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When Children are Controlling or Rigid

Controlling or rigid behaviors in childhood come in many forms: defiance, stubbornness, and bossiness, just to name a few. It is probably safe to say that nearly all children express themselves in one of these ways occasionally. Some children, however, tend to have more difficulty with being flexible and agreeable and their inflexibility may lead to power struggles at home and problems at school with participating in a group and developing friendships.

Understanding behavior

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/her behaviors as expressions of emotional states. Stubbornness, inflexibility, and bossiness are all expressions of emotional states, signals about how a child feels on the inside.

Emotional states provide us with signals that something is happening that we either like or don’t like. When a child begins to feel irritable, stubborn, or bossy, it tells us that something is occurring in or around the child that is uncomfortable and that the child has a wish to change it. The problem for many children in these emotional states is that they don’t attend to the signal (they don’t realize why they are reacting and instead react or behave in a certain way).  In these moments, a child has a number of significant challenges:

  • They don’t see themselves as bossy or irritable, making speaking to a child about it difficult.
  • 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 cannon when a slingshot would have sufficed.”

It is not easy to help a child in such a situation.  If they unable or unwilling to discuss their feelings in the moment, and many are not, simply acknowledging that something has changed for them and that it is hard to talk about lets the child know that you see they are distressed and that you are attempting to understand their point of view. It may not make the feeling any less troubling, but it may help a child begin to reduce subtly the level of rigidity and begin to explore various ways of intervening with more appropriate responses.

Noticing the moments when a child is more controlling

As with all behaviors, we suggest that parents first distinguish whether a particular behavior is one that is out of the ordinary or one that is ongoing. Attempting to control comes in many forms, including being resistant to going along with 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 new school year, or does it seem to be persistent?

Signs that a child may need help

Some children persistently seek control and have difficulty going along with others both at home and in school. 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 and 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 our website.


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