Playtime with my daughter can be tough because she is a harsh taskmaster. Sometimes, I struggle to keep up or get the rules right. My bossy toddler gets an idea in her mind of how playing or a game will unfold — she holds a doll, and I feed them, and she’ll say, “No, not that way, Mommy, like this!” She is so rigid that it’s a cue for a meltdown when things don’t go her way. I often try to reframe this as her having strong opinions and leadership skills, but sometimes it’s just plain bossiness.
Bossiness is sometimes just kids being kids; wanting control over their world is a normal developmental milestone. But parenting a bossy toddler or child can be a tall order. So, why are they bossy, and what are some strategies you can use to navigate this challenging behavior?
Where Does My Child’s Bossiness Come From?
A demanding toddler or child is normal. They are starting to learn their actions influence the behavior of people around them, and they like feeling in control of their world. Control makes them feel in charge, empowered, and safe.1 However, beyond the normal developmental need to feel in control, there could be other reasons for bossiness:
- Structure and routine: A child who thrives with a strict routine or loves structure may be a bit bossy and like things happening a certain way or at a certain time.
- Change and control: Wanting control is normal, but make sure your child isn’t behaving this way because of a recent big change or something outside their ability to control — like moving, starting school, getting a new sibling, etc. When big things happen, they might exert more control over things around them to stop the discomfort associated with the change.
- Anxiety or worry: A need for control (and subsequent bossy behaviors) could be caused by underlying fears or anxiety. Some children may feel driven to control their world to manage these worries.
- Mirroring: Our little people copy what they see. As grown-ups and parents, we often tell our kids to do things or make things happen because of our own needs, routines, etc. This can feel or look like bossiness to our kids, so they copy what we do.
How To Handle a Child’s Bossiness
While there are many reasons behind bossy or demanding behavior, you may still want to know how to get your child to stop being bossy.
1. Let Them Be In Charge
Well, not of everything! But of some age-appropriate things. You will find they exert less demands when their needs for control are filled. So let them choose their snack or T-shirt, or give them some choices (not too many, mind you, or it causes confusion) so they feel empowered and in charge.
2. Allow Them Some Say in Rules
You don’t need to stop having boundaries; think about wording them differently. Instead of saying, “It’s time to put on your shoes and brush your teeth,” you could say, “You need to put on your shoes and brush your teeth. Which would you like to do first?” The rule or boundary is still there, but you give them some sense of control within the situation, which can help with their bossiness.
3. Model What You Want From Them
Show them what you expect. As a parent, yes, you need your child to do certain things sometimes, but make sure you use your manners or ask for things politely to show them what you need them to do in return.
4. Validate How Tough It Is When Things Don’t Go Their Way
We all struggle when things don’t go our way, so tell them you understand. You don’t have to rush to fix it or make things better. By being present with them and demonstrating you understand and are connected to their emotions, they will feel better.2
5. Build Their Empathy
Perhaps your child is bossy without realizing it can hurt or make others uncomfortable. Try asking them questions or getting them to think about how they feel when their friends don’t take turns or their older sibling bosses them around. When they learn empathy, they will start to realize the impact of their bossiness and behavior on others.
6. Encourage Turn Taking
Help your child learn how to take turns and share. You could use a timer or re-direct them to another game/play and also let them know how tough sharing can be. Learning to share or take turns can help stem some bossy behavior when they learn the art of give-and-take.
Helping our children navigate their social world and relationships is essential, particularly if you have a toddler with some bossiness. They may need your support to learn how to manage big emotions when things don’t go their way or find other ways to navigate play and games fairly and more equally with others. It can also help if you reframe or find another word for “bossy” to help explain how you feel about their behavior, such as strong-willed or direct. Despite its challenges, having a child who knows what they want and how to get it can be a positive. But it’s essential to help them learn how to integrate, share, and manage so they can become the best versions of themselves.