How to Handle Bossy Children

mom drinking orange juice with toddler boy

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You are perfectly capable of choosing your own shirt. You know what you like and want to eat. You are even absolutely fine with deciding what magazine you would like to read.

If you live with a preschooler, though, you may find that there is a pint-sized someone in your home who thinks they know better than you (and their friends, and their teacher, and everyone they come across). The preschool years are prime time for bossiness. This is not a fun stage, but it is a perfectly normal and expected preschool behavior.

Luckily, this is something you can get through without your home turning into an absolute monarchy (or you or others staging a coup d'état). Here's how.

Be Patient

One big reason why children are bossy is that they are simply mimicking behavior they see every day. Not to say that you rule your home with an iron fist barking out orders at every turn, but your preschooler knows that you tell people (specifically, the kids in the house) what to do, and your child wants in on the action.

They are also learning to express what they want. While bossiness and assertiveness aren't always favorable traits, they can be an asset (in small doses) when children get older.

With a little direction and redirection, you will be able to channel these attributes into leadership skills.

Ask for a Behavior Change

If your preschooler starts telling you or someone else do things, remind them to use their manners. Explain that you are more likely to do something for them—play a game, read a story, help them change their shoes—if they ask nicely, rather than demand it.

Give Them Some Power

Bossiness in children often stems from kids just trying to feel in control of a situation and their life. This is especially true as a child matures and becomes more independent. So, create situations where your child can make a decision or serve as a "grown-up."

For example, when it is time for lunch, offer two choices (making sure that either choice is acceptable to you). If you are getting ready to play a game with your child, let them decide which one. Let them "supervise" a younger child getting dressed. In these instances, your child can actually be the boss, satisfying their need to be in charge.

Get Teachers and Caregivers Involved

If you suspect your child's bossiness happens outside your home, ask adults who are with your child on a regular basis to help you monitor the situation and get involved when needed.

Turn the Tables

When your child starts to bark orders at others, pull them aside for a quiet talk. Ask them how they would feel if their friend frequently told them what to do.

Refrain from telling your child they won't have any friends if they keep being bossy, but do explain that children may choose to play with someone else if they are always being told what to do.

If the situation is a competitive one—the kids are playing a game, for instance—try redirecting them to do something else.

Teach How to Ask the Right Way

Model good behavior to your child. Instead of telling your child to fill the dog's water bowl, ask politely: "Can you please fill Spot's bowl with water for me?"

If there is an instance when your child begins to boss you around, correct them on the spot with language that you would prefer them to use: "When you say 'Please may I have the blue cup,' I will give it to you."

Don't necessarily do this in front of friends or siblings, though, since your child may feel embarrassed. Either pull them aside into a private area or speak with them after the audience is gone.

Explain That They Can't Always Get Their Way

Hearing people say "no" is a lesson of life that your preschooler is better off learning now. Your child may want their brother to go down the slide or use the swings instead of the seesaw at the playground, but their brother is a person who is entitled to their opinion too.

Explain to your child that they can certainly ask others to play a certain game or bring them a toy, but those people are also allowed to say no.

Praise Them for Being Polite

When your child behaves in a way that is appropriate, call it to their attention. They'll be happy you noticed and will be more likely to continue that behavior in the future.

By Amanda Rock
Amanda Rock, mom of three, has spent more than a decade of her professional career writing and editing for parents and children.