Coaching Help For Controlling Children
Dr. Steven Richfield
A father writes: What advice do you have about children who often want to be in control? My wife and I engage in endless struggles with our son that lead nowhere except to get us all very frustrated. Sometimes it seems like he argues with us over issues that have little or no importance to him, except that they give him an excuse to argue!
|Most children come into the world with some desire for control. The degree to which they express their preferences, objections and opinions, and adapt to the changing world tends to determine whether they are viewed as easy-going or inflexible. Temperament is a lot to do with it. Temperament can be likened to a rubber band that has definite form but also stretches to accommodate what is asked of it. Each child possesses a different degree of elasticity, prompting them to stretch enough to allow for outside control or snap back with acrimony when not getting their way.|
Temperament is not etched in stone; it can be modified to some degree but parents should not expect transformations. Children who are passionate about controlling others will probably not become wallflowers but can be coached in the finer art of flexibility. Here's how:
- Parents must resist engaging in the endless loop of arguing. Arguments are the avenue for children to "try out" new control methods, ranging from idle threats to all out retaliation against parental authority. Some parents precipitate an escalation of hostility by trying to match angry words with angry words, soon finding themselves in the cycle of "punishment boosting" as a way of putting an end to it. Ultimately, the parent lays down a consequence because of the bitterness of the argument not the initial issue. This reinforces the child's view that parental control is arbitrary and misused.
- Offer future choices when possible, hear them out without interruption, and then disengage. Providing a controlling child with the prospect of getting what they want another time can help them "save face" in surrendering to parental authority. Similarly, giving their appeals your full attention can help them feel understood. If they continue to press you may attempt to assuage them with, "I understand your side but I don't agree with handling things that way right now." If they continue to pursue a bitter tone explain that you don't want this discussion to lead to rude words between the two of you. Rather than allow that to happen, offer to them, "I can see we won't reach agreement here, so I'm just going to back out of this discussion before it leads to trouble."
|When the time is right try to help them observe how much their struggles to control others get in the way of their happiness and that of others. Parents can offer some of the ways that " Mr. or Miss Control" pop out and make others feel pushed around. Gently explain how their trouble with losing, not being the leader, or trying to get away with not doing what they're supposed to do, backfires and stirs up social and family troubles. See if they accept how the battle to have things their way is harder on them than just giving in to others. If they are willing have a discussion about flexibility and the amount of "stretch" that they and others have in them.|
- Offer a continuum of 1-10 and label #10 as the most flexible person they know. See if they place themselves where you would place them, and ask where they would like others to place them.
- Challenge them to expand their "stretch." Kids who like control also tend to respond to challenge, eventually. They might turn you down at first but if parents are patient and not intrusive they might come around. When they are ready offer guidelines about how and when to be flexible, emphasizing the social and family payoffs of doing so. Most importantly, give them the self-talk strategies to use in their mind when faced with a "stretching challenge": "I can't always be in control or others will view me as pushy and hard to get along with. Here is a chance to prove to myself and others that I can go along with things."