by Todd Sarner, MFT. Director of Transformative Parenting
Bossiness in children is on the rise and there are few things more frustrating to parents. Kids telling their parents (and others) what to do like they’re in charge can really push our buttons and cause problems for us and our children.
The thing is, in my years of working with children and parents, I see the same mistakes made over and over again that actually lead to the problem getting worse, not better.
Some of the mistakes I see parents making have to do with completely misunderstanding the nature of bossiness in kids and why they act that way. Other mistakes have to do with how they respond when their kids are bossy.
Since I started Transformative Parenting in 2003, I have worked with thousands of parents- in private consultation, in live workshops and trainings and online webinars and courses. Here are the top 5 mistakes I see parents making that lead to their children becoming bossy (or more bossy!). They are in no particular order:
Mistake #1: They mistake bossiness for confidence
Bossiness is not usually a sign of confidence in children, it’s a sign of insecurity. Sure, some kids just seem to be more confident than other kids, but for the most part, what parents think is confidence is something else entirely.
Children need to feel like their parents are in the lead, that they’re in charge in a positive way, especially when they are feeling insecure or anxious. When they don’t feel their parent is in charge at any given time, they will instinctively move to be in charge themselves. They don’t think about it, they just do it.
Parents are not supposed to be dictators to their child but they are supposed to be the ones who take the lead and take care of them. Kids are not meant to be in charge, they are meant to be able to rest and play and learn and grow. They will have plenty of time in their lives to be in charge of things.
When children instinctively move to be in charge, they are not resting. And if parents don’t take the reigns because they think their child is confident, they are not helping them to be at rest.
Mistake #2: They take bossiness personally
Another big mistake parents make with their children when they are being bossy is they take their bossiness personally. They might get angry when their child is bossing them around, feel it is “disrespectful” or give them some kind of punishment- a time out or taking something away.
Like I said before, a good place to start is to realize that bossiness is an instinct a child has when they are feeling insecure or like no one is in charge in the moment, it is not personal.
It is OK to gently but firmly establish with our child that we are in charge (“I know that’s what you want to do, but daddy and I are the ones making the plans”), it’s OK to set a matter-of-fact sounding boundary (“You may not speak to me that way. I will wait until you’re done doing so.”), but taking their bossiness personally usually leads you down the wrong track, one that doesn’t lead to solutions.
Mistake #3: They try to make everything work for their child
One of the main messages I find myself giving the parents I work with is that it is not their primary job to make their child happy, it’s their primary job to take care of them.
Of course we want our children to be happy, of course we want to treat them with love and respect. But it is essential that we understand that we have to place taking care of them in the moment ahead of making them happy in the moment.
Sometimes when our children are not feeling right inside, they will come up with ideas about what they think will make them feel better- like things or food or certain activities. They will insist upon ice cream for dinner or a never-ending list of things they want to do (“I want to go on the slide. Now I want you to push me on the swing. Now I want…now I want…”).
The thing is, a child is never satisfied when they are taking the lead in getting their needs met. How does it feel if you tell someone you need a hug and they say, “oh ok” and come over and give you a bare minimum hug? It doesn’t satisfy you, does it? If they really knew how it works, they would give you a hug first (before you asked) whenever possible or if you asked, they would give you a bigger one than you expected. That’s how we stay in the lead with our children.
Mistake #4: They avoid conflict and upset
It is normal and natural for kids (and parents!) to have frustration build up over time. Even if you are doing a great job as a parent, things will frustrate your child and they will get to the point where you can just feel they might erupt into some kind of aggression- like hitting, biting, yelling, tantrum, or a meltdown.
And it is also normal and natural for parents to want to avoid this. The thing is, if your child is really full of frustration, you probably can’t avoid it. Yes, you can maybe delay it by making things better for them in the moment, giving in to what they are demanding, but you are only delaying it.
When a child is full of frustration, they are much more likely to start getting bossy in a really edgy way. It is almost like they are threatening us with a meltdown if we don’t give in to their demands.
One of the main ways a parent needs to stay in the lead is by setting firm but compassionate limits with their children when they are full of frustration. A child who is frustrated needs to fully feel what is frustrating them and accept it so that they can have a good cry and get it out. How does it feel when you’ve had a good cry? Feels good, right?
It is a huge mistake to try to avoid your child feeling their frustration because you just want to make them happy in the moment or because you are afraid of their meltdown. It is not what they need.
Mistake #5: They take a backseat in their child’s life
This mistake can be a little harder to explain because it doesn’t just happen in big, obvious ways. It can be very subtle.
What I mean by “taking a backseat in their child’s life” is how parents sometimes let other people or things become what their child is more oriented to. If your child becomes too attached to friends or too attached to things like toys or technology, such as TV or the internet, they are less likely to look to their parents as the ones that are in charge.
I see this all the time, a child becomes more attached to other children because they spend a lot of time around them. I’m not saying it’s wrong for our children to have friends, we just have to be careful about them becoming too focused on their friends as they are in the process of growing up.
When a child is mostly oriented to their friends, or “peer oriented” as my mentor Dr. Gordon Neufeld (Hold On to Your Kids) describes it, they will more likely follow the rules of their peers and their actions will be more geared toward what their friends do.
Being Our Child’s Compass Point
The key here is to understand that we are supposed to be our children’s compass, their North Star. We are the Sun and they rotate around us, not us around them or them around each other. And this is because this is the way they need it to be. Again, it helps them to be at rest and feel safe and have the space and time to grow. Neufeld calls this being an Alpha Parent. We are in the lead. We are the ones who take care of them.
In my practice, whether it’s my clients or course participants, it’s my main focus to help parents be more confident and knowing of how to be an Alpha Parent. We must take the lead in creating security in our children, we must take the lead in creating a suitable environment for them, we must take the lead in regulating ourselves and our children (staying calm and grounded) and we must take the lead in responses to their difficult behaviors that actually are effective and help lessen or eliminate these behaviors.
If we are not in the lead in these things, our kids will try to be in charge themselves.
So what do you think? I’d love to hear your comments and questions below about kids and bossiness! – Todd
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