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Controlling Behavior in Children

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Learn what’s motivating your child’s controlling behavior as well as effective ways to address it.

In 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-seated 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

 

About the author

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in children and families. CfP is the place she combines some of her very favorite things: writing, parenting and God's word. She loves encouraging parents to build their families upon Jesus, the one true Cornerstone. She is happily married to a wonderfully supportive husband and is the mother of two delightfully inspiring children.

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74 Comments

  • Hi Laura,
    Do you have any resources for teenagers and anger? I have been doing research this week on anger and control issues but everything I have found is foR younger children. I have a 16 year old family member who started acting out this year for reasons unknown. Every day he Comes home from school and slams doors, screams at the top of his lungs and occasionally breaks things. He is taller and stronger than both of his parents so they are unable to intervene as a safety precaution. If you try to talk to him whether he is having a tantrum or not he will start or it will become worse. He has lost his voice due to his screaming and stopped leaving his room claiming he wants to live by himself and no longer eats properly. Only candy or fast food which he buys. Parents have mostly healthy food. He has been seen by medical professionals who say he doesn’t have a problem if teachers say he’s a good student but we can’t live walking on eggshells and going deaf.

    • Hi Victory,

      After reading your comment, I would question if something has changed at school this year. Has he become a victim of bullying? Are there things going on at school that he then takes out on people at home? He may be doing fine academically, but that certainly isn’t the only metric for assessing functioning. And keep in mind that depression in children and teens doesn’t look the same as adults. It if often expressed as anger and irritability. This article might be helpful. I would suggest an assessment by a trusted counselor. You can find one in your area by searching this website. If yours is a family of faith, Focus on the Family offers a free complementary counseling consultation.

      I hope that helps.
      Laura

  • I can relate to many of the comments above. My 6 year old boy has always been extremely strong willed. Lately he’s turned to sabotaging activities when it’s something he decided he doesn’t want to do anymore or if we are somewhere he doesn’t want to be. For example, we all went biking with my younger son who’s 3. My younger son loves to ride his bike and we went on a path near our house. My 6 year old decided he was done after about 5 minutes and started yelling, crying that he wanted to go home. He also started blocking the way for my youngest. Everybody became miserable so we left. I feel like I caved into his wishes and my younger son didn’t get to ride his bike very long. I feel like my oldest is controlling our family. What do I do in a situation like this one? This is just one example and I’m at my wits end.

    • Hi Julie,
      Sorry for the late reply. My first question is, what did you do when you got home from the bike ride? There needs to be consequences for this type of behavior. If you went on your day as planned then he isn’t getting the message that this behavior is not acceptable. If you anticipate a difficult situation, you can sit down with him before the event and tell him what you expect: to listen to mom and dad, be kind and gentle to his sibling and to be a good family member. What is a good family member? Someone who does his part to make sure that every family member has fun and works together. With your example, maybe he doesn’t like bike riding but maybe he can find something to do along the way that he likes (such as looking for a certain model of car, or counting birds, etc). If he cannot do what is expected, there will be consequences when you return home. And if you have to return home early, the consequences will be greater. Consequences can include extra chores (to give him practice as a “good family member.”), staying home in his room -with a baby sitter- while you take your youngest bike riding another time, or missing out on a family activity (ie, trip to the ice cream shop).

      I hope those suggestions help. Your son needs to know that you value him as a part of your family but when one member requires extra attention or isn’t doing his or her part, it’s like a car trying to operate on three wheels. It doesn’t run right.

      God bless,
      Laura

  • Hi do you have any advice how to deal with this when you have triplets (age 5), without the other two always having to suffer the consequences as well? This all describes my son to a tee. I am home with them and need tactics for when it’s just me with all 3. While the example of cleaning the room worksbecause it affects just him, we have more issues with extreme delay tactics as a power play. However (recent example) I can’t tell him he won’t get to see the cheetah run at the zoo if he doesn’t stop delaying because then the other two would unfairly miss out. Any thoughts? Again I just need advice for the times I’m alone and I can’t divide and conquer. Thanks so much.

    • Hi Anna – First of all, let me express my deepest appreciation for what you (and other parents of multiples) go through every day. Your situation does present its challenges, but I think it might help to have a shift in mindset. Instead of seeing discipline as removal of privileges, try to focus more on adding what you want to see more of. For example, if your son is delaying the others, you can let them all see the cheetahs, but when you come home and the others are doing something fun, he gets to “practice” getting ready instead of doing the activity with the others. You can have him run through the routine involved in leaving the house because he has shown you that he needs some practice. You can have him do it a few times until he shows mastery of the process. This technique can be helpful for some controlling children and can be applied to a lot of different situations.

      I hope that helps!
      Laura

  • Hi Laura,
    Thank you for your wonderful articles. I have always struggled with my 10 year old for him to comply with what he is told to do when he is in trouble. He is an active child and youngest of 3 boys. He loves to interact and play, but many times he picks the wrong time or approach which leads to him getting into trouble. When he’s told to go to his room, his answer is always NO. I feel SO disrespected by him and have told him this. Many times he desires to “modify” what he’s told to do, but it eats me up that he doesn’t just listen and do what he’s told. I’m the parent, he’s the child. I have finally come to the conclusion that he desires control. Perhaps I should stop sending him to his room. Maybe there’s another option, but my gut says he’ll just have a comeback for that too. I’m emotionally drained and fear what is to come next as he gets older. Your thoughts?

    • Hi Edda,
      It can be exhausting dealing with a “strong willed child.” Keep in mind, with proper guidance and discipline, these qualities will likely translate into strong leadership skills in the future. For children who struggle for control, getting “on top” with harsher and harsher discipline tactics often lead to more conflict and eventually a breakdown in the parent-child relationship. You want to avoid that. I would suggest that you make your family rules and expectations very clear for all. Write them down so there is no debate. Make it public and applicable to all family members. You can come up with the rules together as a family. Make sure that you are ready to enforce them when they are broken. You can send you son to his room or have him sit on the stairs (or other consequence you deem fitting). If he refuses, you simply “freeze” his day. You can say, “Your day will not continue until you obey.” This means that you do not engage with him or give him things (like a ride to a friends house, etc) until he is willing to obey. You are giving him the control of when he complies, but not IF he complies. This approach needs commitment but it can be very effective for some children. It will take a while for him to realize that you mean business, but consistency is the key. It is also very important for you to have follow up after he complies, discussing what he did wrong, why it was wrong and what he was feeling when he disobeyed or broke a rule. Getting to the why of it will be much more effective in the long run.

      I hope that helps,
      Laura

      • Hi Laura,
        Thank you for taking the time to reply and for your insightful thoughts. Some of what you suggest, I have done, however I have never thought to “freeze” his day and think that could be a great next approach.
        God bless,
        Edda

  • Hello,

    Really interesting read and obviously relevant years on! Our son (4) is in a controlling friendship with a family friend’s son. The have spent time out of preschool together so its solidified their connection (which I feel guilty about!) This friend is a bit of a bully and throws his weight around at school (pushing, dominating etc.) He is also quite bright and has a large vocab so can feel authoritative. Our boy says when he plays with other children this friend follows him and sabotages it. He still likes and plays with him out of choice but there is obviously something controlling going on. I fear it will shape my sons friendships in school which starts next year. There are so many lovely kids in the school but this boy is preventing him forming those friendships. Should I stop out of school meetings (awkward with family) or let them ride it out?

    • You could certainly reduce them if you were concerned that they get-togethers were not in your son’s best interest. He will meet all kinds of kids as he goes through school. It is best to try to equip him with the ability to tell a good friend from a not so go one. Do you remember the Frog and Toad stories? Those might be a good tool to use to help him understand the true meaning of friendship. Reading books together that help you highlight what a good friend is (or is not) can be very helpful.

      I hope that helps,
      Laura

  • This was a good read. My soon to be 5 year old son is starting to do this and honestly this is how I was starting to feel. My question/issue is his father and I are not together and does not work with me on parenting.

    • Hi Nicole,

      It can be very hard when you are not on the same page with the other parent. It may be helpful to have clearly written/pictured rules for your son when he is at your house – so he knows exactly what to expect when he is with you. You can say something like, “That may be okay when you were at Dad’s but here, we do ______.” You don’t want to be negative about his father, just state the facts without commentary or opinion. Refer to your rules and expectations often and the consistency within the walls of your home will become comforting to your son.

      God bless,
      Laura

  • We have an 8-year old grand-daughter who is excellent at controlling her parents (who are divorced but on good terms with each other) and grandparents. If the child says no to whatever is suggested, then both parents leave it at that. The grandparents just have to sit back and bite their tongues! The child refuses hugs, kisses etc. but at sensitive moments when adults are in a distressed state, she is the perfect child, and only wishes to “make things better”. She is good at school and the teachers look on her as a model student. The child likes to spend time on her own, and tells stories to herself in front of mirrors. We would dearly love to be able to take her out and enjoy things she likes, but unless she is in the mood, refuses even to “try” and just sulks. Any suggestions as to how we can enjoy and help this child who clearly has issues but is sorely loved by all.

    • Hi Jill,

      It can be very frustrating as a caring grandparent to know how to handle these situations. It is hard because you may have ideas on how to handle it, but don’t want to interfere or over step your bounds. It is obvious you love her, so why not give her a gift that could re-direct these issues that she is displaying? I am thinking of some drama classes to channel her need to be center of attention. These types of lessons (or being part of a production) would have the added benefit of instilling instilling discipline and respect for authority. You can search online in your area for youth drama productions. They typically take children of all ages. You never know, you could uncover a hidden talent!

      Best wishes,
      Laura

  • Hello,
    I share similar stories as those above, but would like more clarification and advice.

    My 3.5 year old daughter is a wonderful child…smart, funny, loving, friendly. She does have (and always has) dominance issues over me and her dad. She has never (and we’ve admittedly empowered it over the years) allowed my husband to instruct, punish or sooth her in my presence. She will howl if he comes to her at night rather than me and the screaming will go on for hours. She demands my presence and wants to cuddle with her or sleep with me. She will also stand her ground on small power struggles…Like “I want mommy to get me out of the car” and she will not relent if my husband tries to do so. This only happens when I am around…he has no issues in my absence.

    She also is obsessed with touching a small mole on my neck. Seems silly, but it is an obsession, much like a child who reaches for a doll or a pacifier, she reaches for me and fights me when I won’t let her touch it. The simple answer is that I have to walk away when she does so, but then the screaming fit follows for what seems like an eternity. She has never taken to a lovey or toy, so I can’t seem to get her to transfer that energy.

    In response, we talk about the touching, and she acknowledges my request and knows that it makes me uncomfortable, but in the heat of the moment or when she has the urge to touch it, she will not peacefully give in.

    We are also initiating change to our nighttime routine to include a burst of active play after dinner, massage with essential oils after bath, etc. That seems to help calm her to the point of falling asleep easier, but she will not stay asleep.

    Any further advice to get control back? My 7 year old, husband and I are seeking all solutions.
    Many thanks, S

    • Hi Shelly,

      First of all, I want to apologize for the delayed response. I have had some trouble with notifications from my site. Anyway, I can hear your frustrations. But you do sound like you have a lot of skills already to deal with this troublesome behavior – the changes you have instituted are great ideas. I would also add some discussions (and observations on your husband’s part) about self-soothing in ways that do not include another person. Since she seems fine with your husband, he has probably had to deal with her when she is upset and you are not around. What does he see that works? You could talk to her about it and say that everyone needs ways to feel better when they are upset. You can share some of the things that help calm you down. You could come up with a list of ideas together, make a picture list and try them out. Some ideas include listening to a favorite song, hearing a favorite (short) story, using a stress ball or some “thinking putty.” You have every right to ask that she respect your personal space. And by doing so, you are modeling for her that her body is her own -something every child needs to learn. In the moment, you can say, “I know you feel that you need to touch me there to calm down, but it is my body and I don’t like it. Let’s try one of the other ideas we came up with.” There may be a meltdown in response, but if you provide her with alternatives you are not rejecting her, just redirecting her.

      You are doing a great job and I want to encourage you to continue to love her through this phase. It will not last forever, but if you can give her some coping skills in the process you would be addressing it at the root and hopefully preventing it from re-surfacing in some other form in the future.

      God bless,
      Laura

  • Thank you for your article on controlling children, it has been a helpful read. At present we are struggling with our eldest child who whats to control ever asspect of life and it particular his younger brothers, which in turn is causing the middle child to act in the same way.

    Although no#1 wants to control no#2 (& no#3) at the same time gets extremely cross when he copies him, I explain that this is a compliment really but tbat only seems to satisfy him for a short time. I am really concerned for his behaviour especially if he is reacting the same at school (he has a real dislike for school). I do get cross with them and voices raise, which then causes no#3 to shout & scream! No#1 has asked Jesus into his heart and remind him of that, which helps for a little while. I do realise that I am (& hubby) probably most part of the causes of his behaviour but I am struggling to adjust the way I deal with him (& his brothers) I pray for strength each day to deal with them in a Christ like way but I know that I am failing in that really.

    My husband suggested we speak with our pastor but I am not sure I want to do that. I love my children & I know how much God has blessed me with them & when their good their really good & are praised for that.

    Thank you for listening, feel better just putting in to words how I feel.

    God bless x

    • Hi Joanne,

      Thanks for your comment. I am sorry to hear of your struggles, but I rejoice with you over your son’s recent commitment to the Lord. The great thing about becoming a follower of Jesus, is our access to the Holy Spirit. Your son now has that, but some times we fight back and our flesh wins out. We are all a work in progress.

      I would take some time and really disciple your son. I don’t know how old he is, but maybe you could start a character study together. I would recommend finding some resources on the life of David. Studying this man of God who didn’t always get it right could be a great way to not only instill godly character but to show your son that doing good all the time is not a requirement to be called a “man after God’s own heart.” It is possible that your pastor or your children’s ministry director could help you find such a study.

      I would continue to pray daily that God would give you wisdom and direction on how to address your sons’ behaviors. And if you fall short, model repentance and seeking forgiveness. Our children need to see the humility in us that we want them to develop. It isn’t easy, I know.

      I have said a prayer for your family and that this current struggle will bring you into closer relationship with God and each other.

      God bless,

      Laura

  • Hi Louise
    I’m in need of help with my 6 nearly 7 year old second son. We have been aware that since starting kindy that our son can be quite controlling with his peers mainly at lunch and recess, whilst in class his teacher says he is well behaved he is however behind but trying hard!
    —— Is now in year 1
    He controls the groups and the games and dismisses people from his groups. His best friend came to me recently and said that —- doesn’t like me any more ! After chatting with the boys mum she said it’s been going on since kindy and it is beginning to be quite an issue for her son. All the kids are keen to play with him even if he treats them unkindly.
    At home he refuses to do most things like eat dinner and even asking him to get dressed is a struggle, he has quite a fierce temper if he does not get his own way. He slams doors,kick the back of my chair in the car if I say something that annoys him…. But so far no hitting.
    We are now considering a child counsellor….. We would appreciate any help you could give us
    Many thanks Nicole

    • Hi Nicole,

      I think you are wise to consider a child counselor. Your son may need a safe and private place to share his emotions and feelings. Counseling would also provide you and your son an opportunity to learn new communication skills so that you can both feel heard and respected.

      The key is to find out why he is acting so controlling. Are there things in his life he cannot control that frustrate him? Could his academic struggles lead to a feeling of inferiority that he needs to compensate for on the playground and at home? What about role playing? Could you act out some of his interactions with his peers so he could get a sense for how he is making others feel? His awareness of how he is being perceived may need to be increased. Can you talk about the long term outcome from acting in this way? He may not be aware of how lonely he will be if this behavior continues. For some children this age it can be helpful to use movies and books as a way to heighten social awareness. You can pause the book/movie and ask questions such as “Why did he act that way?” or “How do you think that made his friends feel?” This may give you a window into his thinking but also increase his awareness of how others may feel because of his behaviors. You may want to spend some time helping him develop a deeper sense of empathy. This article may help.

      I hope that helps.

      God bless,
      Laura

  • Hi,
    I have an 8 year old son who is having a lot of problems. The school contacted me a few months ago to tell me they were concerned about how he was mixing with his peers. They told me he is likes to be in the centre of attention, like to be in control and takes everything as a personal attack. They were so concerned that his education has taken the back seat. I have changed my parenting from authoritarian to gentle. I have seen a big improvement in how open he is but I have also seen emotions spilling everywhere. My son is struggling with regulation but is nothing like he was, his heart is huge and I can’t believe how much progress he has made but he is now out of control when I am not around. When he is at karate or anchor boys or school and he has no one to calm him and help him stay regulated he’s shutting down, getting controlling or he’s losing it.
    What can I do to help him stop trying to contol people and lose it when he does not get his own way when I am not around?

    • Hi Louise,

      Congratulations on finding a parenting style that works for you son. He is lucky to have you.

      I don’t know if it is possible with your schedule, but maybe you can observe him in different settings and see if you can identify any triggers. You seem to know him so well, it is possible that the other adults in his life need to learn what you know about him. I would ask if you can partner with the school, karate and his boys program to help them find a more successful way to handle him.

      You could also start to equip him with methods of self-control and emotional regulation. Here is a good study designed for a Sunday School class but you could easily adapt it for you and your son to do together: http://ministry-to-children.com/self-control-lesson-plan/ You could also do a search for self-control exercises for kids. Here’s a good printable. It would be good to role play the exercises together so he knows how to use them in “real time.”

      I hope that helps. God bless,

      Laura