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.