How to Take Control When Your Child Wants Control

Many parents don’t realize that setting rules and boundaries for their child is just the beginning of teaching appropriate behavior. Children aren’t born with the ability to understand rules – it’s a learned behavior. Just because rules and boundaries are established does not mean children will be receptive towards following them.

More often then not, children manipulate rules set by authority figures, especially parents. Parents often get the brunt of their child’s disobedience because the home is a child’s safeguard – it’s the place that will always love and accept them, and where they tend to take the most liberties with their behavior. So, what do you do when your child has taken control of the household into his own hands?

Why Your Child Is Behaving Badly:

Before this question can be answered, it’s important to understand why your child is acting out. Many parents don’t realize that they actually do have complete control of all situations. Children learn certain responses to certain situations over time, and once responses are learned, it takes only moments before that child will start applying that learned response to all other situations.

For example, say you take your three-year-old child to the store and she asks for candy. You say “no,” so the child screams louder. You continue to say “no,” and the child get even louder – screaming, crying, stomping her feet. Some parents will respond to this by giving the child what she wants because it immediately stops the behavior; however, what that child just learned was, “If I’m told I can’t have something, I need to scream and cry as loud as I can in order to get it.”

In this situation, you have just created a whole chain of learned responses for that child. She may not have engaged in that behavior during other situations, but she will now remember to apply this strategy in the future.

What “Giving In” Teaches Your Child:

Bad behavior always gets worse before it gets better – this is why many parents are unable to stand their ground and keep control. But that inevitably leads to the child controlling his parents. He learns that he will always get what he wants if he continues to act inappropriate.

It’s understandable that parents become easily frustrated when establishing control with their child. It can often seem like a vicious power struggle, but it doesn’t have to be. Children, like adults, want to feel as though they are in control of their lives. They don’t want to be told what to do or when to do it.

How To Gain Control Again:

How do you regain control of this situation? Fundamentally, you allow your children to feel as though they are in control as long as they remain appropriate. But the second they are not appropriate, you step in and be the parent who asserts control. Understanding this concept takes time for both parents and children, but ultimately, children need to be taught how they can control their environment.

3 Tips To Control Your Child’s Behavior:

  1. Control your reaction. Reacting to inappropriate behaviors not only feeds into the bad behavior by providing a form of attention, but also causes the parent more stress and anxiety. Break the vicious cycle by controlling the one thing you can: your own behavior.
  2. Your child’s mood will mirror your own. When you come home stressed, upset, or angry, your child picks up on that and acts in a similar fashion. They do not do this on purpose – it’s part of a natural reaction called imitation. This is an important fundamental method children use to acquire new skills.
  3. Your child needs and wants structure. Children like structure and routine. They like to feel a sense of comfort and to know what to expect, and you’re the most important person who can provide that. If a child is in a state of constant change, she may feel anxious or tense, and inappropriate behavior will soon follow. A lot of children will act out because they are anxious, but may not know or understand how to communicate that to others.

Along the lines of structure, children need consistency. Couples who have two different parenting styles will teach the child to take more liberties around the more lenient parent. When a child really wants something, he will fight until the end to get it. If one of his parents gives in frequently enough, he will associate that parent with getting what he wants, even if already told “no” by the other parent. Now, let’s revisit the initial question. What do you do when your child has surpassed the fine line of acting out and taken control of the household into his or her own hands?

9 Tips To Gain Control Back Once Your Child Has Taken Over:

  1. Establish and define the rules of the household. They can be written down and posted in the home to remind the child if needed.
  2. Both parents need to have a clear understanding of the expectations and consequences for each action. Consistent responding is key for teaching children. If you are not consistent, you will never establish the control you want with your child.
  3. Make sure to create a reinforcement chart with your child. This can include, for example, a sticker chart throughout the day or at the end of the week. Establish the reward with the child so he knows what he will be earning in the end.
  4. Create warnings for your child. You almost want to set your child up for failure initially, because if you give her only one chance and she doesn’t get the reward, she will have nothing to keep her motivated for the remainder of the time until the reward can be earned again. In order to prevent this, you want to give her one or two opportunities to act out before she loses the reward.
  5. Make sure the consequences match the behavior. You don’t want a consequence to be so extreme and far down the road that the child stops responding to it. You want to make sure the consequence is immediately delivered and something that affects the child in the now rather than later.
  6. ALWAYS follow through! Failing to do this even one time will put you back right where you started. Worse yet, your child will remember that and work toward that point each time he challenges you. Always make sure consequences are immediately given; otherwise the child doesn’t learn what behavior he needs to exhibit to get the response he desires.
  7. Constantly provide your child with positive attention when she exhibits desired behavior, and ignore her when she tries to manipulate the situation by arguing a point.
  8. Always provide choices to your child. Telling your child “no” provides no way to distract him from what he can’t have, and it will almost always cause a tantrum. When your child asks for something that is not available, let him know that and provide two possible alternatives.
  9. Last but not least, if your child doesn’t want to do something that is expected of them, simply state the rules once and walk away. Allow the child to learn for herself the appropriate ways to respond to authority.

Always remember that behavior gets worse before it gets better. If your child has driven you to the point of no return, that means your methods are successful and he is responding to them by pushing the envelope. The behaviors WILL decrease as long as the child never receives reinforcement following undesired behavior.

Once you have established control with your child, you can begin making the expectations stricter until you get to the point where no undesired behavior occurs.

However, you must also remember that kids will be kids. They will never be perfect, and you can’t hold them to that kind of expectation. You have to maintain your power and keep them in line, but at the same time, allow your kids to be kids and they will respect you for that. Rules provide children with boundaries, and rewards and consequences aid in teaching them what appropriate behavior is expected.

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StephanieO@nspt4kids.com'

Stephanie Orman

Stephanie Orman, M.S., BCBA is a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA) who earned her master’s degree from Northeastern University. Prior to living in Chicago, Stephanie attended The University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in Psychology with a minor in criminology. During her undergraduate studies, Stephanie earned a specialization certificate in Developmental Disabilities and partook in two internships focusing on children diagnosed with Autism. Stephanie has experience working as a pediatric behavior analyst in Early Intervention and in school settings with children of all ages. She is strongly committed to helping children build confidence and achieve their maximum potential.

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