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Controlling Behavior in Children

January 30, 2011 | By | 27 Replies More
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Controlling Behavior in ChildrenIn our last article, we addressed attention-seeking as one of the possible four motivating factors behind your child’s misbehavior.  Hopefully, you are now equipped to spot and address any attention-addicts in your house.  This article will explore those children whose misbehavior is motivated by a desire for power and control.  Again, we would like to credit this typology to Don Dinkmeyer and Gary D. McKay in their book entitled, STEP Parenting (Systematic Training for Effective Parenting).

What controlling behavior looks like. Children who struggle with power and control issues manifest this struggle in a variety of ways.  Here are just a few:

  • Ignoring a direct instruction or command
  • Completing tasks half-way
  • Using the “silent treatment”
  • Pushing a limit (for example: child is told to stop throwing the ball in the house, throws it one more time and then stops)
  • Refusing to eat what is placed before him
  • Lashing out with anger when reprimanded
  • Refusing to apologize

What controlling behavior feels like to you. Parents of these children tend to feel anger.  Sometimes the anger can become very intense as you secretly concoct ways to assert your control.  Children with power and control issues intimately know their parents’ hot buttons as well as how and when to push them.

What his behavior tells you. A child with power and control issues only feels worthwhile when he is dominating those around him.  He achieves this domination by getting adults to do what he wants or by only doing what he wants to do.  He is likely experiencing deep-seeded insecurities which are masked by these power plays.

How to correct controlling behavior. Attempting to dominate a controlling child may provide short-term results for parents.  You may be able to force him to do what you want.  However, if parents choose this path, they will be modeling an erroneous fact that their child already believed:  that power and control is my ultimate goal.   Instead, parents of these controlling children need to disengage from the power struggles.  Power struggles, by definition, require two parties to be fighting for control.  If one party disengages, the struggle ends.  Parents often fear that this means they will “lose” and their controlling child will “win.”  You can, however, disengage without admitting defeat.

In his book, Have a New Kid by Friday, Dr. Kevin Leman outlines a parenting plan that works well with these children:  say it once and walk away.  If your child disobeys, ignores or refuses your instruction, a matter of fact consequence will follow.  Let’s say a dad asks his son to clean up his room (with clear instructions regarding when and how) and then walks away.  If the son is controlling, he will either refuse to do it, do it half-way or simply say he didn’t hear you.  The next time this child makes a request (and there will be a next time), the dad, without looking up from his afternoon coffee, can say, “No.”  The son will then ask “why” to which the dad can simply say, “You did not clean your room as instructed.”  End of conversation.  The next question will be met with the same response until the room is clean.  No struggle for control; no reinforcement of his negative behavior.  The child will likely escalate as this is unchartered territory.  The parent will have to employ our next technique:  dispassionate parenting.

Dispassionate parenting is a fancy way of saying that you don’t let him push your buttons.  While this is much easier said than done, and will require a great deal of your own self-control, it can be done.  The two keys to being successful in this area are being prepared and having support.  First, identify the different triggers for your child’s control issues; write them down if you need to.  Then, be on the lookout for his triggers.  Expecting that “this time will be different” can undermine all of your preparedness.  Anticipating when things can “get ugly” will help mentally prepare you for the task ahead.  Employ your spouse or support person to give you pep talks before and praise and encouragement after a successful dispassionate parenting episode.

Finally, you will need to disarm. Once you know his triggers for power issues, you can better address them.  This does not mean you are being controlled by your child, you simply are avoiding adding fuel to the fire.  For example, if your child historically has power and control issues that emerge around bed time, change the order of his evening.  Have him brush his teeth, bathe and do all of his pre-bed rituals right after dinner but before a family game.  He will be motivated to move quickly through his routine and you will simply have only one transition to address come bedtime.

Controlling children require parents with great amounts of self-control.  As a result, these parents will need frequent opportunities to refresh and refuel.  If you happen to be a parent of a controlling child, it is important that you make it a priority to do so.

If you are looking for more tips on what you can do to control a controlling child, click here.

Next article: Revenge-Seeking Behavior in Children


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Category: Challenges and Solutions, Discipline, Featured Articles

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

About the Author

Laura Kuehn, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in children and families. She loves to partner with parents and to encourage them as they seek to build their families up with Christ as their cornerstone. She is happily married to a supportive husband and is mother to two delightfully inspiring children.

Comments (27)

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  1. erin dors says:

    thank you for your wise words. they were just what i needed today!

  2. Marie says:

    This was helpful, thank you so much. How do I/we problem-solve where our child needs to be with another child at school all the time? Lunchtime has become a nightmare for another child because ours must always sit by her. Although the girls have been friends since kindergarten, our families friends as well, our child has been unable to disconnect and give this child space – creating a real problem between the families. Just an FYI, this comment box does not allow you to go back and correct something or erase something, it only allows you to backspace :(

    • Marie,
      Thank you so much for stopping by. Finding out the underlying cause is always a good place to start. Does your daughter tend to take charge in a group? If so, this article might help. Or could she simply be missing some social cues? Some kids are later to develop this ability than others. She may not be able to tell that her friend needs some space. Helping your daughter see the situation through the eyes of her friend might help. I just wrote an article on empathy that addresses this very issue. Here are some additional ideas:
      1. You could try having a “mock cafeteria” at your kitchen table to help your daughter see different outcomes from various scenarios (ie: asking to sit instead of assuming, sitting at the same table, but not right next to her, etc.). Having her play the role of the friend would provide valuable insights.
      2. It might also be helpful to make a list together of “ways to keep friends”. Helping her brainstorm in this way might shed new light on the situation.
      3. To address the broader family issue, you could contact the parents and say that you realize this has become an issue and that you are working on it with her – it might help smooth the waters as you address it.

      I hope this helps!

      Blessings to you and yours,

      (And thanks also for the info on edits not working in the comment box. It was only happening in some browsers – I think it is fixed now :))

  3. Angie says:

    This is very interesting information. I run an at home daycare and I have one girl who is very controlling. She has decided that she is not going to eat sandwiches (no more than 2 days a week) for lunch anymore, but Subway is her favorite place to go for lunch. She will eat 3 or 4 helpings of hotdish (3-4 days a week) so I KNOW it’s not a hunger issue. The kids all know this is not a restaurant and they “get what they get and don’t throw a fit” The expectation is that as long as they eat their main meal and 1/2 of their veggies they get dessert (their fruit). What do you suggest I do when she refuses to eat her sandwich? She obviously doesn’t get her fruit but that seems to mean nothing to her and I hate wasting the food when I know it’s this control thing with her (she’s even said so). What will happen if I save it for lunch the next day? Thoughts and suggestions please!!! EVERY other kiddo here will follow the rules and try things even when it’s not his or her favorite. I am asking nothing different for this particular girl.

    • Hi Angie – I think the first step is to talk to the parents and get their feedback. Does she do this at home? What do they do about it? Does it work? Next you can think of how you can address it that doesn’t add to the power struggle. Do the kids get any say in the type of sandwiches that are served each week? Can you incorporate some elements of choice? Can you ask her before you make the sandwich if she plans on eating it? Can she opt for a half of a sandwich? A quarter? Just bread? If real fruit is the dessert (not a fruit roll up or syrupy fruit cup) – attaching it to what is eaten just adds to the power struggles. Anyone who shows up to the table can have it. You may want to check out this great site that helps many parents and caretakers deal with food issues in kids. This article is on fruit as dessert in particular. I hope this helps get you headed in the right direction!

      God bless,

      • Angie says:

        Thanks for responding….that is awesome. I do let them make choices regarding type of sandwich or bread type if there are options…nothing seems to be effective. Do you have any additional resources for dealing with control seeking children in daycare or classroom settings? Thanks so much!

        • It sounds like you are providing lots of choice, staying out of power struggles and being flexible when appropriate. I would suggest talking with her parents on a daily basis regarding this issue and how you plan to handle it. Maybe you could ask them permission to send the un-eaten sandwich home for dinner (if she choses to have one but then doesn’t eat it, for example). Just remember, the less you care about the sandwich, the more she will. Making sure her parents are on board and informed is key. Here is a great site with helpful tips on how child care providers and parents can create an effective partnership for discipline. Keep up the good work!


  4. latasha says:

    My son is controlling, and he has to have his way. At school he refuses to do his work when asked by his teachers to do so. They have even provided accommodations to help him in his areas of need. The more the school helps out the more he rejects the help. He has got to the point he does not even attempt to do the work. He stated that he gets tired of the teacher coming around asking him for help all the time. At the same time he is not even completing the work. I tried to explain to him that if he produces work the teacher would not attempt to check on him all the time. I am exhausted trying manage his behavior. I am a single mother of two children and my youngest son has taken most of my time and patience, running back and forth to the schools and dealing with the politics of Special Education. He is the sweetest boy at times, and I know that he is capable of doing the work. HELP….

    • Hi Latasha – I don’t doubt that the school has the best intentions for your son, but, for whatever reason, it seems like eveyone is “stuck.” The only way to get un-stuck is to make a change. May I suggest you look into getting an outside educational consultant for your son? This website has a directory (listed by state) of the organizations that can partner with parents to help their children who are recieving special education services. It sounds like both you and your son could benefit from the support of an advocate. An objective set of eyes can often provide a solution to a problem that no one else saw. In the meantime, here is a collection of helpful articles (specifically this one) on the topic of discipline within the school setting and positive solutions.

      Best wishes,

  5. angie says:

    My daughter is almost 4 years old and has a controlling issue. At daycare she has one very good friend and has become controlling of her. She gets upset with other children for attempting to play with them. She also takes toys from them because she feels as if they are the only ones who can play with them. She tries to be controlling at home but i quickly stop her and she becomes upset. Any suggestions on how to explain this to her. She is very intelligent and understands right from wrong, however she will purposely not listen at times.

    • Hi Angie – I think the best way to address this with her is with a “crash course” in sharing. First, you can get some books from the library (here’s a site with a large list of titles on the topic) and read them together – a few a day. Second, focus on what you want to see more of. Together you can decorate a glass jar or plastic cup. Call it her “sharing jar.” Every time you see her acting in a sharing or submissive way with others, add a popsicle stick to the jar (or some other token). See if you can get the daycare on board with this. Keep track on how many she earns a day and encourage her to “beat her record” with each subsequent day. At the end of a successful week/ or a mostly full jar, you can celebrate her sharing heart by holding a playdate with one or two friends – maybe at a favorite indoor play place or a park – where she can show off her new sharing skills. I hope this helps!

      Best wishes,

  6. Stacie says:

    I have a 4 year old daughter who is very intelligent and also very controlling. Every part of our day is a power struggles, and I know most of this is my fault as I should not or join in to a power struggle and be able to hold my own self control. I am working on it. But my daughters tantrums are OVER the TOP! Just today she said she had to go to the bathroom. I took her up the stairs and she threw the biggest tantrum threw her pants and underwear off in to the tub screamed at the top of her lungs that she was not going to pee. I told her to go in a bit louder of a voice than I like to use, but it is so difficult to do this on a day to day basis yelling from your 4 year olds mouth about everything. I just shut the bathroom door and walked away. She sat in there for 5 minutes and then sweetly called my name. I went up and she was fine. I told her that when she has to go to the bathroom to go its nothing to be mad about. As we got downstairs she stole a toy straight from her sisters hands so I put her in a time out in her room where she threw toys for the 4 minutes…geez! What are some things parents can do in these situations when they don’t have help from another parent to keep their cool. I try to model the calm behavior so she knows the appropriate way to act but she really pushes you to get mad…if she sees you are still calm and collected she pushes you for a reaction.

    • Hi Stacie – I understand your struggle. Controlling children can push us to our limits. I would suggest a “tantrum” chart. This chart or this one would work well for this situation (you can ignore the text at the bottom). Remove one privilege she enjoys every day (a toy, activity, show, etc). At three points during the day (lunch, dinner and bedtime) sit down with her and review her behavior. If she has been tantrum free for that time period, she gets a sticker for the chart. When the chart (tree or balloons) are full, she gets the privilege back for one day. Don’t take it away if she has a tantrum on that day – she has earned it. Start the chart all over again as needed.

      That’s the corrective part. You also need a training component. Try some book-based training. You can check out these resources (or your local library) for children’s books that teach children how to manage anger.

      I hope that helps! Thanks for stopping by,

  7. Carmel says:

    I have an almost 4yr old who tests my limits daily in his quest for control but I think we are handling it well, with the consequences and calmness (mostly!). My question is around dealing with him outside the home where his control is threatened e.g. getting an xray done and visiting the doctor, visiting friends. Despite discussing at length what is going to happen and getting him to describe to me what’s going to happen he still loses it in the most embarrassing and aggressive tantrum that takes an hour or more for him to come down from. I can’t give him the consequence of removing him as we NEED to get the appointment done. We’ve removed privileges after the fact but it makes no difference to the NEXT appointment/visit. Any suggestions? And will he get easier or grow out of it?

    • Hi Carmel – The situation you described can be very trying. Here are some suggestions: 1) Keep a diary. Try to find out if there is a common thread. 2) Look for warning signs. Even the most abrupt tantrum usually has some precursor that you can watch for (clentched jaw, tight fists, heavy breathing, etc.) 3) Diffuse with empathetic listening. Try to put words to what he is feeling – as he likely can’t do that himself just yet. 4) Read this article on dealing with temper tantrums for more ideas. 5) Build skills. You are right in saying that he will outgrow it. But in the meantime you can use these life opportunites to teach him skills and strategies that he can use in the future. Exploring feelings management with the tips from this article might be helpful as well.

      You may have to wade through a few more of these temper tantrums as you work through this process, but don’t give up. It will get better.

      God bless,

  8. Amy says:

    I know this article is dated, however, I just came across it through research. I have a controlling daughter who not only has to be in control of adults but also peers. She thinks everyone should complete tasks in the manner in which she feels is best and if it isn’t done the way she thinks it should be done she loses all control with yelling, demanding, and when control can still not be obtained it will then turn into uncontrollable crying and her thoughts/feelings turn to that of everyone is against her, no one ever wants to do what she wants to do..etc. Another example is, she is now almost 12, since the age of 2 she has had it in her head that green is her favorite color anything and everything has to be green. If one of her siblings gets a green cup or green article of clothing or anything green, she gets upset. Would these habits be part of a controlling behavior or could there be something else underlying? Also, I was wondering what tips could I give her siblings to help in managing the controlling behavior with my daughter as it also affects them ?
    Thank you for your time!

    • Hi Amy – Thanks for stopping by. Without knowing more about your daughter, it is hard to say for sure if there is anything “more” going on. The very fact that you ask it, however, makes me think that you must at least have some fleeting suspicions. While I am not a proponent of labels, you may want to do some searching on the relationship between controlling behavior and asperger’s syndrome (which, by the way, is no longer a diagnosis from a clinician’s perspective). What you are seeing could be ridgity rather than controlling behavior. Here is a highly informative article you can read and see if it fits your daughter. Here is one more. This article will provide the information and direction you will need if this description fits. I hope that helps.

      Best wishes,

  9. Den says:

    Hello Laura, I have a 7 yr old who is having trouble keeping friends at school. She likes to dictate what games are played and does not like to compromise, and then she doesn’t understand why she has no one to play with. When we have suggested ideas eg: To give their games a try, she has been resistant. She has a stubborn streak and my husband and I often have to ask her 5 times to go to her room etc. Academically she is great and she can make friends easily its just she cant keep those friends. Do you have any strategies that you could suggest? Do you think this is an indicator of an obsessive compulsive disorder?
    Thanks Den.

    • Hi Den – I don’t have enough information to give you feedback about OCD. If you are concerned about that, this article might help. This website provides a slightly different view of OCD in children – you may want to explore the links there.

      As far as the controlling behavior is concerned, you may find this article helpful. If you are a family of faith, I addressed this issue in a previous article that give specific tips on how to encourage an other-orientation in children.

      I hope that helps!


  10. Selina says:

    Hi Laura, my son has controlling behaviour. Having read your article, he fits everything you’ve said. Won’t obey commands until he wants to, pretends not to hear things when he obviously can. But the worst thing is that he withholds his poos. He recently went nearly a week without doing one. I have a good relationship with him generally. I make time for him and he knows he’s loved. I’ve tried being relaxed about it, tried medicine, charts. Any suggestions?

    • Hi Selina – You don’t say how old your son is, but the bowel troubles may be the result of a negative association between going to the bathroom and pain. You can read about encopresis diagnosis and treatment here. As you will read, after a certain point, the child no longer is voluntarily holding it in -they simply have lost the urge to go. I am sure that you have addressed this with your pediatrician, but if not, now would be the time to do so.

      If your pediatricain has eliminated all medical causes, you might be able to address the controling behavior with one simple, but significant change: choice. This article goes into detail on the importance of choice in child development. This article gives some helpful examples. When controlling children have choice, they feel less of a need to control others.

      I hope that helps!

  11. Myra says:

    Hi Laura, your article really hit home with me tonight. My daughter (10) has some OCD tendencies and definite control issues. She’s struggling to keep friends and has power struggles with her teachers and other adults. She had a traumatic experience/relationship with her father that has certainly contributed to her behaviors. It will be a lifelong healing process to say the least. This article really helped shine the light on her behavior and hopefully help us work through some of the immediate problems. If you have any further suggestions, I would appreciate it. Thank you.

    • Hi Myra,

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I am glad that you found some of the information here helpful. Often times, children who have been traumatized are controlling to counterbalance the lack of control the experienced because of the trauma. I am sure that you have gotten counseling for your daugther to work through some of these issues. She may not always need to see a counselor, but having that person there will be a great safety net. Trauma has a way of rearing it’s head at each developmental transition: puberty, adolescent separation, attending college, etc, so it can be very helpful to have support in place. This article in particular is a great resource. You can explore other articles from childtrauma.org here.

      I hope that helps. God bless you,

      • Myra says:

        Yes, she’s in counseling, that’s were she actually disclosed. Thank you for the resources. I’ll check them out :)

  12. Melanie carter says:

    Hello please please can you help me my son is 8 years old and very controlling with his best friend at school he won’t let him play with anyone else,talk to anyone else or sit next to anyone else.we have tryed talking to him and role play to explain that he can’t continue this.we are friends with the other Childs parents who are very understanding and very good but I don’t know what to do anymore .we went to a child party yesterday which ended in tears and stress .thank you melanie

    • Hi Melanie,

      I would start by having a meeting with his teacher. I am sure that this behavior is impacting the social dymanic of the class. Maybe the teacher has some suggestions. Then, think about if there are other children in his class or in the neighborhood that you could schedule play dates with. Are there any hobbies that he is interested that he could pursue without this child (little league, karate, etc)? I would also try to figure out what is fueling the behavior. Has he alienated other children? How does this controlling behavior “work” for him? (remember, all behavior exists because it is being reinforced some way – either behaviorally or cognitively). The role play is a good idea, but maybe a more matter-of-fact discussion with questions like: how is this behavior working for you? how is it not? what would happen if Johnny moved away? etc.

      I hope that helps. God bless,

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