Choosing Your Battles with a Controlling Child

In this episode: A mom is struggling with her 3.5 year old’s “controlling and oppositional behavior.” She’s trying to find reasonable boundaries to avoid big confrontations over minor issues when her daughter insists on calling the shots.

Transcript of “Choosing Your Battles with a Controlling Child”

Hi this is Janet Lansbury and welcome to Unruffled. This week, I’m responding to a question on my Facebook page from a mom who is struggling with her 3.5-year-old’s contrarian and controlling behavior.

Here’s how this mother describes her situation:

“We are really struggling with my almost 3.5-year-old and her controlling and oppositional behavior. I can’t find the balance between setting reasonable boundaries with choices and choosing my battles. For example, last night she asked for a drink. She was given the first cup in reach. She asked that we change it to a different cup, which we then did. Since she always wants to oppose, control and resist when we are agreeable, she then asked for a different cup, which we refused. What should we do at that point or before? Offer the first or second cup only as choices, ask her to choose her cup and only allow her first choice? It happens with everything with her personally and she attempts to do it to others. Controlling where they stand, walk, etc. With the cup incident, I regret how the situation ended and it affected the meal for the whole family, and when I look back, I wonder why I didn’t just get her the cup she wanted, but I know it is never that easy. Thanks.”

Okay, so what I’m hearing in this parent’s note is that her daughter has really gotten stuck in trying to keep control over everybody. And what that usually represents is keeping a lid on some other feelings that she needs to express. So she’s gotten caught up in this and we’re the only ones that can free her of this burden, and it really is a burden.

Children don’t want to be stuck calling all the shots in these situations and spending their energy kind of ruling the grown ups or other children. They can take it into other children and that’s not going to be good for them socially, as they go out into the world more. To be stuck in this cycle of trying to keep a lid on everything and control everybody and somehow imagining, I think, to herself this is going to help her feel better, this is going to help her take care of these feelings that she has.

So in regard to choosing battles, obviously we all want our children to be happy. That’s just a given. But I think we have to understand that there’s a difference between somebody not getting upset in the moment and somebody actually being deeply happy and comfortable in their skin, free, feeling free to play and be a child and not be up there controlling the grown ups. It’s not fun for her, and she’s stuck.

So the good news here is that you can definitely help her out of this, but you got to see it positively, see what you’re doing when you’re going to be much more strict with her and much more decisive with her as positive.

Now, strict doesn’t mean stern and angry, because that’s not being a comfortable leader for her, which allows her to be a child instead of one of the leaders in the house. It comes from a place of just embodying your role. And we have to kind of clear away all these worries that, Oh gosh, we’re being mean. We’re being strict. She’s not going to like us. I have those too and I still have them even though I’ve been working at this for a long, long time. I still have it with the children I work with in my classrooms. Sometimes when I see the parent isn’t setting the limit and so I try to model, I do it for them and, so, now I’m doing something that’s making their child upset, and that thought always goes through my mind. Yikes, this child is going to hate me. She’s never going to want to come to my class again.

Well, I should know by now that the opposite is always true. All those fears are unfounded, because children love when somebody isn’t afraid of upsetting them — somebody that’s comfortable in making decisions for them, being the leader, being the parent, being the guide and not expecting their child to be floundering around trying to do this work for us.

One thing that comes up in class, and seems to come up often, is that a child will be upset about something and then the child is grabbing at the parent and flinging themselves into the parent with their tantrum and their feelings. And the parent feels so terrible about the child being upset that the parent allows this to happen, and I have to be the one to actually take that child and move them off the parent, just a little bit and I hold the child back from the parents so the child isn’t able to do that. And I say, “Hi, I see you wanna crash on her and you’re upset.” I don’t say a lot. I just look at them, I see them, I have acceptance of them and I’m comfortable, as comfortable as I can be allowing them to share the feelings.

I have classes with three-year-olds in them now and there’s a child that actually said to his mother, “If I get upset, Janet’s gonna hold me so that I don’t hurt you.” And then another time he said, “I love Janet,” which of course made me cry because she told me, she reported this to me. And some version of that has happened a lot where I get this feedback. All these fears that have gone through my mind in the moment are completely unfounded. The child feels closer to me, they trust me. We’ve bonded through these experiences.

I say all this to empower you to be even nit-picky decisive. It’s going to feel nit-picky from where you’re coming from right now. That’s okay. The worst that can happen is maybe you make one slightly stricter decision that you could’ve lightened up on. But it’s actually going to feel very good to your daughter, I guarantee you, if you’re doing it comfortably and not angrily, not with frustration and annoyance at her, really just doing it and welcoming her to … In one of my earlier podcasts, I used “roll out the red carpet.” Rolling out the red carpet for her feelings.

Sounds like what this mother’s getting on the surface here is dissatisfaction. Now there are probably other feelings beneath that. I don’t know what transitions this child is dealing with. I don’t know what’s going on in her world or why … what other feelings might be there and maybe there aren’t. Maybe it’s just a two-year-old that’s really gotten stuck in controlling too much.

So on the surface, dissatisfaction. Allow her to be dissatisfied. She didn’t get the cup that she wanted. If you wanted to give her a choice of a cup, that would be fine. It’s really unnecessary to give her choices about everything. Right now she has way too many choices, it sounds like, and choices around things that aren’t comfortable for her. Comfortable choices are making choices about her play within the boundaries that are reasonable that you’ve given her in her safe place, and not playing with her food and throwing it all over the house, that kind of play, but appropriate play. She gets to flip from one thing to another. She gets to stick with playing with the Q-tip, if you think that’s safe for her for an hour. There’s no judgment on that. You allow her to control that.

This also applies to any kind of downtime they have, so that they get to be the ones to choose if they want to do a special class that week or something or do a regular session of something, but not having to conform to all these classes and lessons and situations. That doesn’t give the child a sense of healthy control over their play and their free time and their downtime.

But all these other choices I would take as yours for now, and then maybe you’ll once in a while give her more choices later about things likes cups, I don’t know. But I think I would right away… let’s say you gave her cup and she said … she asked that we change it to a different cup.

“You don’t like this cup. You want the other cup. Yeah, this is the cup we’re sticking with.”

You’re comfortable. You’re not angry with her. You’re not judging her. i.e, “What’s wrong with that cup? This cup is fine. Why do you need another cup?” You’re not going there.

You’re hearing the dissatisfaction, which represents other dissatisfaction that she has and also deeper feelings of maybe fear or other feelings that she needs to share. But let’s just go with what we know with for sure, which is dissatisfaction. So you get to be dissatisfied with your cup choice that we gave you and that’s really okay with me.

And if she needs to scream or cry about it, it’s not about the cup, I guarantee you. I think you obviously know that… we all know know that objectively, but we can get caught up in, Oh gosh. Maybe she needed that and why not? And that would’ve helped her avoid...

What she’s doing right now is keeping a lid on things and that is just creating a bigger explosion inside her. So, when you’re going to open the tea kettle with all of these little minor ones and let the steam come out, then she’s going to be able to share it throughout her day and clear it. Right now it’s not getting cleared. She’s caught up in it. It’s in there. So let her clear all the dissatisfactions.

There are some children that wake up in the morning and they’re just feeling whiny and uncomfortable and the parent might see that as, Oh gosh. I need to make her feel better, and that’s wonderful impulse that we all have.

Just let her be dissatisfied. I wake up like that sometimes and it’s okay. She woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Let that be okay. Don’t try to kowtow to her and please her and make it better. Really, the best thing you can do is allow her to share her dissatisfaction.

So yes, it makes sense that this parent liked giving her the different cup and then she showed her, I still need to express dissatisfaction, so now I’m gonna ask for another cup. If we could just allow her to express it the first time, it will be easier for her, it will cut this kind of controlling behavior down quite a bit and release her, it will free her to stop trying to keep a lid on things.

So I think on this parent’s end, the key is really to perceive the situation the way I’ve been talking about. Perceive it as she’s caught up, she’s holding on to things, she needs to let go of them, so let her let go. It might come out in a big ball of feelings, it might just come out in little spurts throughout the day. Welcome it. Let it come. Let it flow. Don’t stand in the way in any way. Just encourage it.

And the mother says, “This is happening with everything. She’s controlling, trying to control where people stand and walk, etc.” I mean, this should tell you this has gone out of control, this controlling behavior. She’s saying, Help! Help! Now I’m going to tell you how to walk, how to breathe, where to jump. She just needs help with this. She just needs some relief here, and this is a great news because you can totally do this for her, but we have to be the one. We can’t expect that it’s just going to work itself out. And we don’t want her to be … We don’t want her to have more time in her life spent being burdened in this way and uncomfortable. She’s not enjoying this.

When we’re stuck in control, we’re not enjoying ourselves. But what I think what gets in our way is what this parent says. She regrets how this situation ended and how it affected the meal and she’s looking back, Why didn’t I just give her the cup she wanted? And I can feel how that appeals as a better solution. Just keeping the peace. Wouldn’t that be nice if we were peaceful all the time and we didn’t have any other feelings about anything?

It’s not reality and it’s definitely not our job as parents to try to keep everyone peaceful and happy. Attempting to do that will get in our way and get in our child’s way and create situations like this where a child gets caught up being the person she doesn’t want to be. Usually these are very bright children, they’re very strong-willed children and all of these positives, but they get stuck in the discomfort of it.

So I hope that helps and, yes, I would encourage this parent all the way to not give her these choices and to just choose for her and feel comfortable about her expressing her displeasure with that, and her dissatisfaction and anything else that comes with that.

Please check out some of my other podcasts at website. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And remember I have books on audio at, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and

Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Great response. We have a neighbor friend like this and it’s hard to know what to do when she gets like this. It’s hard to be loving towards her. But you have given me a new perspective and I hope this will help me respond to her in the future.

  2. Would they learn controlling behaviour from us?

  3. joy Carbines says:

    i found this so clear and emotionally settling to understand why allowing disappointment can be so healing
    thank you

    1. My pleasure, Joy. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  4. My 6.5 year old is currently struggling with being oppositional to going to school in the morning. This very much sounds like him. He always wants to be in control and he is very bright. How can we help with the transition of getting to school on time?

    1. This is exactly what I needed to read today. My 3.5 yr old is getting on to this path. I know I can be a bit too permissive as a reaction to my own upbringing, but I hadn’t made the link with her wanting to d things her way all the time. Her words there.

      Thanks so much

  5. Thank you so much for this. My 3 1/2 year old is the same way while struggling with the transition of having a new baby brother. This has been super helpful for me to consider and try things differently…

  6. My 4 year old is like this however she will go into complete and total meltdown, screaming and crying which can take an hour + and I don’t always have the time to sit with her feelings. When possible I do

  7. Oh, my goodness, you have no idea how much this has helped me today! I know two tremendously bright, creative, capable and strong-willed children (4.5 & 2.5yo) who finds themselves occasionally stuck in this behavior—the older more than the younger. I have been a care provider for them 2 days/week since the pandemic suspended in-person school and other forms of childcare 11 months ago. Your clear language & instruction around this have helped me clarify what’s working and what’s not. Their household is generally quite permissive, and sometimes I feel like I’m being “the heavy”, but this extreme control from a 3.5/4yo did not sit well with me and I’ve refused to give in to it. I strive always to be calm, clear, and kind, but once I’ve stated how things will be, I don’t budge, and the children seem to have come to trust me as a result of that. There have occasionally been some tears & complaints, and that’s ok; I stay with them through the disappointment, and I’m there to greet them again with a smile of the other side.

    Thank you so much, Janet! This letter & your comments have helped me to feel more confident about what I’m doing (and offered me a clearer “why”); hopefully this will help all of us as we transition back to school & work after a strangely beautiful & trying year.

  8. You give example “You don’t like this cup. You want the other cup. Yeah, this is the cup we’re sticking with.” but my 3 y/o in this case screams demanding WHY. Why can’t I give her that cup, why can’t I help her get the cup she wants , why am I not helping her and understanding her etc. It truly pulls my heart strings and I don’t know how to reply. I don’t want to say “this is the cup we’re having and that’s it” because she keeps with the ” but WHY??” and “just cause I said do” doesn’t sound respectful to me. I feel stuck with how to respond to these “whys “

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations