Understanding Your Controlling Child

Ever feel like you're in a constant tug-of-war with your child? Like every time you suggest anything your child has to do or say the opposite?

Does this sound familiar?

"Here you go, sausage and chips."

"I don't like sausage! I'm not eating it!"

"You liked sausage last week. You ate 3 last week!"

"I don't like sausage! I want pizza!"

Arghh! What happens next? You get into an argument - you've spent ages cooking and she can darn well eat it! Meanwhile, the sausages are going cold, and neither of you is going to enjoy them!

But what if I tell you that it doesn't have to be a war zone, where one side wins while the other side loses?

What if I tell you that sometimes the way to stop a child from being so controlling is to hand over some more control?

Let me explain...

Put yourself in the shoes of a child for a moment:

Parents tell you when to get up in the morning; which clothes to wear; what breakfast cereal to eat; when you're leaving for school; how you're getting there.

Teachers and schools have all kinds of rules in place - when to talk; when not to talk; what we're going to learn about today; where you're allowed to play and when; when you can eat; what you can and can't eat (fruit at break time, no juice or nuts etc); when you can go home.

Back at home, parents once more may be in charge of when you do homework; whether you go to after school clubs; which ones; if you can play on your PlayStation today and for how long; when you have to come off your PlayStation (even if you're in the middle of something really exciting); when you eat dinner and what it is; when you go to bed.

Phew! What control does this child have over their own life?

Not a lot! And when someone feels they are out of control what do they do? They fight to find something they can control. Anything! This could be the food they choose to eat, or whether they go to sleep, choosing not to wear a jacket when it's clearly snowing outside or choosing to wait an extra 5 minutes before coming off of their console.

But what if you're really laid back?

How can mental health affect the need to control?

Anxiety is basically a feeling of powerlessness and fear that something bad will happen. In order to feel better, and to combat the anxiety, people will often try and find something - anything - they can feel they have control over. If you have control over something then you feel less powerless, so often anxious children can try and control everything around them because then they'll know what to expect. If they know what to expect, it's all a little less scary.

Are you holding one end of the rope?:

A tug of war involves at least two people.

It's really important that you are honest with yourself and ask yourself if you can be controlling too.

Consider if any of these sound familiar:

  1. Taking over what the child is doing when they struggle - Why let them struggle with that shoelace when I can do it quickly, and we don't want to be late?

  2. Saying "because I said so" instead of explaining -The rules are the rules and children should just follow them

  3. Attempting to control who the child is friends with - That girl is nasty and will only cause my son upset. If I stop him seeing her now, he won't get hurt.

  4. Taking over a homework project - If I just do this bit, and that bit, and this bit then it'll be great and we're doing enjoying working together. Aren't we?

  5. Not allowing the child to do new things or things which evoke anxiety in the parent - I know you're 10 and the park is just across the road but I'd rather be safe than sorry

  6. Insisting that a child chooses certain GCSEs - I know you want to be an artist, but business studies will give you something to fall back on.

  7. Refusing to let them do something because 'they won't do it properly' - What's the point of getting them to hoover when I only have to go over and do it again?

  8. Fixing their problems for them - Don't worry, I'm sure you didn't mean to come home with a chocolate bar in your pocket, don't get upset. I'll explain to the shopkeeper and it'll all be okay

  9. Not allowing children any privacy - If I don't go in her room and tidy up she'll just live in a pigsty!

If you find you relate to several of these then perhaps it might be time to put down the rope and let your child have a little more control. This might mean that your child needs to face their fears, accept consequences, fight their own battles but saving your child from these things doesn't help them.

How to give your child more control without throwing away healthy boundaries

Letting your child have control doesn't mean you are giving up control, or letting them run wild!

Boundaries should always be in place for the important stuff - bedtimes, swearing, violence, food times - know what is important and set boundaries around these, but for everything else, you can give choices:

"Here you go, sausage and chips."

"I don't like sausage! I'm not eating it!"

"That's fine, I'll put it in the fridge for later."

"I want pizza!"

"I've made sausage. You can choose to eat that now or later, it's up to you."

Stay calm, give them the two choices you are happy with, and then don't give in and make them anything else.

Controlled choices look like this:

Would you like mum or dad to put you to bed? (Not the choice over whether to go to bed, but the choice of how)

Shall we walk to the car or hop? (The expectation is you are still going to the car, but the child can choose how)

Would you like a shower or a bath? (Either way, your child will be clean but they can choose how)

Letting them learn from natural consequences

If your child refuses to put on a coat in the rain, then let them get wet. They'll learn the consequence of the behaviour. Perhaps quietly take it with you, and just as quietly hand it over if they ask for it (Don't say I told you do!) but they will learn from their own mistake.

If they refuse to do their homework let them know that it's their choice, but they are also choosing the consequence of their teacher being annoyed at them.

If you reminded them to grab their PE bag and they didn't, don't make a special trip back to school with it. Let them learn the consequence of forgetting it - usually having to wear stuff that doesn't quite fit from lost property (if they just miss PE class and watch from the sidelines and tat's what they want then ave a quiet word with the teacher about not letting that happen!)

Talk it through, empathetically

Try looking at the situation from your child's point of view:

"Here you go, sausage and chips."

"I don't like sausage! I'm not eating it!"

"You really don't feel like sausage huh?"


"Oh, I get disappointed when it's not the food I want too. It can make me feel sad. I don't have any pizza today. What can we do to make it better?"

Your child might still refuse to eat, but they might just choose not to eat the sausage and eat the rest, or suggest having pizza tomorrow. Either way, you might have opened a dialogue instead of you both sticking your heels in while the food goes cold.

And most importantly:

Control is often caused by feeling powerless, anxious and lacking self-esteem so give your child opportunities to build their confidence by doing things that they are good at. Offer lots of praise and positive reinforcement. If they feel good about themselves, they are less likely to feel the need to control others.

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