Connect for Children

Heidi Emberling, MA, Parenting Educator and Early Childhood Specialist

The Struggle for Control: Who’s in Charge Here?! October 23, 2012

Filed under: Challenging Behaviors — Heidi Emberling @ 12:51 am

Do you have a master negotiator at home?  A child who likes to control every conversation?  A child who changes the rules to suit his needs?  If so, you may be stuck in the cycle of frequent, exhausting parent-child power struggles.  Kids who crave control may fight parents on everything from daily routines to complaining about food choices to insisting that friends come over to MY house to play.  They may be rigid thinkers with an expectation that everyone will conform to their rules, ideas, and plans.  If you give this child a choice between A and B, they will most likely choose option C.  These kids can be quite creative, intense and persistent.

Socially, these control kids may have few friends because they haven’t yet mastered social exchanges, or they may be have some close friends who enjoy following their lead.  Mostly, these children do best with older kids, who allow some bending of the rules.  Peers are the most difficult group to play with, because they are the most unpredictable.  You never know when a peer is going to grab a toy from you or refuse to play by your rules.

Dealing with a control kid begins with three basic prevention strategies:

  1. Create predictable routines. Control kids do not cope well with surprises.
  2. Choose your battles. Ask yourself if you are a control parent.  Allow your child some wins.
  3. Give choices when possible. And if a choice isn’t possible, find a way to acknowledge your child’s difficulty accepting your final decision.

Sometimes when a child fights for control, the parent responds by automatically becoming more rigid.  More extreme consequences are imposed, and the child feels less and less control over the outcome.  As this happens, negative behaviors may escalate into full-scale meltdowns.  Here are some tips for avoiding the explosive tantrums:

  1. Validate the child’s experience.  What does the world look like from their point of view?
  2. Do some detective work.  What event or request triggered the reaction?  Do the meltdowns happen during transition times, bedtime, or during a playdate?
  3. Teach positive strategies that the child can implement next time.  No need to spend too much time fixating on what just happened.  Move on and help the child build skills they can use when faced with a similar challenge tomorrow (or an hour from now).

Children, like adults, want to be respected.  They want people to understand their behaviors.  They need skills, taught by patient, emotion-neutral, caring adults.  These life skills include developing anger management strategies, building resiliency, coping with disappointment, and creative problem-solving abilities.  These skills are not innate; they must be taught.  Invest time in supporting the development of these skills during the early years, and you will reap the benefits for years to come.

Heidi Emberling, MA
Early Childhood Parent Education Specialist