What To Do When Your Child is Controlling the Dinner Table

My 6-year old daughter is controlling the family dinner table. What can I do?

MOLLY: The reader elaborated that instead of eating dinner, her daughter is constantly getting up from the table to play around and then announcing she’s hungry after the table has been cleared. She has two kids and right now and it seems like a lot of attention is given to the younger child because he’s a toddler and requires a lot of her energy just by the nature of his age.

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): It sounds like the older child is probably working to keep the attention on herself. We’ve often seen that sibling rivalry issues can manifest as all kinds of different control issues in a child. By slowing down the eating process and making everyone else wait for her to eat, the child keeps the attention focused on herself rather than her brother.

When it comes to children acting out, it’s really important to understand where it might be coming from.

I seem to remember that you had a similar issue with your daughter a while ago, and when you got to the bottom of it a lot of her feelings were coming from jealousy of her baby brother. Especially as he grew into his twos and he became so much more of his own person.

MOLLY: I think I remember that you suggested coming right out and asking her if something was the matter or if she was upset about something.

MOM: Yes. As a parent, you have to wonder, well, maybe it could be this or maybe it could be that, and then you should ask the kid directly. Often a child will say why they are behaving in a certain way if you ask the right questions.

MOLLY: I did ask her and she said she was upset that her brother was getting all the attention and that I was sitting next to him and not her at the dinner table.

MOM: That told you quite directly that she was acting out as a way to secure the parental attention. If this is what’s happening, then the parent can talk to her about other ways of successfully getting attention. Her mom might bring up that her little brother goes to bed earlier than she does and that’s when she gets to have her own time with her parents. That’s one of the perks of being the older child. You want to point out to her the perks of being an older sibling so she doesn’t focus on feeling deprived when mom cares for the needier younger child.

MOLLY: How do you suggest we talk to kids about it? With my daughter, I told her that she can’t stall at the dinner table where everyone else has finished and must still wait for her to finish her meal.

MOM: If the behavior persists even after talking about it and trying some different interventions, I would get a kitchen timer and set parameters. You might say: “Okay, our family generally takes 25 minutes to eat dinner. I’m going to set the timer for that and when the timer goes off and we’re all finished and dinner is over. You are welcome to continue eating by yourself after that, but the rest of us will be excused and clear our plates.

MOLLY: And, we’re not going to reheat your food.

MOM: Sure. Dinner will be considered officially over. If she wants or needs to remain at the table, then she may stay at the table to finish eating. But nobody else will be there with her. This will mean that she doesn’t get the secondary gain of having her family wait for her leisure… which is actually the primary gain, now that I put it that way.

MOLLY: I think the key thing for us was asking if something was the matter.

MOM: Right. But, even after discussing it, or if she can’t tell you the reason or didn’t want to tell you, I would still go ahead and set the timer because you don’t want her controlling the family like that. It’s a bad pattern for a child to get into. It can have lots of long-term consequences. As an adult, she won’t even realize when her controlling behavior started because it will be so ingrained.

The other bad part of that pattern if it is allowed to continue is that she’ll sense the resentment and anger from her parents for putting them through this. So the parent needs to take control over here. You can’t make her shovel her food in faster, but you can set a timer so dinner ends at a reasonable hour.

MOLLY: What would you see as an adult if you don’t put a stop to this type of behavior?

MOM: A controlling child will grow into a controlling adult. As it turns out, most people do not like to be manipulated in this way. Controlling adults inspire a lot of resentment from family members, co-workers, friends, and significant others, and as a result, sour a lot of relationships.

Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success helping your kids become less controlling. Or Contact US if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.

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