Last week, we heard from a mother concerned about controlling behaviour in her daughter.
"My nine-year-old is an extremely organized child who has always done well in situations as long as she is prepared in advance about what to expect," she wrote.
"The challenge is her desire to be in control of everything. She struggles with friendships (kids feel she can be too bossy) and with her siblings, who are 11 and 5. She often does things to show she is the person in control. For example, she will refuse to consider other people's ideas and will stop playing with them if they don't do what she says. Or, she will say to her sibling that she is going to sit in the corner of the couch so they can't - even though she's not planning to sit there for another 30 minutes.
"It seems when she doesn't get what she wants, she feels compelled to hurt others by being rude, saying nasty things or controlling them by taking something away or not being cooperative.
"She, herself, has said she doesn't want to behave this way but is not able to control it. She is frustrated with herself for treating people poorly and has asked me to help her, but I just don't know how. Plus, I have to admit, my own patience is an issue at this point. When I see her controlling others in a nasty manner, I immediately react by telling her to stop that behaviour and often my tone is not pleasant.
"I've tried getting her to be empathetic and think about how she would feel if she were being treated the way she was treating the other person. Often, she says she doesn't know - I'm not sure if she really is not able to feel that or if she is just saying that as a way to avoid dealing with it.
"Any suggestions you have are very much appreciated."
Here's what our parent educators had to say:
Your daughter can't understand the feelings of others unless she understands her own feelings. She needs to recognize her feelings when they come up and learn how to express them effectively.
She also needs to understand where those feelings come from.
Negative feelings are messages that help us identify what we need.
Because of her temperament, she has a strong need to know what to expect (certainty and predictability). When that need isn't met, she feels all kinds of things: angry, jealous, stressed, uncomfortable and so on.
Be her emotion coach and help her with this very important life skill. Developing this kind of awareness takes time - perhaps most of childhood. This means brushing up on your reflective listening skills and your feeling vocabulary as well.
Most learning needs to happen away from the triggering events, so you are wise to help prepare her in advance for situations. The tricky part with a more rigid expectation of fairness and predictability is that the world isn't like that. Your friends don't necessarily go along with your rule book.
Your daughter needs strategies to help her deal with uncertainty - times when she might not get her favourite spot on the couch or when kids have ideas that she doesn't like.
The key to being her coach is not to give her advice but to nurture the talents she already has. Ask her about times when she does deal well with uncertainty. What worked? Then ask "what else?" at least three or four times.
This is empowering because she sees that she has great ideas. The more she talks about things when she is calm, the easier it will be when the feelings surface. Her nasty behaviour is simply her immature way of expressing her feelings. She is dealing with stress the best way she knows how right now.
Finally, help her find a sense of significance in the family by focusing on times when she is being flexible. Notice her attempts to deal with strong feelings and point out specific behaviours that you see her using from her "what to do" list.
Your daughter's need is to be loved unconditionally and be who she is. Keep admiring her strengths, accept her feelings and help guide her behaviour to a more acceptable way of navigating her needs in relationships. Be patient.
This takes time.
Allison Rees Parent Educator LIFE Seminars
Most often, when kids are bossy and domineering, they are covering a highly sensitive and anxious nature. The only way they can cope is to control the world around them.
You may want to come at this from a number of angles:
- Make sure your connection with your daughter is very strong. Some children simply need much more love and connection than their siblings. They need constant reassurance of your love and caring.
- Continue to talk to her about what it means to be a good friend and person. Introduce the concept of teamwork and give and take. Point out situations that illustrate empathy, so she will begin to see things from the other person's point of view.
- Look for books that illustrate the nature of friendship and getting along and read them together. Your local bookstore, teachers' store or library will be a great source of material. This will be great bedtime reading material that the two of you can look at and discuss.
- Together with your daughter, put together a list of rules for playing
well with others. When things go wrong as your daughter plays, warn once, then shut down the play date, reminding her privately that she must always remember to take turns, speak nicely and take care of her guests. This should be done in a friendly and supportive way rather than in exasperation. Do not punish or impose consequences, as this will only heighten her anxiety.
- With your children, script behaviour guidelines for all of them and let everyone know that the only people "in charge" are you and dad. If there are disagreements, you will arbitrate and be the final word.
- Try not to see this behaviour as that of a mean girl or bully, as it most likely comes from a place of insecurity and sensitivity. The alpha behaviours are coping mechanisms. As your daughter matures and feels more secure in her relationships with the adults in her life, she will likely relax her domineering ways.
Jean Bigelow Parent Educator
Next week's question:
Through a series of events, my toddler now expects treats for a variety of events: a treat for finishing her healthy dinner; a treat after finishing a difficult chore or task or just because. My concern is that she is building up an unhealthy view of food, for example, that good food is bad and bad food is good.
How do I reverse this? She only gets one dark chocolate square at a time, or popcorn, etc. The treats aren't bad; it's the way in which she views food, as if healthy food is a task and unhealthy food a pleasure.
Do you have any advice for this parent? Struggling with a parenting dilemma? Send your input to features@ timescolonist.com. Please put "the parent rap" in the subject line. Questions about kids from infants to teens welcome.
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