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How to Handle a Bossy Child

What to do when your preschooler tries to rule the roost

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Mother and son sipping orange juice with straws
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Question: How do I handle a bossy child?

My 5-year-old son has turned into a bit of tyrant. It was bad enough when he was telling me and his younger brother what to do all the time -- admittedly I laughed it off as just being something kids his age do -- but now his teacher has spoken to me and told me that he's being quite bossy in his preschool classroom and the other kids are keeping their distance from him. I was horrified the other day when he had a friend over for a playdate and I overheard him completely dominating their play, telling his friend what to do at every turn. I stopped him, but now I'm afraid the situation has gotten out of control. What do I do?

--He's not the boss of me

You are perfectly capable of choosing your own shirt. You know what you like and want to eat. You are even absolutely fine with deciding what magazine you would like to read. Living with a preschooler though, you may find that there is a pint-sized someone in your home who thinks they know better than you (and their friends, and their teacher and everyone they come across). During the preschool years, you may find yourself suddenly dealing with a bossy child. Not a fun stage, but a perfectly normal and expected preschool behavior. Luckily, this is something you can get through, without your home turing into an absolute monarchy (or you or others staging coup d'état). Here's how.

Be patient. One big reason why children are bossy is because they are simply mimicking behavior they see every day. Not to say that you rule your home with an iron fist barking out orders at every turn, but your preschooler knows that you tell people what to do (specifically him and his siblings) and wants in on the action. He is also learning to express what she wants. While bossiness and assertiveness aren't always favorable traits, they can be an asset (in small doses) when he gets older. With a little direction (and redirection) you will be able to channel these attributes into leadership skills.

Ask for a behavior change. If your preschooler starts telling your or someone else to do things, remind him about using manners. Explain that you are more likely to do something for him -- play a game, read a story, help him change his shoes -- if he asks nicely, rather than demands it.

Give him some power. Bossiness in children often stems from a child just trying to get control of a situation and his life. This is especially true as a child matures and becomes more independent. So create situations where your child can make a decision or serve as a "grown-up." For example, when it is time to sit down and eat lunch, offer two choices (making sure that either choice is acceptable to you). If you are getting ready to play a game with your child, let him decide which one. Let him "supervise" a younger child getting dressed. In these instances, your child can actually be the boss, satisfying his need to be in charge.

Get teachers and caregivers involved. If you suspect your child's bossiness has transcended your home, ask adults who are involved with your child on a regular basis to help you monitor the situation and get involved when needed.

Turn the tables. When your child starts to bark out orders at others, pull him aside for a quiet talk. Ask him how he would feel if his friend starting to tell him what to do. You don't want to come out and tell your child he won't have any friends if he keeps being bossy, but you can explain that children may want to play with someone else if they don't get a chance to do what they want to do. If the situation is a competitive one -- the kids are playing a game for instance -- try redirecting them to do something else.

Teach him how to ask the right way. Model good behavior to your child. Instead of telling your child to fill the dog's water bowl, ask politely -- "Can you please fill Spot's bowl with water for me?" If there is an instance when your child begins to boss you around, correct him on the spot with language that you would prefer her to use. (Don't necessarily do this in front of friends or siblings though, your child may be embarrassed. Either pull him aside into a private area or speak with him after your audience is gone.

Explain he can't always get his way. Hearing people say "no" is a lesson of life that your preschooler is better off learning now. Your child may want his brother to go down the slide or use the tire swing instead of the seesaw at the playground, but his younger brother is a person who is entitled to his opinion. Explain to your child that he can certainly ask people to play a certain game or bring him a toy, but they are allowed to say no.

Praise him for being polite. When your child behaves in a way that is appropriate, call it to his attention. He'll be happy you noticed and will more likely to continue acting and speaking that way in the future.

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