In our last article, we addressed attention-seeking as one of the possible four motivating factors behind your child’s difficult behaviors. This article will explore how you can help a child who is displaying controlling behavior.
Examples of controlling behavior
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 redirected
- Withdrawal from group play if they cannot get their way
NOTE: Not all of these behaviors are indicative of a control issues. Children who do not complete tasks may be struggling with attentional issues. Children who are refusing to eat may have an underlying medical condition or an allergy. Children who ignore an instruction may have an auditory processing disorder. It is always important to rule out any medical, mental health or trauma issues before assuming a child is “just controlling.”
What controlling behavior feels like to you
Not surprisingly, parents can start to feel how their kids are acting. If you have a child with controlling behaviors, you might notice that you feel some or all of these:
- Anger (sometimes very intense anger)
- A strong desire to dominate or control the child (in an effort to squash the rebellion)
- Out of control
What controlling behavior tells you
A child who displays controlling behavior may be telling you something about who he is or what he needs.
Often, innate personality factors play a role in control-driven behavior. Some controlling and demanding children grow up to be amazing business leaders. They simply lack the maturity or training to harness that trait for good. It is our job as parents to help these kids use their wiring and gifts appropriately.
This behavior may also tell you that your child is in desperate need for limits and structure. A child who pushes limits with controlling behavior is like a blind man in a room searching for the walls. He needs to know where the edges are to feel safe and contained.
On the flip side, a child who acts controlling may be screaming for more autonomy and freedom appropriate for his age and development. Children change and grow and our parental goals and expectations need to grow and change with them. It’s our job to figure out what they need and how to know the difference.
How to correct controlling behavior
Attempting to dominate a child with controlling behaviors may provide short-term results for parents. You may be able to force him to do what you want. However, if you choose this path, you will be modeling the erroneous fact that your child already believed: that power and control is the ultimate goal in relationships.
Here are some things you can do instead:
1) Disengage from the power struggles with choice
Power struggles, by definition, require two parties to fight for control. If one party disengages, the struggle ends. Parents often fear that this means they will “lose” and their child will “win.” It’s this mindset that perpetuates the allure (and illusion) of control. The parent-child relationship is not one of dominance and submission.
If your child’s behavior is dysregulating for you, walk away and engage in some activities that will help you calm down. If you do lose your temper, the article below might help.
Another way to disengage in power struggles with your child is to offer them choices. Giving children choices among things that are all acceptable to you will give them a sense of control without the need to wrestle you for it.
Parents often say at this point, “Yeah, but my child never wants either of the choices I offer.” If this is a pattern for your child you can give them three choices. You can say something like: “You have three choices. You can put that away now, you can put it away in 5 minutes, or I can put it away for you in 5 minutes. You pick.” Then walk away calmly and return in 5 minutes to see what they have decided to do.
2) Let natural and logical consequences be their teacher
Sometimes giving choices as outlined above does not fit the situation. This is when natural consequences come into play.
You don’t have to hover and nag your child into obedience. You can create clear instructions and expectations with tagged consequences. This way the child still has a choice to make: complete the task or earn a consequence.
Here’s an example. Let’s say a dad asks his son to clean up his room (with clear instructions regarding when, how and what will happen if he does not). He makes good eye contact and gets acknowledgement that he has been heard by asking the child to repeat it back. The dad then walks away. He does not stand over the child to see if it gets done. He does not return every 5 minutes to see how he is coming. He lets the child choose.
When the dad returns at the expected completed time he will likely find one of three outcomes: his son did it, he refused, or he did it half-way. If it was done half-way, the father can find out what caused the delay and address that (there may have been a good reason, don’t assume non-compliance). But if the son outright refused, the father doesn’t need to lecture, scold or belittle. He can simply say, “Okay. I see you chose _______________ (the consequence) and follow through with whatever was announced before. No conversation. No negotiating. The consequence does the teaching.
3) Remain calm
I know – easier said than done. Here are a few things that can help you remain calm in the face of controlling behaviors.
First, try to figure out what is triggering the controlling behavior on your child. Write them down if you need to. Then, be on the lookout. What is the context? Does he try to control others when he is overwhelmed? Does he refuse to obey when he is tired? Does he ignore instructions mostly during transitions? This information can give you perspective and context that can help you, in those tough moments, to view your child’s behavior with curiosity rather than confrontation.
You can also employ the use of planned “anchor statements” in the midst of an emotionally charged event. You may say to yourself, “This is hard, but I can handle it.” Or you may choose to use imagery. Close your eyes and imagine that you are in the eye of a hurricane. Everything is swirling about you but you are calm and at peace. Take a deep breath. You can do it.
4) Be proactive
The best way to avoid a power struggle with a child who is seeking control is to not set yourself up for an incident. Once you know his triggers, you can prepare.
For example, if your young 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 desired family activity. He will be motivated to move quickly through his routine and you will simply have only one transition to address come bedtime. If that last transition proves difficult, let the child choose between two bedtimes (both acceptable to you) and be sure to have in place a positive engaging experience after the child is in bed (a story, a song, a cuddle, etc).
5) Give him things to control
If you suspect your child has innate leadership skills that are being inappropriately expressed, give him him a place to use them for good. Is there a club or a group he could start at school or in the community for an issue he is passionate about? For younger children, playing “house” where he gets to be the parent would give him an appropriate taste of leadership in the context of play. Can he map out a route for your next road trip? Any ideas where you would happily hand over the reigns while simultaneously tapping into his leadership skills would be a welcomed change. A child who has a sense of control in some areas will not have a need to steal it in every area.
6) Take care of yourself
Controlling behavior in children require parents with great amounts of self-control. As a result, these parents will need frequent opportunities to refresh and refuel. Make appointments for daily self-care, and keep them as if they were doctor’s appointments. It’s that important. Here is a list of self-care activities.
If you are looking for more tips on what you can do to manage controlling behavior, click here.
Next article: Revenge-Seeking Behavior in Children