Your Parent Guide to Dealing With a Controlling Child

Reviewed by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Hayley Vaughan Smith, Person Centred Counsellor and The Ridge Practice and Everlief Child Psychology
Author: Hayley Vaughan-Smith, Person-Centred Counsellor

Most parents will experience their child asserting control over situations from time to time and the power struggle is usually brief. However, dealing with a controlling child on a regular basis can be very challenging for everyone.

The good news is there are plenty of strategies and skills you can use when dealing with a controlling child to find the best way to maintain the equilibrium in your household.  Read on and take that first step in understanding this topic.

What are the Features of a Controlling Child?

Here are a few examples of behaviours in a controlling child:

  • Dominating play with other children, asserting their rules, inflexible in accommodating others’ ideas.
  • Becoming vocal, upset or angry when their control is questioned.
  • Is defiant or assertive when asked to follow rules e.g. bedtime enforcement.
  • Ignores direct instructions.
  • Pushes limits.
  • Parents others (even when they don’t want to be parented).
  • Manipulates situations to get their own way.
little girl in a field assertive happy

Why Might Children Be Controlling?

Control issues in children have a source, or reason. Sometimes there are multiple factors contributing. Sometimes, when a child lacks confidence in themselves they can feel vulnerable. Therefore, taking some charge or control of areas that they do feel capable in can help them feel safe, noticed and important.

Other reasons might include:

  • Personality factors such as being strong-willed.
  • Responding to types of parental control.  If as a parent you set unrealistic expectations or harsh rules and regulations, a child may respond by trying to gain control.
  • Learned behaviour. If a child sees others getting what they need/want through specific behaviours, they may emulate this.
  • Crying out for routine and structure.
  • Pushing for autonomy and age appropriate freedom.
  • Learning and communication challenges such as ADHD & Autism.

When a child’s needs aren’t being met, a child may assert psychological control in an effort to gain attention. Even negative attention can meet a need in them.

Young Children

Young kids are starting to get out in the world, transitioning into school settings, forming friendships.  They will need lots of support, guidance and reassurance from you, especially when things go wrong.  Without this, you may experience oppositional behavior from your child as they don’t have the blueprint to know what to do without help.

group of children clapping together

Be Proactive

When a young child’s behaviour becomes challenging and escalates, it’s important to deal with it proactively to avoid a power struggle.  As the parent and adult, it’s up to you to take charge and ensure your child understands what is and isn’t OK behaviour.

Explore when your child typically displays emerging power and control issues – is there a  trigger or flash point you notice?  Perhaps bed or homework time is particularly challenging and stressful.  How could you prepare or do things differently?

When dealing with a controlling child, here’s how to be proactive:

  1. Stay calm and use your normal speaking voice.
  2. Give effective instructions by telling them, not asking e.g. “Adam, come in for supper now please”.  If you have an oppositional child, asking them gives them the option to say ‘no’.
  3. Give one instruction at a time. Young children and children with attention problems don’t typically respond well to multiple requests.
  4. Use positive language. Offering positive choices will give your child a little bit of control. Try to focus on what your child can do instead of what they are not allowed to do. For example: Instead of saying “There’s no pudding until you’ve eaten your dinner”, say “I’ve got your favourite pudding for you after you’ve eaten your dinner.
  5. Try to nip controlling behaviours in the bud to avoid bigger problems when they’re older.

Young kids require their emotional needs to be met.   This isn’t just achieved with hugs and kisses (although these are important!).  Tune into your child’s behaviour. What is it telling you about what your child wants or needs?

How to do this….

Boundaries and Routines

A great way to help young kids feel safe and secure is to set healthy boundaries and have a routine.  Knowing what to expect can help a child to feel more secure.  Set routines such as bed times, mealtimes, play and homework. When your child knows what to expect, they will feel more in control of their life.

Inevitably, parenting and adapting to our child’s needs is a constantly changing landscape.  As they change and develop, so will the need in your parenting approach. Setting the intent with boundaries will see a child through to adulthood. You just need to adjust the expectations and build boundaries that are age appropriate and purposeful as they mature.

7-11s

As children’s personalities develop their need to feel valued and heard strengthens. A great way to support this is to actively seek out their views, opinions and ideas. Give them space to test and try things out, let them make mistakes so they can learn something from them.

Older kids’ behaviour can be challenging when communication becomes difficult or breaks down.  This often happens with authority figures such as teachers or coaches.  A good example is the 10-11 year old transitioning to senior school (in the UK, at least). The vulnerability and uncertainty they face can lead them to use controlling behaviour in areas they do have capacity in.

tween girl sad reflective

Support this by providing reassurance and talking through the difficulties together.

The best approaches when dealing with a controlling child are to:-

  • Check your own behaviour and responses to challenging situations. Can you demonstrate how to deal with challenges in a calm way and work towards solutions?
  • Understand your child’s controlling ways. Are there patterns or flash points that you notice?
  • Establish rules and structure. Kids like rules and understanding what the limits are. If you find it difficult to get your child to listen, structure can really help
  • Try to steer away from viewing your child as having problem behaviour. Somewhere in their behaviour are answers to why they feel they need to control their environment or the people in it.
  • Be clear about what you expect from them. Describe what unacceptable behaviours are and why.
  • Ask how you can help them.

Teens

The parent-child relationship with older children can be particularly challenging.  There can be a fine line between being there when they need you and identifying when they want space to assert their independence. Teens are figuring out who they are and often feel the need for a sense of control in their own life, but don’t want to be controlled by their parents.

The teen years can be a particularly hard time in a child’s life.  Academic achievement is important, getting good grades requires focus and effort, so too does looking after their mental health and being sociable.

Natural Born Leaders

Sometimes, a child who is a natural born leader can find their skills being inappropriately expressed.  They can come across as controlling or bossy.  Being a natural leader is a strength to harness and nurture.   They may need some guidance on how to lead effectively  but can you hand over some responsibility to them, allowing them to lead and work things out?  A child who has a sense of control in areas that they have a strength in, will have less need to grasp it from every area.

What can you do if your teen is displaying controlling behaviours?

First of all, try to help them develop a tolerance towards things that they have no control over and support them to engage with the things they can control. In other words, can they learn to “sit with” that feeling of not being in complete control? It’s a really important skill.

Do’s and Don’ts

Do acknowledge and validate your child’s feelings and beliefs. You don’t have to agree with them.

Don’t get sucked into arguments. This will just escalate the problem.  Try to remain calm.

Do encourage them and help them to identify their areas of capability and strength.

Don’t label your teenager’s behaviour. Avoid saying ‘you’re rude’, ‘you never…’, ‘you always…’, you’re lazy’.

Do ensure a consistent approach to parenting.

Don’t tolerate abusive or illegal behavours.

Do use positive language, even when situations are difficult. Remember to state things your teen does well before working on the things they don’t. For example, “It’s much nicer when you talk to me calmly, I can hear you”, then “when you’re angry, do you feel heard?”

Don’t make it about you. If your teen is controlling, they’re trying to communicate something.

Do recognise when your teen has outgrown boundaries and requires a reset. Your teen has more freedom, less fear and wants to test limits which can lead to power struggles.

TAKE THE QUIZ!

Let’s return to thinking about children of all ages now.

Avoiding and Managing Power Struggles

A power struggle is characterised by a child refusing to do something and a parent continuing to insist.  It can become a battle, tempers start to fray and can be more and more difficult to get your child to comply.

From a child’s perspective, battling and pushing your buttons can delay the task asked of them and if you give in (to keep the peace, or maybe your sanity!), they get what they want.  This teaches them that their approach works.

a tween boy outdoors drinking from a water bottle

In truth, the more you argue, become frustrated or angry, the less likely you are to listen and hear each other.  The result is usually unsatisfactory.  When a child is controlling, what they actually need is emotional space to understand and process that is going on.

So, what would be an appropriate response when your child is digging their heels in and controlling the situation?

Here’s an example. You can apply this approach to different situations.

Charlie, age 7, doesn’t want to wear his school coat….

Mum                Charlie, it’s time to go to school, put your coat on.

Charlie             No, I don’t like my school coat, it’s ugly.

Mum                What makes you say that?

Charlie             It’s a horrid colour.

Mum                Well, it’s part of your uniform and it’s going to be really cold today. You will

need it.

Charlie             No I won’t, I’m not going to wear it.

Mum                Ok Charlie, I’ll take it in the car in case you change your mind, but if you choose not to wear it you will have to accept you might feel cold today at school.

In this example, mum is really clear about what she expects of Charlie and why.

Charlie isn’t budging!

So Mum explains what the consequences might be and leaves the decision with Charlie.

Rather than insisting and getting into a battle, she is allowing Charlie to think about his decision on the ride to school. Ultimately he will face the natural consequences in which there may be a lesson for him to learn.

Reframing Your Child’s Need For Control

For parents, reframing your child’s need for control can be an important skill to have in your armoury – if your usual approaches to your children’s behaviour don’t work, try ‘reframing’ the situation. So, what does ‘reframing’ mean and how can it help?

dad and little boy eating ice cream

Reframing is about looking at a situation or behaviour from another angle, through a different lens.  The best thing you can do is get curious with your child. It may not be obvious from their behaviour what their worry or fear is. Use reframing to challenge assumptions and automatic thoughts about your child and why they are controlling.

As a counsellor, some of the most purposeful work I see in therapy is when a client experiences a shift of perspective, a mindset shift.  They get curious and are able to see a situation through a different lens which leads to different, better results.

If You Need More Help

Dealing with a controlling child isn’t easy and you might find discipline strategies aren’t working.  So, seek professional help if you are struggling and concerned for you and your child.  Start by talking to your family doctor who can refer you to appropriate support pathways.

Professionals such as clinical psychologists, counsellors and psychotherapists can support and provide your child with strategies, interventions and skills to help them understand their relationship with control and how to manage it.

Family Therapy

A controlling child can have a negative impact on relationships within the family, with friends, at school, and social lives can also be negatively impacted. Perhaps you are subject to aggressive behaviour, verbal attacks or emotional blackmail from your child. Family therapy can be really helpful in allowing everyone a voice and platform to explore what’s happening for them.

close up teen boy with badminton racket

Parenting Support

Dealing with a controlling child is something you can talk to other parents about.  Parenting support groups are a great way to share experiences and gain better insight into how you can help your child with their issues.  Ask your doctor or school about local groups that meet in person or on-line.

Summary

Dealing with a controlling child may not be straightforward, taking time, patience and understanding from parents and others.

Remember, a child exerting control is often due to a lack of confidence or belief that they are capable. Support them by helping to build their confidence.  Nurture their strengths and reassure them with love and empathy.

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The 15 Best Grounding Exercises for Kids (Free PDF)

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Hayley Vaughan Smith is a Person Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and Counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.

Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and has worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care since 2019. Being a mum to 3 girls is hard work and rewarding in equal measure and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy – Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.

Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips and great ideas to support teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.

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