Advice Column, Child, Parenting

Bossy Kids – How to assist your take-charge child

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Making friends is no easy task. It takes a lot of growing confidence and a positive self-image to crack the code of successful and happy friendships. As children go through their pre-primary years it is often a struggle to gain acceptance from peers, and not be the isolated child roaming the playground. Children often seek control over their lives and worry about having their needs met. 

Often times the behaviours which they display in this regard may make them come across as a bit of a tyrant. They have big ideas running through their minds and they want things to be done exactly right. They tend to be egocentric and want others to play the way they want to play, and struggle to take “no” for an answer. If this is your child, take note, as it may quite possibly lead to bigger problems in the long run if not nurtured appropriately. 

As adults we tend to be bossy too, but recognise when things are not working out and instead formulate new action plans. Children on the other hand find it difficult to move beyond their own immediate needs. For some, bossiness is momentary, while others have a naturally dominant personality. This in turn could lead to more consistent bossy behaviour. 

Tell-tale signs of a ‘bossy’ kid include: Telling other kids that they do things wrong, having difficulty waiting for a turn (more often than not), disagreeing with rules (and/or often creating new rules), focusing on winning, and interrupting often. Those learners with a more dominant personality will also try to gain some control, test one’s limit, be attention seeking, and copy the behaviour of other children or an adult. 

Ultimately bossy children tend to be bright, gifted, assertive and creative. If nurtured properly these traits can become an asset in developing appropriate leadership skills. However, if left untamed bossy children may well feel and become more isolated within any environment. 

Parents and other adults can be important teachers as children learn how to get along with their friends. They need your help in understanding what works and what doesn’t work. And most importantly, they need your encouragement as they build strong friendships. 

Here are some key tips to help tone down that bossy-boots: 

Tips to tone down bossiness 

Tip #1: Satisfy the need to be in charge 

Look for opportunities where your child can have power to make decisions or take control. Provide choices when it comes to food, chores, dressing, play and other daily activities. 

Tip #2: Model how to give directions 

Often times our kids simply repeat the behaviours they learn from watching us. Stop and take a look at how you ask your spouse and your kids to do things. Modelling our own requests in a positive, calm manner can make a big difference in how our kids talk to their siblings and peers. Practice mutual respect. Apologise when you make a mistake and keep your voice firm but calm when correcting behaviours. And avoid humiliation when correcting bossy behaviour in a group setting, by rather taking your child aside and pointing out specifics, followed by examples of more appropriate ways to handle the situation. 

Tip #3: Role-Play 

Look for as many situations as possible to take advantage of modelling, turn-taking and asking permission to do things with other people, rather than being bossy. Get your children to use those active imaginations in a role-play, using puppets and stuffed toys working through issues such as negotiation, speaking out about feelings and finding alternative positive ways of how heated situations may be handled better. You could also do a role reversal: Allow your child to be you for fifteen minutes. She gets to make and enforce the rules, choose the meals, and run the show. Watch out! It will probably be fairly eye opening! 

Tip #4: Say “yes” whenever possible 

No one likes to be told “No” the majority of the time and let’s face it, pre-schoolers make unreasonable requests all day long and get told “No” on a regular basis. This is often deflating. Rather look for opportunities to say “Yes” to your child whenever possible, so that he feels like his personal wants and needs are being met. 

Tip #5: Play board games 

Most bossy kids have the need to win. Board games are a wonderful opportunity to nonchalantly enforce turn-taking and playing by a set of rules. It’s also a good moment to reinforce that the joy can be in the game itself, rather than the outcome. Be excited about the game and how much fun it is enjoying the time you are spending together, not about who is winning or losing. This will help plant the seed that it’s not about winning, it’s about interacting and enjoying an experience together. 

Even with it being quite frustrating, always make yourself as parent/guardian available, aware and ready to jump in when your child needs help with which behaviours are bossy and how to change them. Bossiness can’t be cured overnight, but the sooner you start the sooner your child will learn to play and be fair towards others. 

Now that we know how to assist a bossy child, let’s take a look at ways of encouraging a sensitive child to stand up to Miss Bossy Boots. 

Having been a teacher in the Foundation Phase I often came across sensitive learners being taken advantage of and suddenly I realised that teaching and encouraging parents to teach their children to stand up for themselves was far more important than encouraging an easy going personality. You can’t change a child’s inherent nature, but you can help kids stick up for their right, with confidence. 

Being assertive helps in virtually every relationship at school, at home and on the playground. In the classroom, it puts a child at an advantage because she’s comfortable commanding the teacher’s attention, raising her hand if she knows the answer, and asking for extra help if she is lost. She will also have an easier time making friends, since she won’t hesitate to say, “Hey, can I play too?” 

Of course, there’s a vast difference between being assertive and being aggressive. Assertiveness is letting people know your wants and needs; aggressiveness is imposing those wants and needs on others as we stated in part one of this article. An aggressive child will try to manhandle a playmate out of her Cozy Coupe; an assertive one, on the other hand, would say, “I’d like a turn when you’re done.” 

Experts believe that assertiveness is, in part, inherited. And we all know from our own experience that some children are simply born comfortable with saying what they want; others are inherently more shy or passive. And you don’t want to override natural tendencies by strong-arming a timid youngster into trying out for the lead in a play: Trying to force a child into a role that’s not comfortable for her in order to boost her confidence may have the opposite effect. It will also make her miserable. 

But there are ways to nurture the nugget of assertiveness in any child without pushing too hard, or to help a retiring one see that being just a touch more pushy can be useful. Basically, anything that promotes a healthy sense of self-esteem helps promote assertiveness. If a child feels good about who she is and what she has to say – if she’s comfortable in her own skin – she’ll be more likely to assert herself. To start the engine chugging: 

  • Indulge your child, but also discipline appropriately 
  • Indulge your child with the odd cuddle. This will give him a sense of safety and security – a crucial component of confidence. 
  • It is important to also lay down rules by criticising the behaviour displayed rather than your child as a more esteem affirming way of discipline. In this way, you avoid belittling your child, thus preventing her from feeling bad about herself and instead encouraging assertiveness. 
  • Be consistent. 
  • If you tell your child she can’t jump on the furniture, don’t let her do it on Friday nights just because you’re tired after a long week. If the rules are constantly changing, she won’t know what’s expected of her. And that makes it harder for her to be assertive. 
  • Explain your command (briefly) 
  • Saying, “You have to go to bed so you won’t be tired for camp” is preferable to “Because I said so.” This helps your child distinguish right from wrong, rather than perceive rules as arbitrary. 
  • Teach shy kids how to speak up 
  • If your child is always getting gypped out of his turn on the playground or having his toys snatched away at school, he may not realise you think it is okay to stand up for himself or he may not know how to do it politely. Children don’t always realise there’s a middle ground between giving in and being pushy right back. Explain that it’s fine for him to demand his fair share, and then give him specific suggestions on how he could handle similar situations that come up in the future. Modelling the right behaviour can help any child learn to deal with a bossy friend or peer. 
  • Discourage peer worship 
  • Some children shy away from asserting their true selves because they want to fit in or to emulate a cherished pal. Often times they would want to order the same foods as their friends or wear the same clothes. Instead encourage your child towards making choices of her own even if the friend may not like it. It is important for her to then hear that no one would like her any more or less if she disagreed with them. In fact it makes life more interesting. Reminding her over a few occasions will help her eventually realise that her friend will not leave her, she will stop being a follower. Also prepare her for the possibility that her playmate might reject her, and explain that a friend who doesn’t respect other people’s opinions isn’t worth having. 
  • Don’t be worried if your child’s shyness persists; maybe she’s just not ready to assert herself. Many reticent kids grow into strong-minded teens. 
  • Let her call the shots,- sometimes 
  • If you’re always telling your child exactly what to do and when to do it, she won’t learn how to take the initiative. So instead encourage her to decide for herself what activities she’d most like to do. That way she feels listened to, and experiences the control over having her needs met. 
  • Part of being assertive is having confidence in your ability to make good choices. So give your child room to make mistakes so that she can learn ways to correct herself. 
  • This isn’t to say that you have to go along with your child every time she decides to do something, just that you shouldn’t ignore or negate her feelings. If you acknowledge your child’s feelings, she’ll be more comfortable airing them in the future. 
  • Practice, Practice 
  • Once you’ve laid the groundwork for assertiveness, encourage your kids to practice in the “real” world. A good example is to encouraged your child to order for themselves in restaurants, learning that though the waitress is there to serve them, they still need to be polite and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ 
  • The goal is to teach your kids to make their needs known in a polite, non-confrontational way. Children also learn by example, so when you stand up for yourself when returning damaged merchandise to a reluctant store owner, say, or stopping someone from cutting ahead in line, -try to be as friendly, forth-right, and matter-of-fact about it as possible.
  • Encourage kids to think for themselves 
  • Once your child is old enough to carry on a conversation, encourage her to speak her mind-even if you disagree with her. That means, for example, that you can’t get annoyed with your daughter for disliking your best friend’s son. If she is shot down every time she has an opinion that differs from your opinion as parents, she’ll shy away from asserting herself. Do, however, insist that she treat your friend’s son cordially. 

The dinner table is a great place to promote independent thinking. Ask a 3- or 4year old what her favourite colour is, and why. Ask a school-age child who the best rugby player or swimmer is, what she’d do with a million, or why there’s so much pollution even though almost everyone thinks polluting is bad. Posing open-ended or provocative questions shows a child there isn’t necessarily one right answer in life. And teaching her she can arrive at her right answer will help her trust her own opinions. Plus, she’ll get practice verbalising her position and listening to the other side of the argument. And being able to stand up for what you believe in without alienating others is the ultimate badge of assertiveness. 

Good luck and happy friend making 

Written By: Danielle Forsyth (Educational Psychologist Trinityhouse Heritage Hill)  

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