When Children are Controlling or Rigid


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Controlling or rigid behaviors from children come in many forms: defiance, stubbornness and bossiness, to name a few. It’s probably safe to say nearly all children express themselves in one of these ways occasionally.

Some children, however, tend to have more difficulty being flexible and agreeable, which may lead to power struggles at home and at school, especially when participating in groups and developing friendships.

Understanding the Need to Control

There are a number of reasons why a child might feel the need to control a situation. The key to understanding why a child behaves a certain way is to think of his or her behaviors as expressions of emotional states. Stubbornness, inflexibility and bossiness are all expressions of emotional states — signals of how a child feels on the inside.

Emotional states provide parents with signals that something is happening that a child either likes or doesn’t like. When a child begins to feel irritable, stubborn or bossy, it tells us something is occurring in or around the child that is uncomfortable and that the child would like to change it. The problem for many children in such an emotional state is that they don’t attend to the signal; i.e., they don’t realize why they are reacting this way and instead respond with a certain behavior. In these moments, children who feel this way have a number of significant challenges:

- They don’t see themselves as bossy or irritable, which complicates addressing it.

- They usually feel the problem is occurring because of how someone else is acting.

- They don’t recognize their emotional state as a “signal” before acting in response, sometimes leading them to respond with a cannon when a slingshot would have sufficed.

It is not easy to help a child in such a situation. If she is unable or unwilling to discuss her feelings in the moment — and many are not able or willing — simply acknowledging that something has changed for her that is hard for her to talk about lets her know you recognize her distress and are attempting to understand her point of view. It may not make the feeling any less troubling, but could help her to reduce her previous level of rigidity and begin to explore various ways of responding more appropriately.

Identifying Controlling Behavior

As with all behaviors, we suggest that parents first distinguish whether a particular behavior is out of the ordinary or ongoing. Attempting to control comes in many forms, including resisting the family’s plans or insisting that playmates follow certain rules. Could the child’s need to exert control be a temporary response to a recent event, such as the arrival a new sibling or the start of a school year, or does it seem to be persistent?

Signs That a Child Needs Help

If a child’s seeking of external control is persistent and seems to consistently interfere with his ability to comfortably move through a typical day, as well as develop and sustain relationships with peers, more specialized help in exploring and working through the child’s internal difficulties may be needed. For further information about how and when to seek additional help, visit lucydanielscenter.org.

The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more.

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