kids who remain open-hearted, we need to be mindful of choosing respectful and empathetic words to talk with our kids about their behaviour. We’re transitioning from an authoritarian parenting paradigm to connected parenting, and we need language that communicates clearly without judging or shaming.

It’s not your fault

Many of our beliefs that influence our parenting were formed when we were growing up. We have beliefs and “scripts” from our parents lodged securely in our subconscious, and they appear automatically, especially when our kids do something that triggers us. Those are the moments where you realized, perhaps to your surprise, that “I sound just like my Mom (or Dad)!” We learn language and habits through being immersed in them.

It takes a conscious effort to find new language that still accomplishes teaching our kids how to speak kindly, but also treats them with respect and empathy. After all, their behaviour is mostly learned from our example of how we treat them.

Get clear on their intention

Using gentle, loving language with our kids helps them learn to love and respect themselves and others. We can cultivate our kids’ self-esteem and confidence and nurture a new generation of gentler, empathetic humans, by eliminating the language of authoritarian parenting.

For me, the most helpful strategy for doing this has been to try to understand what their intention or experience is in that moment — in other words, the reason for their behaviour. It helps to pause and reflect first. Once you have clarity, you can use the opportunity to teach your child through connected parenting strategies.

How to use the Connected Parenting approach when your child is being cheeky, manipulative, or disrespectful

Sassy or cheeky

Your child is “talking back” to you or commenting in a derogatory or unkind tone.

Reasons: Sometimes kids talk back to adults because they’re trying to speak up for themselves, especially if they’re feeling powerless or treated unfairly. Or it could be that they feel they “know” something, and they want to be “the one who knows” for a change, sharing their knowledge with you, as opposed to the other way around.

Insights: Kids are mostly told what to do, and rarely get to be in the position of telling others. (And if we do a lot of telling, they’re also just copying us 😊). Also, around age 7 or 8 they enter a stage of wanting to try out being a leader. Sometimes their behaviour can appear bossy.

Connected parenting approach

Your child: “You don’t do it that way!” (in a belittling tone of voice, perhaps rolling their eyes)

Your response (in a neutral tone of voice): “It sounds like you want to share some information. Can you please use your kind voice and show (or tell) us how to do it?” And if needed, you can role model the tone, “this is what a kind voice sounds like”, and smile.


Your child is trying to get what they want and their methods are dishonest or seem underhanded.

Reason: Sometimes kids are really definite and determined in knowing what they want and if they think we’ll say “no”, they begin to find roundabout ways of getting what they want.

Insights: We want our kids to be clear about what they desire. Knowing what you want can be a sign of being connected to your inner knowing. It’s vital for living a heart-centered life. However, learning to pursue your desires with integrity, honesty, and consideration of others is a skill that needs to be taught.

Connected parenting approach

Speak directly to them about what they want with curiosity and acceptance. Make sure you don’t shame your child for their desires or for knowing what they want, even if it seems unrealistic to you. And then, if they want something they can’t have, you can gently explain the reason. Alternatively, if they want something they may be able to have with some effort or a longer-term plan, teach them what they can say or do to pursue that goal with integrity.


Your child has yelled at you or someone else, possibly expressing anger or hate.

Reason: Usually they’re angry or frustrated.

Insights: When we’re angry, irritated or frustrated, the fight/flight response is activated in our reptilian brain, and we’re more likely to be aggressive in our responses. On top of that, when you’re frustrated or angry, there are parts of your brain (especially the cognitive, rational, thinking parts) that aren’t online or functioning in that moment. They may be doing their best, but they’re not capable of doing better until they’re calm again. They’ll need your help (and your calm approach) to calm themselves.

Connected parenting approach

Name their emotion and do your best to make sure your tone of voice is neutral, not shaming or shutting them down. For example, “You’re frustrated (or angry, or annoyed–use the word that fits best), I hear you.” Be curious and empathetic to their emotions and experience. Provide the support they need to calm down. They may become calmer simply through your presence and empathy, or they may want some time alone. Once they’re calmer, you can help them learn what to say and do in the future.

Tips for Success

First, the key is to try to stay calm without reacting yourself. Avoid judging their behaviour based on the words they choose, their tone of voice or delivery. You want to convey acceptance of their behaviour, and explore what’s underneath. This is an opportunity to connect and teach them.

Secondly, it’s always important to ask ourselves if our child has learned the behaviour that we’re observing from us! Sometimes they’ve learned it from another adult or at school, but most often we can trace their behaviour back to our example, and it’s an opportunity for us to level up our self-awareness and behaviour.

Final Thoughts

The process of trying to find respectful words to use when speaking about our kids’ behaviour often reveals to us one of their gifts or strengths. When we make the effort to figure out our kids’ intentions and needs, we’ll realize suddenly that we now understand their perspective, and that’s how we “see and hear them” more deeply.

And when our child feels seen and heard– that builds confidence and self–esteem. They feel loved unconditionally.

I hope this article has inspired you to begin noticing the language you use with your kids, and to explore new ways of talking with them about their behaviour that are aligned with your goal of connecting, empathy, and staying open-hearted.



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Colleen Adrian

Colleen Adrian

Coach for parents of sensitive kids - build a strong connected relationship and leave behind authoritarian methods that break your bond.