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Taming Tiny Tyrants:...

Taming Tiny Tyrants: What to Do if Your Preschooler is Constantly Ordering You Around

Many parents of preschoolers can relate to the concerns of this mother of a three year old. This mom has already been diligent about applying rewards and consequences, and found them to be ineffective in changing her daughter’s controlling behavior. Sometimes, even conscientiously applied consequences don’t work because the child needs more than motivation—she needs parental guidance and support to help her figure out alternative behaviors that are better solutions to her problems.

I’m not comfortable with my daughter dictating how we behave— I think she needs to realize that she can’t control other people’s choices. It often happens in the car; she orders me to stop singing or change the song. She doesn’t like when I suggest that she covers her ears! Do you have any suggestions as to how to defuse this type of situation? It happens in other contexts as well, for example, I’m not cooking an egg correctly.

You are right that she needs to learn that she can’t control other people’s choices. She’s not alone in this! I know many adults, myself included, who are still getting used to that idea. <sheepish grin>

And it may be that at age three or four, the only strategy she can think of to try to stop sensory input that is overwhelming to her immature nervous system is to try to control the behavior of others. She’s going to need your help learning the more advanced social skills of negotiation, walking away, asking for clarification, or compromise.

Modeling in your own behavior what you want her to do will be key. It’s a humbling and ironic moment for us as parents when we realize we are trying to teach our children not to be controlling by trying to control them!

My hunch is that her controlling behavior is a red flag that she is becoming overwhelmed in some way. It takes a while for kids to develop those internal filters that allow adults to tune out unwanted auditory input. Even as adults, some people are more bothered than others by unpredictable or uncontrolled auditory stimuli.

Since this tends to be a problem in the car, you may want to get her a toy music player with headphones. That way, if she doesn’t like what she’s hearing in the environment, she has an acceptable way to regain control over her personal auditory space.

If she demands that you stop singing, a response such as, “If you’d rather hear something else, honey, it’s okay with me if you put on your headphones and play your music while I sing,” not only demonstrates acceptance and understanding of people’s different preferences, but also models that there are more effective solutions to sensory overload than ordering people around.

Later, during a quiet and connected moment with her, you might say, “Sweetie, today in the car when you yelled at me to stop singing, it seemed like something was really bothering you. I want to help you, but it’s hard for me to do that when I’m being yelled at. Let’s figure out a better way for you to let me know.”

Then teach her phrases like, “Mommy, something is bugging me. Will you help me figure it out?” And when she remembers to use this phrase with you, help her troubleshoot the source of her overload by asking questions such as, “Is it the music that’s bugging you? Or maybe the wind?  Could you be feeling hungry?”

When she identifies the stressor, help her find a solution that reduces the over-stimulation. Maybe some quiet time, a snack, a hat, or some headphones will help. Consequences in situations like these miss the point. She needs your assistance generating alternative solutions to her problems. Take care of the problem that triggered the behavior, and the behavior goes away by itself. 

When she gets critical about your egg cooking technique, she might be comparing an inner map of how it “should” be done with what she is seeing you do, and trying to reconcile the two. She sounds very bright, and would therefore be quite sensitive to discrepancy. Developmentally, she’s probably also very eager to identify the “right” way to do things.

It might be an interesting experiment, when and if you feel like it, to go along with it and invite her to help you. Which might sound like this: “Sounds like you have an idea about how eggs should be cooked, and it’s different from what you are seeing me do right now. Tell me more about your idea!”

Talking to her like this is helping her to learn and internalize the language to use when she wants to talk about a discrepancy in the future. (And it may take a while before you see evidence of this, but it IS sinking in! Kids understand concepts long before they can articulate them.)

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