How To Stop My Child From Being So Bossy

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My 10-year old son is an only child and very bossy. What can I do?

DR. RUTHERFORD: It’s not uncommon to see only children or first-born children be bossy towards other children. Perhaps this is because the parents expect more from the child and often treat him as if he were older than he actually is.

MOLLY: This was submitted from a parent in Salt Lake City, Utah. She also mentioned that her son likes to “tell everyone what to do and how to do it!”

What happens is that he’s unsuccessful at getting people to do what he wants and then he gets frustrated and angry. She also said that he doesn’t have any good friends even though he is very social and fun-loving and she’s wondering if, since he’s an only child and they’ve allowed him to “rule the roost,” if they’ve “accidentally turned him into a monster.”

DR. RUTHERFORD: I think the mother is on to something when she says that she lets him rule the roost at home. When that happens with kids, and it does seem to happen more frequently with only children or oldest children, the parents and the child have to sit down and have a very serious conversation. The parents have to own their own mistake that they’ve let him think that he is in control over their family life. They’ll need to tell that child that they’ve done him a disservice in letting him think that he does rule the roost, and that things need to change at home.

There are two ideas to share with this child: how to be more aware of his own behavior and how to recognize where it comes from.

One approach is to ask him if he notices that other kids have not been playing with him and follow it up with asking him why he thinks this is so.

Here is where we want to engage a child’s observing ego and his sense of self by asking him what he observes. He may respond with something like, “Well I tell the other kids what to do because they’re not doing it right,” or something like that.

Then his parents have to help him to see that most, if not all, people do not like to be told what to do. And, if they are always told what to do, they’ll stay away from the person bossing them around.

He needs to understand that only other children’s parents can tell them what to do, not him. His parents should realize that this is going to be a hard change for him because he’s gotten used to this pattern. Ask him, “How well is telling people what to do working for you? Do other people like it? Does it make them want to be your friend?”

This will need to be an ongoing conversation because he’s been doing it a long time. One conversation is not going to make the change.

It will be important not to yell at him or tell him what he should or shouldn’t do, but rather to speak calmly with him and engage his observing ego.

His parents should remember that this is going to be a long, ongoing process and he will need gentle reminders throughout that he’s not the boss of others.

MOLLY: Is there any way to do any positive reinforcement?

DR. RUTHERFORD: In this case, with a child who is likely doing most of this behavior at school and out of sight of his parents, and who is a little old for a sticker incentive chart, the rewards would come in the form of more friendly interactions with his peers.

While his parents can point out what he’s doing wrong with being so bossy, they then need to help him think of ways of how the interaction could have worked better.

This mom should try to be a role model for her son, and she may want to do some roleplaying with him to specifically show a better way to interact with others than by bossing them around.

It’s a long process, but at ten years old a child’s behavior is still malleable. If they wait until he’s twelve or thirteen, the chances of easing into a behavior change are much slimmer.

For everyone, the older we get, the harder it is to change our behavioral patterns. Of course, change is possible at any age, but it takes more effort as we get older.

How Should I Handle My Child’s Violent Outbursts Toward Her Parents?

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My six-year old daughter behaves violently toward us when she is at home with family but not when she is outside of our home among strangers.

MOLLY: This came from a reader based in Cairo, Egypt. She added that at home, her daughter behaves aggressively and violently. At times she will “hit me or her father.” But “when she’s with strangers outside the home, she behaves like a little princess.”

DR. SUSAN RUTHERFORD (Molly’s Mom):  This is an interesting situation that is not as uncommon as we might think. We generally say in psychology that if the child behaves outside the home better than she does inside the home it isn’t quite as serious of problem as a child who behaves poorly both inside the home and outside the home.

So perhaps that’s a positive sign, but I think the parents should look at what’s going on in the home that allows the child to be so aggressive and violent. I don’t feel like I know enough about what’s going on in the home to address that.

MOLLY: The Mom also stated that she hasn’t “deprived her daughter of anything, she has the best clothes…” Maybe what the Mom needs to do is have a conversation with the daughter?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, I think she should have some conversations with her daughter, several of them because this has been happening for a long time. I don’t think the issue is that she’s deprived of things. There’s some other kind of issue going on. So the Mom and Dad probably also have to think carefully about what’s happening at home.

MOLLY: What exactly would they say to the child when they sit down with her?

DR. RUTHERFORD:  When they sit down with her to talk about this, they should start with, “You know, we notice that you act very differently toward us when you’re outside of our home with other people than when you’re inside of our home just with us. What do you think that’s about?”

She’s six years old; she might be able to tell them. If she can’t, they should bring up some suggestions and see how she responds to them.

MOLLY: What kinds of suggestions? How would you even guess?

DR. RUTHERFORD: They might ask a question like, “Are you mad at mommy and daddy?” or  “What is it that makes you so angry with us at home?”

MOLLY: And start the conversation there.

DR. RUTHERFORD: Right, she may be so used to being indulged materially that she might feel like she should have full reign in the household. It’s hard for us to know because we don’t have enough information.

Regardless of what she gives as reasons for her behavior, it’s obvious that her behavior toward her parents is unacceptable and something has to change. She’s only six, so now is a good time to put a stop to unacceptable behavior by using rewards and consequences to show her what type of behavior is expected.

By six, she is old enough to work toward a goal, like, say, she gets a sticker every day that she does not have a violent outburst and once she gets seven stickers she can redeem them for a trip to the bookstore for a new book. I’m always a big fan of sticker charts to help children adjust behaviors.

As for consequences, she should be physically removed from the group during a violent outburst and put in a time out for 10 minutes or longer if she is still worked up and out of control after that time. She needs to learn that if she feels like she is going out of control, she needs to remove herself from other people until she calms down.

Is My Child Manipulating Me?

I feel like my child pushes the boundaries to get what he wants. Am I being manipulated?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): That is an interesting question, and I don’t have a definitive answer, but even very young children can see the power they can have over their parents. It’s mostly an issue of patterns.

For instance, if a two-year old is crying at night and his parents always pick him up and hold him when he does this, he will actually train himself to wake up to get the comfort. You could call that manipulative behavior, and maybe it is, but I confess that I’m on the fence about using that term here.

Children can learn how to get certain responses from their parents from a very young age. Typically not before 15 months, but some kids can understand this dynamic really quickly, and the parents can tell. They may feel manipulated and resent their child. In this case, they must intervene to change the dynamic. Let’s remember who’s the parent and who’s the child. As a parent, you have to set the tone for the child, and when they attempt to manipulate you, you have to be firm –loving but firm– that it is not going to work.

Supposing you have an older child. You might want to set up some limits around how often they can be on the computer. Then he or she will test you (and they will always test you) by trying to expand beyond the boundaries you have set. You should expect this. You’ll have to intervene right away and say, “Remember how we talked about this: you get to play on your computer for one-half hour a day and now you’re moving into 45 minutes. That’s not okay, and you need to put the computer away. If you can’t follow the rules, you’ll lose your time on the computer tomorrow.”

Kids will test you, and may test to see if they can manipulate you with tears or tantrums, and a parent should be ready to face these behaviors with resolve.

MOLLY: Are there any long-term consequences for not dealing with this type of manipulative behavior early on?

MOM: Yes there can be, especially if the pattern sets in and the child learns that the way to get what he wants is to manipulate the parents. Children can actually be quite good at this. That behavior will go on and on at home, and it will expand to include other people like classmates and teachers, or other people that he comes in contact with, like coaches.  Nobody likes to feel manipulated and usually people do experience a sense of being manipulated when it happens. What happens if this is left unaddressed in children is they end up forming a kind of character flaw or a negative character aspect that follows them into adulthood and really lasts forever. It’s much more difficult to change your character as an adult.

MOLLY: What might you see in the workplace?

MOM: You could see all kinds of behaviors in adults who were manipulative children, especially if a person wants to get out of doing a job. He or she might manipulate their boss or with co-workers, sometimes without fully realizing what is happening.

Manipulation can take many forms. Often, people will use shame as the tool to get what they want. They will shame other people to get them to do what they want. The other person knows something’s wrong when this happens, but they often don’t see the complete picture of what it is that is happening.

MOLLY: What about in relationships, like in marriages or partnerships?

MOM: That’s when you really see this type of character flaw show up, often on a daily basis. A manipulative person might twist things around to make her partner feel as if something is not the manipulator’s fault, and is, in fact, the partner’s fault. It makes the partner very angry and confused. This type of manipulation is often subtle, making it uncomfortably difficult to be in a relationship with someone who behaves this way.

MOLLY: So the manipulation is there, but it’s not that obvious.

MOM: Right. In children, manipulative behavior is usually pretty obvious, but as the child “perfects the art of manipulation,” they can become much more subtle, leaving people feeling uncomfortable but not quite able to put their finger on what it is that’s making them feel this way.

MOLLY: If you don’t deal with this type of behavior in childhood, what happens? At what age is it too late to influence character development in a child?

MOM: A lot of psychologists might feel that ten- to twelve-years old is getting pretty late in the game to deal with character traits like this one. I don’t know exactly the cut off age, but I do know that it gets harder and harder to manage as people move into adulthood. Certainly by the time people are in their twenties, I think it’s too late to change something like this.

This interview was originally published on Psych Central.

Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success dealing with your child’s manipulative behavior or Contact US if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.