Coping With a Demanding Child

by Jody Pawel

Demanding behavior -- from the time a child is about two to four a parent can usually expect to experience it. Occasionally children test limits in their attempts to separate from their parents as individuals, with preferences and ideas of their own. Parents should not, however, excuse such behavior as only a passing stage. A parent's response to such bossiness may determine how long and how intense these battles last.

I've had many discussions with parents, individually and through the parenting classes and mother-at-home support groups I lead. I find many parents who are concerned about how to handle this behavior in their own child. I also heard many parents express concern about some of the problems that arose when the parent of a child's playmate did not attend to this type of behavior. It started affecting their child's behavior and the adult's relationship with the other parent.

In an effort to reach some of the parents involved in this conflict, I combined what I learned through these discussions and my consultations with "the experts" via literature. I came to a better understanding about this common, irritating behavior and was able to suggest several ways for parents to approach a bossy child.

A Case in Point

When I was working as a protective service caseworker, I made a home visit to a family with a four-year-old boy named David. David's mother was frequently despondent, on medication for depression, and very passive. His father was often absent, slightly mentally retarded, and tended to physically punish (but not abuse) David.

David was a difficult to manage child but he mostly exhibited his demanding behavior and tantrums at home with his parents. At his grandparents, who cared for him frequently, David's behavior was more acceptable.

It was obvious that David was in control of his parents. When David didn't get what he wanted, he would become so out of control his mother would eventually give in. Although she complained about David's behavior, she said it was too hard to stand up to him. When she had tried to change her parenting approach David became destructive and defiant. When his mother tried to talk Davie out of his tantrums, his behavior became even more drastic. I observed him throwing and breaking things, yelling, and even urinating on the carpet to illustrate his protests and get his own way.

David's example is extreme, but illustrates how passive pleading rewarded his demanding behavior. Many parents would say David was a spoiled brat who needed a good spanking -- which his father tried, but it only made David's bids for control increase. Others could probably see that a child like David -- raised with inconsistent structure, guidelines, or consequences -- can become determined to do whatever it takes to get more attention and control.

David's case is clear evidence of what can happen when parents don't set limits on a child's demands. These parents were unable (due to physical problems and lack of skills) to give David the structure he needed. I've often wondered (and shuddered to imagine) what David will be like when he gets older and becomes more involved with peers and adults in the real world, where choices and consequences are the law of the land and people do not give in to him like his parents did.

What's Going On?

Until a child is about two years old, parents can respond to a child's emotional outbursts through distractions, reflective listening, and helping the child identify his/her feelings. Helping a child work through frustrations or walking away from a tantrum often results in an end to these outbursts. Demanding behavior can be an older child's way of testing limits, can take many forms, and often comes on with little or no apparent reason.

There are actually some positive aspects to such strong-willed behavior in children. These children are often honest, speak up for themselves, and don't let others push them around. They do not often succumb to peer pressure and are leaders rather than followers. Most parents would agree that they do not want their child blindly following orders from any adult who gives them. Keeping all this in mind we, as parents, can help these children learn how to channel their determination in a positive direction, rather than trying to break their will.

How Parenting Style Affects Demands

Even the most calm, easy-going parents can find themselves enraged and appalled when their child outwardly defies or challenges them. Many parents think to themselves, "My parents would never have allowed me to talk that way to them!"

Many parents have conflicting feelings about how to respond to demanding behavior. They don't want to let their child get away with the behavior but also don't want to revert to some of the tactics their parents might have used, such as physical force or a because-I-say-so approach. Neither of these strategies results in long-term benefits, changing the behavior, or improving the parent-child relationship.

Physical force merely impresses the child with the importance of being in control and the child often uses this approach towards parents and peers later. Although the parent modeled this way of interacting, few recognize its role in perpetuating the power conflict.

The because-I-say-so approach often backfires, too. Children are in the process of developing logical thinking and when no logical reason is evident, they again interpret this strategy as an attempt to control them, thus escalating the power struggle.

At the other extreme, always giving a logical reason can lead to a parent going on and on with explanations. Children can capitalize on this by asking more and more questions to sidestep the real issue of their original defiant behavior. A parent should try to state their expectations only once or twice before following through.

If a parent interacts with his/her child courteously and with respect, the parent usually expects equal treatment from the child. Many parents strive for balanced child-rearing but implement it in such a way that they respect their children's rights but allow themselves to get walked on. That is not balanced, it is more often called permissive.

At the other extreme is the over-controlling parent, who uses power tactics to control the child but often fails to acknowledge the child's feelings and preferences. In both cases the parents are missing a prime opportunity for allowing the natural and logical consequences of the situation to prevail.

Respond Consistently to Demands

In most cases, parents can respond to demanding behavior by refusing to respond until the child's request is appropriate. What, you may be saying, if this approach is met with an even more demanding response, like a tantrum, yelling, or even destructive behavior? First of all, a parent can expect children to resist a change in parenting styles if the parent has allowed himself/herself to be ordered around in the past to avoid a scene.

These parents are experiencing the consequences of inadvertently rewarding the demanding behavior in the past. Now these parents are faced with what appears to be a battle of wills. The How-long-can-you-hold-out-if-I-act-even-worse game has begun. This sequence can lead into a demonstration of who has more power and control between the two (and often it is the child).

For example, we've all probably been in a situation at home where we hear "Give me some milk!" Sometimes we blindly get the milk without attending to the demanding tone of voice. Often a simple reminder to ask nicely is all the parent needs to say.

However, a parent must be consistent for the child to realize he does not get what he wants by ordering people around. Another common situation is a child changing his mind and expecting the parent to be at his beckoned call.

In the example of mealtimes, if a child chooses his meal and then changes his mind and no longer wants it, the parent has every right to refuse to be a short-order cook! At this point the child has several choices:

  • He can eat what the parent fixed.
  • The child can eat something different if he fixes it himself, which is a logical consequence. (Even a two- or three-year-old can fix some foods.)
  • He can wait until the next meal and experience the natural consequence of hunger. If the child fusses about being hungry, the parent can politely point out the child's choice not to eat the food he/she requested.

This is and example of consequences and mutual respect at work. The parent is not a villain starving his child! Parents are family members with equal rights not to be short-order cooks who cater to children's whims!

Children Want Guidance from Parents

The key for parents is to be willing to calmly follow through with consequences consistently. Down deep, children want guidance from parents because it communicates love. They can become discouraged and overly concerned with power if their parents don't provide loving guidelines for living and model them consistently.

It is a disservice to children to protect them from some of the more uncomfortable consequences of their inappropriate behavior. It delays their life's lessons and makes the inevitable ones harder to experience.

As parents, we often want to protect our children from embarrassment and hurts. Many times we try to avoid conflict in our relationships, but this is not life. It is not our role to teach children to avoid life's lessons. Instead, let them experience the lessons and be there to help guide them through it so they can learn something from it.

10 Point Plan for Dealing With Demanding Behavior

When dealing with demanding behavior in your child remember the following points:

1. Children and parents have rights and can assert these rights in respectful ways.

2. Parents are doing a disservice to themselves and to their child by giving in to demands to avoid a scene. Even if unintentional, this teaches the child that if his behavior gets severe enough he will get what he wants.

3. Always make sure you are modeling the kind of respectful communication you want your child to use; don't keep a double standard. Acknowledge your child and show appreciation when he/she states something in a respectful way.

4. When your child does say something in a demanding tone of voice, reflect his/her feelings ("I understand you feel...") before stating your expectation about how it should be said ("...but I expect you to tell me in a calm, polite way.")

5. If parents allow the natural consequences of a situation to occur, the parent is not the one exerting the control, nature is. The parent can now face the situation calmly and from a detached position of presenting the child with his choices and then letting him experience the consequences of his choice.

6. Try to stick with choices within limits unless the behavior becomes even more unacceptable. When this happens, parents can shift the focus from the original issue to the behavior. The parent can present the child with a new set of choices. For example "You can calm down or we'll leave." Remember to focus on the behavior and not attack the child's character.

7. Parents should be prepared to disengage and remove themselves or the child if the behavior escalates. Parents must be willing to leave a situation and trust that others will understand and respect their need to attend to the situation. Most people are supportive of a parent disciplining a child in a respectful way.

Although some people would think this action would violate the parent's right to enjoy an outing, one needs to remember that parental responsibilities do not end whenever it's inconvenient for the parent to uphold them. The parent needs to remember the rights of others to exist in a peaceful environment and the child needs to learn that unacceptable behavior is unacceptable in all situations.

8. There are times when it is best to walk away from the situation and refuse to interact until the child's behavior improves. A power struggle cannot occur with one person. Walking away is not giving in. Usually the child wants something from the parent, either some service or attention. Walking away will give the child nothing and will give him a chance to calm down and rethink his choice in the matter.

If the child has become destructive in the past, the parent can plan ahead by arranging a safe place for the child to go and discussing appropriate ways for the child to release angry energy away from others. Remember to tell the child specifically what behavior is acceptable rather than wording your statements in terms of "don't".

9. The middle of a tantrum is not the time to reflect feelings or try to talk a child out of being angry. That time has already passed and the child will now interpret these efforts as a denial of his feelings and he may escalate his behavior to convince the parent of how strongly he feels.

Communication may be futile until the child calms down and may even keep the tantrum going by giving the child more attention for his behavior. Process what happened, the child and parent's feelings, and the law of choices and consequences of behavior after the tantrum is over.

10. A parent's goal is to immediately respond to demands with choices, consequences, and consistent follow-through to avoid power struggles and tantrums. If this is a new approach for a parent or if the parent's consistency is new, the child will probably still have tantrums in response to this new approach.

In fact, the child's reactions may seem to be more extreme before it improves, because he is testing new limits. The child wants to see if the parent will react differently if embarrassed in public, if the child destroys things, or if the child loses control.

Just remember that this testing will be temporary if the parent is consistent with this new approach. Stick with it! If the parent maintains this game plan the child will eventually adjust and everyone will be happier with the new, more respectful ways of communicating.

Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is a second-generation parent educator and president of Parent’s Toolshop® Consulting. She is the author of 100+ resources for parents and family service professionals, including her award-winning book, The Parent's Toolshop at Parent's Toolshop® Consulting, Ltd. Since 1980, Jody has trained parents and professionals through her dynamic presentations and served as internationally recognized parenting expert to the media worldwide. Get practical parenting resources, including more information about this topic at Parent's Toolshop®'s archive.

© Jody Johnston Pawel. Permission to republish provided by Net Connect Publicity.

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