Child Discipline: Is My Little Kid a Controlling Bully?

Hi Dr. Heather, My almost-4-year-old is extremely controlling. She tries to control everything, including telling us to stop whistling or singing, and trying to control the other children at her preschool. She has always had an outgoing personality, and is very determined. We have tried ignoring the situation when she tries to control us, which has significantly helped. After weeks of us reacting the same way to a particular controlling behavior, she will subside. Now, the problem is when she tries to control the other kids in her school.

Is there anything we can do at home that will change her controlling behavior toward others when we aren't around to handle the situation? She is also a very sweet and affectionate little girl who loves to laugh. It is her mix of control and determination that is concerning us.

Thank You,

Jenelle

Hi Jenelle,

We've got a 5-year-old who tries to do the same kind of stuff. It is annoying, to be sure! We've done what you have; ignoring the behavior. Eventually, it works (even though it can take WEEKS, as you experienced!)

But when it comes to school behavior, it is a different story. First, arrange a meeting with her teacher to talk about it. Find out how frequently your daughter tries to be "bossy" at school. Ask if it's impacting her ability to make (and keep) friends. See if it's interfering with the teacher's lesson plans. The degree of your response will depend on the answers to those questions.

If it is a significant problem at school, you want to coordinate your approach with her teachers. Make sure everyone (including teachers' aids, enrichment teachers, etc.) is involved in creating the plan, and everyone responds similarly. The more everyone is "on the same page", the faster the offending behavior will decrease. You know your daughter responds to the "ignoring" approach, so use what works, just expanding it into the school setting. Then get at-least weekly updates as to how the plan is going.

You can also engage in some play-acting of the scenarios she encounters at school; ask her teacher to give you some examples of what tends to happen. Don't scold her, but rather wait until you have some time together. Tell her you heard from her teacher that there was a problem between her and another kid, and you want to learn what happened, and how to try to make it different next time. Then start a "pretend" scenario, asking her to play it out with you. Switch roles so that she has the opportunity to be the "boss-ee". Talk about how it feels to be bossed around. Play-act different ways of responding to similar situations, then ask how THAT felt. Again, try to keep any scolding tone out of your voice; she won't listen as well if she feels defensive. Sum it up with a quick rehearsal of how she can "ask people nicely", or "wait her turn", or "let people try things their way", or whatever the issue is.

And no, I'm not necessarily concerned about a determined and "head-strong" 4-year-old. She's at an age where you have the ability to characterize her attitude in either a positive (or negative) way -- and your attribution will "stick", over time. So look for the positive side of her personality. This dedication and intensity will help her be a leader and a hard worker. And look at it this way; you won't be worrying about your daughter getting bullied at school!

Try these suggestions on for size, and let us know how it goes.

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink