What is Bossy Behavior in Childhood?
Bossy behavior in childhood is constantly telling others what to do.
The child may be bossy in play or conversation. A child who immediately dismisses another person’s ideas without considering them is displaying bossy behavior. Bossy behavior is problematic when a child is always in charge and can never work together as part of a group or let others make choices.
It is excellent for your child to be strong-willed, confident, and often in a leadership role. They do need to balance these positive characteristics with overstepping boundaries that might hurt their friendships or family relationships. A bossy child may keep telling peers what they should do first, second, and third. They may be critical of the choices others make if they do not meet their standards. They may be the first to tell the teacher when someone else “is not making good choices” in class.
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Symptoms of Bossiness in Children
- Telling people what to do: the child is constantly telling peers what to do, how to play a game, or the ‘right way’ to do something
- Not playing nice: the child may be getting in trouble on the playground for being in constant conflict with peers in play at recess
- Not sharing: the child refuses to share toys or materials with other children, often claiming, “that one’s mine!”
- Struggling to give up control: the child may only feel comfortable when in control of the games or activities, often telling peers, “No, that’s the wrong way!” Playtime may feel like a constant power struggle.
- Having challenges getting along with others: the child may feel the need to be in charge. Everything is about what your child wants, leading to frustration or rejection from peers
Some children always need to be in control. They regularly insist on telling other children and adults what to do. They insist on their way. These kids may prefer to play alone than to have to play by someone else’s rules. At school or on the playground, perhaps you hear words like “he’s bossy,” “he’s mean,” or “he can’t play with us.”
When playing with toys, the dialogue may go something like this one. “No, mommy, I’m first. I get to be the blue guy.” “I am the ruler of this planet!” “No, that guy is mine too…and then I hit your guy, okay? And he falls down. But no, he can’t get up yet; you have to just leave him there. Now you tell me I won! Okay, mommy? You say that now.” Your child may be the narrator, the main character, the hero, and the winner of every game. When this interaction between parent and child happens every time, you are seeing a bossy interaction style.
Causes of Bossiness in Children
There are many reasons why a child can be a bit bossy. Not all of these are cause for concern. Consider the below and get ideas about how to help if there is an issue requiring intervention.
- Giftedness: Children who are bright and very outgoing with other children may be bossy. This pattern is common and is not necessarily a cause of concern. Modeling the skills of sharing and allowing others to have control, taking turns, and working together in a group can help this child.
- “Mother Hen” Personality: Sometimes, a certain personality will take on the role of peer model for a struggling classmate. This dynamic can be okay if the other child appreciates the support. It will be important to ask the teacher to watch the situation. On the other hand, sometimes a very smart child dominates and controls other kids. If they often get their way, this bright child learns it works to boss around other children and perhaps adults. This situation requires intervention.
- Anxiety: Anxiety is marked by uncertainty and fear about the world and worries about what will happen next. Often, anxious children are rigid because they want to control their environment. Anxious children could appear restless and unfocused when worried. They may have nightmares or poor sleep. They might have trouble separating from their parents or be slow to warm up in new situations.
- Rigidity: Being rigid could also be the underlying problem here. The executive function of ‘flexibility’ refers to the ability to adapt to changes in the environment. Some youngsters are inflexible and struggle to give up control or play by others’ rules. Parents can use positive parenting and reinforcement to encourage and praise flexibility.
- Defiance: Bossiness may be a strategy your child uses to get their way. Defiant behavior may simply be reinforced by the environment. If your child can hit another child and walk away with the toy they like each time, defiance or aggression is reinforced. Sometimes, children use bossy behavior to have power, control, and get what they want. In this case, parents will want to watch what they model at home and practice using positive social skills to get what they want with their child. It is also possible to seek help from a professional.
What To Do About Bossy Behavior in Children
If your child is bossy, rigid, anxious, or defiant, try these do’s and don’ts.
DO keep the routine: Try to maintain a predictable schedule when you can. Bedtime, mealtime, bath time, and other routines should be as consistent as possible. Start your morning on a positive note with an expected routine and reward for getting things done and being ready for the day.
DO be flexible: Even though some predictability to the routine is good, it is also helpful to build some flexibility into your day. With playdates, work with your child to plan a few choices for activities and to plan to let the friend choose. Have limited free play, and suggest a turn-taking structure during free playtime. Reward flexibility with extra attention and praise.
DO offer choices: Allow your child to make choices whenever you can. When possible, give your child a few options that you feel comfortable with accepting. “We are going to have dinner now, and you can choose to sit next to dad or me.” “Would you like to have broccoli or carrots as your vegetable?” In this way, you maintain the rules and structures while allowing your child some autonomy and choice.
DO invite your child to take a peer’s perspective: When your child is playing with others, offer feedback on social interactions. Invite your child to think about how their peer felt when they were bossed around. This conversation is not an attempt to may your child feel bad or be ashamed of their behavior. Instead, you are teaching them to see the impact of their behavior on others.
DO model your feelings for your children in appropriate ways: When you feel frustrated by your child’s bossy behaviors, you can take this opportunity as a teachable moment. You might say, “I’m feeling angry, so I’m going to take a walk and breathe for a few minutes.”
When to Seek Help for Bossy Behavior in Children
It is not uncommon for toddlers and preschoolers to be a bit bossy. If your young child displays some bossy behaviors, try the strategies listed above. It may be that with some light support from you, your child will simply grow out of it.
The time to be concerned is when your child’s bossy behavior leads to constant conflict at school or with peers. If the daycare or school calls almost daily about your child’s behavior toward classmates, it could be time to get help.
An evaluation will help determine if the bossy behavior covers an underlying anxiety disorder, autism, ADHD, or behavior disorder. Having more understanding into whether or not there is anxiety to treat will help you with parenting strategies as you decide how to react to these behaviors.
Further Resources on Bossy Behavior in Children
- Psychotherapist or play therapist: to treat emotional symptoms that arise and help with social skills training and organization
- ABA therapist: to assess and treat behavior; may conduct a functional analysis and develop a behavior plan that can guide treatment
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment and to consider symptoms in mental health and behavioral contexts
- Psychiatrist: to prescribe and manage psychotropic medication and consider medical issues that could be involved in your child’s mental health
Similar Conditions to Bossy Behavior
- Social problems: if your child does not see that being bossy hurts others’ feelings, they may tend to focus more on getting their way. Some children have difficulty with social perspective-taking, understanding what reactions are appropriate in a situation, and reading other people’s reactions
- General anxiety or social anxiety: if your child is bossy, it may be due to anxiety. Some children are irritable and restless because of underlying feelings of worry and anxiety
- Rigid behavior: if your child is bossy, consider whether your child is exceptionally rigid. Do they struggle with transitions, tantrum if they can’t eat off the blue plate, or assign seats at the dinner table and throw a tantrum if you sit in the wrong place? Rigidity can be a sign of autism or anxiety
- Aggression or non-compliance: if your child is bossy, it may be a behavior problem. Some children are being reinforced for these bad behaviors by getting what they want. For example, if I hit my sister, she will drop the toy I want. This behavior is a sign of trouble, and parents will want to seek help in these situations
References for Bossy Behavior
Kroncke, Anna; Willard, Marcy & Huckabee, Helena (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
Huebner, Dawn. (2005). What to do when you worry too much: A kid’s guide to overcoming anxiety.
Seligman, Martin E. P. (2007) The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience.
Peters, Daniel, B. (2013). From worrier to warrior: A guide to conquering your fears.
Foxman, Paul (2003). Recognizing anxiety in children and helping them heal.
Papolos, Demitri & Papolos, Janice (2002). The Bipolar Child: The definitive and reassuring guide to childhood’s most understood disorder.
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