A child who has lived through a period of their life where difficult and frightening things have happened to them and around them may often present as 'controlling'. Countless parents I have worked with will tell me about how controlling one of their children is and how they are struggling with this, especially as the child gets older. They often liken their behaviour to the ex-abusive partner telling me they can see similarities in their behaviour and personality. Likewise, I have been in many meetings where professionals have described the child concerned as difficult to teach or work with as they have to take over in games with their peers and in interactions with adults who are trying to help them.
So, are some children just bossy, do children who grow up around controlling adults just copy them, do some children just like to be in charge?
Children do learn about how to function in the World from watching key adults so if they are exposed to bossy and/or controlling behaviour this can rub off on them. However, for children who are really controlling things are at a different level altogether,
I have seen and had reported to me children as young as three deciding who can sleep where, if some one is allowed to go into a room or to sit down, in a small child this may not be too alarming but as they get older and it becomes more ingrained it will be less 'cute' and lead to more conflict. Such behaviour comes across as awkwardness and stubbornness and is hard to deal with day in day out.
The child who has to have their booster seat moved every time they get in the car, who what ever you offer them to eat wants something slightly different and will go to great pains to think of it even though you know you have offered her something she loves. The child who tells you they don't like what you are wearing and you should change, or who will go out of their way to have the upper hand and dominate those around them.
Such behaviour can be exhausting, infuriating, off putting, alienating for those who are around the child and it can be harder to like or love a child if everything is on their terms and as this can lead to constantly trying to please them but for little return or, going head to head over everything, all of which is challenging and draining.
So why would a child behave like this as they must get a sense that it hurts, alienates and frustrates those around them?
If a child has grown up in a situation where life is chaotic and it changes all of the time, or there has been a point where everything was turned up side down and no-one helped them feel safe, then this can have an impact. This can be as a result of being abused, living with domestic violence and abuse, being removed into the care system, dealing with carers who are 'unavailable' due to drug, alcohol or domestic violence, a sudden bereavement where the child's needs are not addressed, mental illness in carers or having to become a carer for dependent adults.
In these life circumstances taking control becomes a survival strategy which may keep the child, their siblings and the non-abusive parent safe. It may mean that they get fed that day or keep the abuser 'happy' or at a distance or distracted. Learning from an early age that the adults are not in control of themselves or anything else, and are unpredictable and don't regularly provide the basics may force a very young child to become self reliant and to learn to get in ahead of things so as to keep safe. How hard is it for a three year old to have to learn to watch closely the adults they depend on to see how safe they can keep themselves today.
Being around carers who are alternatively loving, scary or scared will soon teach a child that they need to be in control as there is no-one else to help them and this is not something they can just switch off when they go to school or anywhere else as this becomes their template for life.
Being sexually or physically abused will teach a child not to trust adults and/or to take control of when and how the abuse takes place to get it over with. Children who feel they need to be in control 24/7 require time and consistent reassurance that adults will not let them down, do know what they are doing, are safe, will feed them, won't hurt them and do even like them. Building this trust takes a long time as it is often changing a child's life long view of adults and the strategies they have been forced to develop to get themselves this far in their short life.