In this week’s article on successful parenting, I’m probably going to hit some nerves. I’m talking about controlling or dominating children and how to help them. It is a frustrating topic particularly for life coach for kids experts like myself. However, I have to ask you to bear with me, we can get through this together.
We all have pet-hates, some people hate people eating with their mouth open. Others can’t stand leaving food on the plate or go mad when their house is untidy. I don’t have many of them (well, I don’t enjoy people eating with their mouth open but I am working on it), but I have pet-hate words.
The one that raises all my alarms is; control. This is especially crucial in a parent-child relationship. I can’t seem to stand it when in a parent coaching session I hear: “He needs to control his temper” “I can’t control my kid”.
I call it my personal c-word. It just makes me cringe. Let me explain why and how I go about dealing with controlling or dominating children. As always, I will provide examples and some tips for you to read. Also, feel free to read other related articles in the blog like “talking with teenagers” or “managing unruly behaviour”.
Challenging behaviour, controlling behaviour, dominating children, children displaying aggressive behaviour
Unfortunately, this is a lot more common than it appears. I can remember one time in parenting classes that a parent told me “it is not nice to be around him/her” or “he/she is a great kid but I feel he is using me” or “when he/she is like this, he/she can’t control himself/herself and I can’t control myself too”. Consequently, all these conversations tend to be very emotional and parents feel way out of their depth. Their love for their children is mixed with the very human experiences of having a child’s behaviour dominating them and the house.
Let me introduce a case study about a controlling child
A few years ago I was working as a life coach for kids with a 12-year old (we will name her Mary) that was showing early signs of self-harming. Also, her behaviour at home and school was becoming erratic and a lot of the time aggressive towards her parents and friends. We had a number of kids coaching sessions and, in all honesty, the result was, at best, volatile. However, she enjoyed coming to talk with me and I felt the relationship was improving. A big part of the work of coaching kids is to create space for things to eventually happen. I can’t express how frustrating that “eventually” might be and it is sometimes an act of faith to believe that we will get there.
One day, she suddenly changed the topic and said:
Mary: “I was four when I knew I had it.”
Me: “What happened when you were four?”
Mary: We were getting ready to go to the nursery, we were running late and my mum was a bit tense. I am not sure what happened but I believe I threw something or broke something. My mum started shouting and I was so afraid I started crying. After a few seconds, my mum came to me and apologized, hugged me and was soft.
Mary: And I knew I had it.
Me: What did you have?
Mary: Control. I could control my parents.
I frequently use this example during kids coaching and parent coaching sessions to illustrate how our mind makes decisions and then repeats them. The only trouble is that many of those set-in-stone decisions are made when we are way too young and can’t really judge them, like in the case above.
Important note: The girl in the example was not consciously seeking control. It was purely subconscious. It was only through coaching kids’ conversations that the feelings and ideas became conscious to her. I believe this to be the case for the vast majority of children I have supported (and that’s many hundreds of them)
As impactful as that part of the conversation was, the follow up was a lot more revealing and powerful.
Over the next years, Mary made ‘controlling’ a way of being. Her parents noticed that she was determined and stubborn, but it was all manageable even charming at times. There were two of them and one of her. She was small and most of her demands could easily be met. Even in school, she could be demanding but charming and it was more or less easy to resolve. This is one of the points I find really tough to explain during parent coaching sessions.
However, things changed for the worst when she moved into secondary school. She then realized she didn’t have much control at all. Her teachers and friend would have a defence influence on her (as for any other kid of this age). The work from school got a lot more demanding, failing was a lot more noticeable.
The social clique could set you in the “popular group” or the “boring group” without much to do with her. The more she realized she didn’t have control anymore, the more she craved control. Thus, she started pulling out of school a few days here or there. At home, her behaviour was becoming a tyranny. Her parents would bend backward to please her but at one point or another, she would lash out and they would reciprocate. Doing homework or getting her out of her phone would be a full-blown out battle with only one loser.
As a life coach for kids, the reason why I am bringing this difficult example is that it is all rooted in that word Control. This is the need for something that, according to me, doesn’t really exist. However, like in every article I write, I aim to provide the two sides of the coin—what is it that is happening inside the kid’s mind and what can parents do in this situation.
But, let’s start by giving you a few bullet point ideas on what to expect when overcoming controlling children:
- Your kid is not enjoying it either
- He/she is the kid/teenager. You are the adult. You have different responsibilities in resolving this situation (as well as vested interest)
- Yes, I am afraid it’s going to take time and consistency. No magic wand here either.
- Yes, it can be done. It’s been done before and it will be done in the future. Believe you will do it.
From my experience as a life coach for kids, I would suggest you write those four kids coaching points on a piece of paper and keep it with you. Put it in your wallet and read it regularly. They are all hugely important. However, I am sure you will rip up the paper, swear at me or cry in desperation in no distant time. But by persisting, I am sure one day you will look back and say: hmmm, maybe Javier was right.
So, what’s going on with your child? Why are they demanding control? Why are they using aggressive behaviour, being a controlling or dominating child or just can’t manage to take no for an answer without starting a personal WWIII
There are many reasons a child can become dominating or controlling.
Through hundreds of parent coaching and kids coaching sessions, I have found that the reasons come in many ways and shapes. However, in the end, there is a tremendous lack of self-confidence. This creates a fear of being rejected, or less than somebody else (siblings, friends), less than what they think you expect from them. These fears are created early in their formative years for multiple reasons. In the vast majority of the clients I see, they were created in very innocent, well-intentioned situations that got totally messed up (the child was tired, or a combination of conversations happened on the same day) or simply by small repetitions of negative thoughts.
What is most important is the feeling that the situation created. Behind challenging behaviour, comes the need to control the situation. However, behind this need, we can find a lack of confidence and behind this lack of confidence is the need to feel physically, emotionally or sociably safe. Let me give you an example. Place yourself in a 4, 5 or 6 years old kid mentality. He or she has had a couple of situations in school/home, maybe they were over impulsive, or they opted not to listen and got into trouble. Or somebody blamed them for something they hadn’t done. These are everyday situations I encounter as a parent and in my work as a life coach for kids, and, in the majority of cases, we just brush them away. But in some cases, we don’t and a repetitive thought process starts. Something like this:
“I feel I am different, maybe not good enough. I am doing my best but I can’t avoid thinking I will blow it up and everybody will see me for what I am: a failure. This feeling is burning inside me. What if my parents find out? They might prefer my siblings to me. It is so painful I need to control it. I want my parents to think about the world of me, I can’t do the wrong things, but I feel I will do them and if I do…. No, I need to control what’s going on.”
I guess you can see how the little kids can struggle with this situation. Heck, anybody would struggle! As the need for control becomes more pressing, the realization that they don’t have it becomes more clear. As this happens, they will aim to force it and enforce it. Anything that feels like out of control will trigger their response/defense system.
Controlling or dominating children are trying to create a safe haven.
And here, the situation complicates a bit. As they demonstrate negative behaviour, they also observe that sometimes (many times or even almost always), there is a benefit. The parents or friends might eventually give up and concede in their request. Or as described to me by an 11 years old girl during kids coaching session: “after the argument, mum comes and we have a chat. It feels good, she is only with me.”
After repeating this pattern, the combination of the need for control, lack of confidence, and benefit obtained becomes so tangled that the young person can’t differentiate the beginning from the end, the reason from the consequence and it is all a vicious circle. To make things worse, every time they do it, they know they shouldn’t have done it and feel even worse about themselves.
So, here you have it. As I explain in parenting classes, your kid is not enjoying the bad behaviour either. Not a little bit…. well, maybe he or she enjoyed that after-argument connection. However, they would love to have that connection without a negative feeling.
I can imagine many of you now thinking “what did I do?” “How could I get it so wrong?”. Well, let me stop you there. Obviously, I don’t have a magic ball, but if you are taking the trouble of reading this article, it probably means that you have their best interest at heart, your intentions have been good. Therefore, there is no need to get into the Guilty train. That journey takes you nowhere, helps nobody. So, stop it. It’s not worth it.
So, how do we go about helping children who are controlling or dominating?
In a word: carefully.
As a professional life coach for kids, the first thing I’ll suggest is that you have to put yourself together. Don’t take it personally and don’t blame yourself or others. It is a situation and, most likely, had many reasons. Don’t waste your time on finding the reasons—at least not just yet. Instead, use your energy to keep calm and focus. Subsequently, believe that your kid can overcome those fears (those I mentioned or others) and will become a fantastic kid.
Secondly, aim to connect with the feelings your child is experiencing. This is an important topic in all my parenting classes. I mean, the deeper feelings, not the anger or frustration. Also, aim to connect (not understand) the emotions that are triggering those feelings. One important thing to mention here is that you will never be sure if the feeling you think is the right one. It doesn’t matter, any good connection at that level will be good.
Thirdly, stay with him/her. This doesn’t mean hugging them or constraining them or on being top of them. It means to be physically and emotionally with them. So, it is not the best time to pick up your phone, do dinner or—please never do this—video their actions. Just stay there with and for them.
The main goal is to help them feel safe and reassured.
Fourthly, eliminate control from your vocabulary. During parents coaching sessions, I advise them to change it to words that are more empowering and flexible. I tend to use “manage” or “deal with”. The reality is that we don’t have control over almost anything in this life. What we can do is to manage a given situation the best way we can. Sometimes it will work, sometimes it will not work. That’s OK.
I find that many parents make a battleground out of “control” ie. “I can’t let my kid control our lives” or “I should be able to control my child.” Well, if you see this as a battle, you have already lost it. The more you aim to gain control, the more the kid will feel they are losing it, so they will only up their game to regain it. The difference is that you have certain lines you will not cross. Your child doesn’t have any red lines, they will say and do whatever is necessary and that’s when you will lose. So, change the game, forget about controlling them (do you like being controlled?) and start working on how to help them. Eventually, you will be able to manage the situation.
Fifth (is there a fifthly word? Sounds strange to me): Accept and help them accept that things don’t always go according to plan. The key question is: “and now what?” “What is that I can do?” “How do I go forward?” This is a question you can ask your children. Even as young as five or six, they will have some ideas. Perhaps, you may want to suggest others, but remember it is a joint job.
Finally, and this is the big one for me, I want you to start thinking, and help your child thinking on these lines: what is that you want to control vs what is that you can influence.
Practical parenting exercise in supporting a domineering child.
Take a pen and a piece of paper and draw two boxes. On one side you will write what are the things you want to achieve (most likely, those we want to “control”). On the other side, you will write what are the things you can do to influence the outcome on the first box. I know, it sounds a bit strange and confusing, but bear with me.
For instance: The topic is to help my child resolve his temper.
What do I want to achieve? I want to have quiet evenings, happy family time, be able to provide comments to their drawings or homework without having an almighty argument, siblings getting a lot together. Ultimately, I want my child to be happy.
Do you notice anything about that list?
As nice as it sounds, the reality is that we have no control over any of those things. Even as a professional life coach for kids, I still can’t force my way into their heads. It is not within my power to grant those things as it involves other people or family members. Unfortunately, as much as I want all those things, they are not within my power.
Therefore, the more you pay attention to that box (what I want to achieve), the more frustrated you will become. I believe we get frustrated because we can’t get it and we know it. Furthermore, every second, minute, hour or day I spend thinking on that box is double wasted. Wasted once because it is not my “gift to give”, it doesn’t depend on me exclusively. Wasted twice, because I am not using my energy in the right way. Again, this is another point I often find hart to explain in parenting classes. A lot of questions will always come up.
Now, think about the second box. What is that I can do—sort of kids coaching technique—that hopefully,/maybe/fingers-crossed, could influence help my child resolve his temper?
Here I would write things like: I will keep calm, I will ensure he is aware of any change of routine, I will ask how he is feeling, I will allow him to express himself, I will keep an eye on the sibling relationship as maybe he is getting the short straw….., etc.
Did you notice something? Every single thing starts with the pronoun “I” and most of those things are within our reach. We can do something about them. Those are good indications that we are getting it right.
Ok, it is already the longest article I have written so far. As you can imagine I could go on and on. However, I want to leave it here. I hope these ideas help you understand and connect with your child and create strategies to help them. Remember, they are not enjoying it either.
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HAVE A GREAT DAY. REMEMBER, KEEP YOURSELF HAPPY AND KEEP YOUR KIDS HAPPY BY HELPING YOURSELF AND HELPING YOUR KIDS