Children who want to be in charge

When children say you're not the boss of me!
You’re not the boss of me!

Published in ‘Parenting’ Magazine, Issue 30, Spring 2007

Sue Blair continues her series on personality traits in children. Her insights on how you to keep your children ‘on board’ by understanding what motivates them are brilliant. They will give you clues to help you work with your child’s personality and avoid a variety of future power-struggles.

“You’re not the boss of me!” Is this a phrase that sounds familiar to you? It is often hurled at a parent, by a miniature rebel, with little fists on hips, body leaning forward, chin jutting out and maybe a foot stamping on the ground. These are the children who are likely to act out their fury – asking themselves why life has dealt them such a severe blow as giving them a parent like you! If this is ringing a bell, please read on. Perhaps this will help. To use my ‘animal type’ descriptions – you have a ‘lion’ in the house!

In my work with parents I frequently ask them to think about their child and, off the top of their head, to describe that child in three words. In almost every case, one of the chosen words parents of ‘lion’ children come up with is ‘strong-willed’. This description is often uttered between clenched teeth and with an anxious expression. It is clearly often reflecting the vivid mental picture, they have in their head, of this child’s last misdemeanour.

These children, with ‘lion-type’ personalities, also share other behaviour patterns, with which parents may resonate. They will have been independent from a very young age. “No…me do it!” will sound familiar and they will have had melt-downs when they don’t get their way. ‘Lion’ children often mis-read social situations and unintentionally offend others by speaking their mind at an inappropriate moment. And if you have one in your family, you will recognise their tendency to treat other family members and friends as if they are ‘staff’!

‘Lion’-type children have a huge desire to win anything; a race, a game, an argument or just attention. A mother once spoke to me of her three- year-old daughter who often said “Mummy, I want to be first-est”. The mother also confided, “I know she will be a fabulous adult…but, I don’t know if I can hold out that long!”

I also love the story of a nine-year-old boy who had been misbehaving and whose mother sent him to his room. After a while he returned and announced “I’ve been thinking, and I said a prayer.” His mother replied “As long you prayed that you’ll learn how to behave yourself, that’s fine!”. “Oh no,” he said, “I prayed that will learn how to put up with me!” This is how so many lion personalities think. “There is nothing wrong with me, it’s the rest of the world that has to change!”

What these children, and sometimes similar adults, need to understand, from as early an age as possible, is that not everyone has their zest and drive…but, that doesn’t make others wrong – it only makes them different.

Parenting ‘lion’ children is not easy but, sometimes, neither is being a ‘lion’ child. A ‘lion’ child’s primary need is to be listened to; having something to be in control of and being respected are also high on their list. Yes, they will be great adults, and the world needs good leaders – but how should parents raise them, and what coaching do they need to help them thrive and survive their childhood, when their needs are not actually often age-appropriate.

Here are my suggestions:

Your ‘lion’ child should have some involvement in making the rules your home operates with. (I hope you have some – you will need them!) If you have other children, they must also be part of this process, but the main beneficiary will be the child (or children) who most need to have some control of their environment. Have a family meeting, and agree together on the rules.

Avoid conflict, specifically screaming matches. These children are likely to excel at these, and their need to succeed means they will say anything that they feel will help them win. When they are really up against the wall that can be words like “I hate you!!!!” The good news is they actually don’t. What they hate is the fact that you have control and they don’t.

When disagreements happen, as inevitably they will, everyone must take time to cool off. It is essential for both adult and child to know what it takes to get the ‘heat’ out of their system. I call this their COQ (Cooling Off Quotient). For young children this could be sitting in a designated place (previously mutually agreed, at a time of calm), going for a walk or run, jumping on the trampoline or anything that is known to calm them down.

I’m avoiding using the term ‘time-out’ although essentially this is what it is. ‘Time-out’ is not a place, it’s a state of mind. As long as where the child is, allows them to become calm then it is a good place. In my experience forcing a child into a room with the door closed (or locked) and counting the number of minutes of their age before releasing them is doomed to fail with ‘lion’ children. This is because one of their primary needs of ‘being listened to’ is being ignored. ‘Lions’ in time-out tend to get more and more angry; they plot, plan and scheme their revenge for when they emerge; if pressed they may say ‘sorry’ but they won’t mean it.

A far more successful strategy is to allow for cooling off and then start the peace talks. The important thing for the child is that they know that after conflict comes the opportunity to talk, negotiate and feel heard. List the pros and cons of the solutions you discuss. Negotiate until a decision is reached – this may take some time until you all get the hang of it, but it is time well spent. For major issues make a contract with this type of child. Print it, sign it, laminate it and put it on the fridge! A review date is a good idea.

You may be thinking your child is too young for a contract, but I would urge you to take another look. At a basic level, children can be very able to make themselves understood. Use pictures instead of words for pre-schoolers, and be consistent. You may also be thinking it’s too late – but this strategy works for young people of all ages, even into adulthood.

Make your ‘lion’ child aware that you understand their need for leadership and allow this to be a positive thing in your family. Give them something in the family to be in control of. If you don’t offer leadership in some area, they will make their own choice of what to control which will be designed to cause maximum aggravation. For youngsters it could be that they can chose the menu for the day, which park to go to, the family movie to watch. Allow them to be king or queen for the day as a reward for good behaviour. This has the added benefit of helping them realise that being in charge is not ‘situation normal’. As they get older encourage them to coach younger kids at anything they excel at, particularly in sport.

As early as possible give your child a wide vocabulary that can describe feelings and emotions. Empathy is not the strength of ‘lion’ children, but it needs to be encouraged, and giving them the language will allow them to express themselves emotionally when they need to. I did this with my own son from an early age and when he was four I remember him sitting on the step looking very puzzled and saying “Mummy, I think I’m having a feeling.” I think this was one of his first ‘aha’ moments!

Lion children can do well at school as long as they have clear goals, recognition for success and they understand the relevance of what they are learning. An adult lion personality explained his perspective to me; “If I can’t see the finish line, I won’t start the race.” In other words, they have to see ‘the point’ of everything they do.

Raising a lion child can be a difficult journey but you could be raising our future leaders, so we all need you to be successful. You will need much support along the way but if you care for and guide your ‘lion’ children well you will be there to celebrate their many achievements. One day you may even hear them say “You are the boss of me…and that’s OK.”

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