Why is my kid so bossy?

How to survive when your kids think they're in charge.

Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,

My daughter bosses everyone around these days: Me, my husband, her brother, even her friends when she plays with them at the park or online. She’s otherwise quite well-mannered, but it’s like she thinks she's in charge of everyone. What do I do?


Pulling Out All of My Hair

Dear Pulling Out All of My Hair,

I’ve received this question from three parents over the past several months, so it’s high time I addressed it. But it hasn’t been easy. Over the past four weeks, I’ve spent waaaaaaaay too much time sifting through the academic literature trying to understand the roots of bossy behavior in children. But as I quickly discovered, “bossiness” is not, in fact, a clinical term. As far as I can tell, nobody studies the ubiquitous behavior that drives parents up the wall — although researchers do study related issues, like peer relationships, temperament and controlling behavior.

That last one is actually quite relevant, because as I eventually learned, bossiness is all about control. When kids tell their friends no, you can’t use these Legos, you have to use the ones over there, they are barking orders in order to gain or maintain control of their surroundings (and their peers).

This need for control relates to an issue I discussed at length in my last newsletter: Anxiety. Kids right now are scared and discombobulated, and when kids feel scared and discombobulated, they hunt for ways to feel in charge. “Gaining control is a way to get through anxiety. If I'm nervous and fearful, then those things that I can have control of make me feel better,” explains Tovah Klein, a child psychologist at Barnard College. There are plenty of ways that kids can take control of their surroundings: They may line up their toys or get obsessive about how their belongings are organized. They may demand to know exactly what is going to happen when each day. And they may, unfortunately, become bossy little jerks. So if your kid has recently been acting like Eric Cartman from South Park, I promise, you’re not alone.

Here’s the good news: Your kid’s bossiness, though extremely annoying, may not be a reason to worry. This need for control is normal and expected given the circumstances. And if your son tells all his friends what to do, but his friendships seem to be doing just fine, you don’t necessarily need to intervene. Some bossy kids “seem to have a way with their peers — they do it in a way that their peers accept them as leaders, do what they say, but without there being conflict,” says Maria Gartstein, a child psychologist at Washington State University who studies temperament.

Klein agrees — before you jump in and yell at your kid for bossing her friends around, take a minute to observe the dynamic and how it’s playing out. “Parents need to step back,” she says. Then ask yourself: “How much of this is that I'm embarrassed, and how much of this is really the children aren't able to work it out?”

Take a minute to consider, too, whether gender stereotypes might be fueling some of your annoyance or discomfort. In our culture, females are expected to be passive and demure, so assertiveness in girls can feel wrong or out of place even when it’s perfectly appropriate. Indeed, research has shown that parents are often less tolerant when daughters act aggressively with peers and siblings than when sons do. Is it possible that your daughter’s bossiness could be re-framed in a positive way — as confidence or assertiveness? Would you be this annoyed about her behavior if she were a boy? (My upcoming book discusses in detail the ways parents often unwittingly encourage kids to conform to gender stereotypes, why it’s bad, and what we can do to stop.)

Still, if your kid’s bossiness is causing problems with friends or seems over-the-top, you can nudge things in a better direction. Here’s how.

  1. Help your kid become more flexible.

If your kid is having trouble going with the flow, talk to them about it — not in the midst of a conflict, but afterwards, once everyone has calmed down. First, Klein suggests, acknowledge the negative emotions they may have felt. It’s hard when your friends want to do something different from what you want, you might start. But your friend was upset because you refused to play the game their way. Is there anything you think you could do differently next time? Talk about how sometimes, you have to do things that your friends (or parents) want to do, even if you don’t particularly want to — being a good friend (or family member) sometimes means sacrificing your wants for a little while for the sake of others.

Also, suggest ways for your child to communicate their needs in a less forceful way. Sometimes, bossy or dominant behavior reflects the fact that kids “don’t have the language to navigate compromise, collaboration and cooperation,” explains Paula Yust, a Ph.D. psychology student at Duke University who studies peer relationships. What might be a way for you to tell Luke that you don’t really like his game, without hurting his feelings? How could you share your ideas with Anna without making it feel like you don’t like hers?

One approach that can be helpful when kids struggle in certain situations is collaborative problem-solving. I’ve mentioned this strategy before; it’s described in detail in Ross Greene’s book The Explosive Child. If your kid has a hard time not being bossy whenever a certain friend is over, approach your kid at a neutral time and ask them questions to try to understand why they’re having problems. You might start by saying something like, I’ve noticed that whenever Teddy is over, you end up getting upset about what games you play. What’s up? You don’t want to guess at the root problem, or tell your kid what to you do — you just want to understand from their perspective what’s going wrong. You might have to ask a few times before you get a clear answer, or even ask in different ways over the course of a few days, and that’s OK.

Once you feel like you understand the problem, define it aloud, and voice your own concerns, too. So you feel like Teddy doesn’t listen when you tell him what you want to do. The thing is, I think that Teddy might feel like he doesn’t ever get a say in what you play when he’s here.

The next step is to brainstorm — collaboratively, with your child — potential solutions to the problem that will address both of your concerns. It might start with you saying Let’s think about how we can solve this problem, or I wonder if there’s a way for us to make sure you get to do what you want when Teddy’s over, but that Teddy also gets to do some of what he wants.

It’s a good idea to give your child the first crack at a solution. If they (or you) can come up with an idea that addresses both of your concerns, try it out — and tweak it over time if necessary. Often, as parents, we misinterpret why our kids are behaving the way they are, and the solutions we force on them don’t give them what they need to succeed. When we take the time to understand the situation from their perspective, and hear their ideas regarding what might help, we can come up with collaborative solutions our kids can actually work with.

  1. Give your kid a sense of control at home.

This is a tough one given that pretty much nothing is under our control right now. But try to think of ways to build structure and control into your kid’s days, even if just in small ways. Maybe you let them choose what’s for breakfast on Saturdays. Or perhaps you involve them in decisions you used to make on your own. I spent yesterday morning shopping online with my 6-year-old for spring clothes, when normally I would do that all on my own.

Another way to give kids a sense of power and control is to lay off them a little bit. I’m working on a story right now about how the pandemic is affecting teens and what parents can do to support them. One of my sources, a middle school counselor, told me that she no longer makes her own teenagers clean their rooms; one easy freedom she can grant them right now is the right to keep their rooms the way they like. “It's like their apartment for now,” she says. If we grant kids a sense of control over their lives and their spaces, they may feel less inclined to boss everyone else around.

  1. If you’re organizing playdates, keep them on the short side.

As we transition into spring, and outdoor playdates in many parts of the country become possible again (thank god!!!!), we should slowly ease our kids back into the world of socializing rather than throw them in headfirst, Klein suggests. After all, they’re very out of practice, and the “lack of consistent contact with peers, for some children, is going to increase that bossiness,” she says. (Hell, I don’t even know how to interact with people anymore, and I had 42 years of practice before this thing hit.) When kids are in school five days a week surrounded by their peers, they slowly adapt and learn how to make concessions. But after months of being home and getting to play with their Legos exactly how they want to, kids are undoubtedly going to have a tough time remembering how to share those Legos again when they’re playing with their friends.

So it might help to schedule short playdates at first. This may be the opposite of what you think your kid will want — Oh, Emma hasn’t seen her best friend in six months, so let’s have a six hour playdate! — but jumping in too fast could backfire and spark bossiness and conflict. And if the first few playdates are rough, remember that they will probably get easier. Give your kid support, help them problem-solve — and hopefully, by summer, you really can send your kid off on a six hour playdate. Won’t that be a dream.

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