Bossy behaviors appear as children begin to explore power in a social context with peers and within the parent-child relationship. These behaviors originate from the desire to organize and direct the behavior of others. Bossiness may be rooted in the following motivations:

  • A child has a great idea in mind and she needs others to bring it to life. (“Put the castle over here. You play the baby and I’ll play the mommy.”)
  • A child feels strongly about controlling the outcome of a situation. (“Don’t put the peas next to the mashed potatoes,” “I’m going first.”)
  • A child is insecure and unsure about who makes the final decisions in the household, so he asserts his own power. (“Gimme the cookie before dinner. I want it right now!” In this case, a parent may have given in to this demand in the past, but is now deciding to hold the limit. That confusion and inconsistency may bring out bossy behaviors.)

Within a positive discipline framework, our goal as parent educators is guiding parents to teach children the important social skill of expressing their needs appropriately. With friends, you can remind your child: “You have some big ideas about how you want to play. Your friend may have an idea, too. Let’s ask.”

Within the parent-child dynamic, remind your children to ask politely for what they want. Teach them that their words have an effect on others: “When you speak to me that way, it makes me feel angry or upset.” Reframe the request by teaching them the exact words you’d like them to use next time: “Please say, ‘I’d like a few more minutes to play before getting ready for bed.” Set the timer and praise your children for using respectful language.

One of our jobs as parents is to teach our children social skills, so they can become productive members of a family unit and a classroom community. This process continues throughout the early years of childhood; it doesn’t happen overnight. Teaching children to become more cooperative, helpful, and considerate of others is an ongoing pursuit. Some strategies include:

  • Model respectful requests. Are you bossy with your child? How do you communicate your ideas with your partner, your co-workers, or your friends? Remember, children learn best from watching those around them.
  • Talk about friendship skills. If there’s a bossy child at school, your child may be experimenting with those behaviors at home. Ask your child how she feels when she hears bossy comments among friends. Over time, children learn that actions have consequences and that being bossy can be detrimental to building friendships.
  • Compromise when possible. When you allow your child to participate in the decision-making process throughout the day, you model the value of sharing power. Also, reinforce compromise, sharing, and other cooperative behaviors during playdates. Point out listening skills and ways to incorporate several different ideas during play.

Over time, your children will learn that both friendship and leadership involve following their own creative ideas and listening and learning from others.