My four year old is bossy and demanding with other kids (Social Skills)

pout-preschoolQ. I have a four and half year old son and he is an only child. He was born after many years of trying so we feel lucky to have him. We would have liked for him to have a brother or sister but it seems now that I can’t have any more children. My husband and I have lots of time for him and he is the centre of our life. However, I do worry about how he gets on with other children. He can be very bossy and demanding.

While my husband and I put up with this, this is not the case with other children. When he does see his cousins or when he has friends around, it can end up in tears. I have adopted the policy that he has to learn how to manage this. My mother says that other children will knock the corners off him and the conflicts will do him good. Sometimes, I agree with her but then I see how upset he gets when he doesn’t want to share or he is not getting his own way in play. I also worry that he might become unpopular with other children. He is due to start school this September. What do you think I should do?

A. After waiting some time to have a child it is only normal that you want to give him lots of love and attention and to make him as you say “the centre of your life”. This gives children a very important secure start in life and is especially important when they are toddlers and preschoolers.

But you are right also that as they grow older children need to slowly learn that they aren’t the centre of the world and that they have to share it with others. This is especially important if they are to get along with other children.

Though some people incorrectly think it is easier, being a parent of an only child brings its own special challenges and demands. While you have more time as a parent with an only child, this can be a challenge as they may only have you as their companions and you may have to make special arrangements for them to socialise and meet other children.

In your question, you highlight a common challenge for parents of only children. When parents play with children, they can make special allowances for them in the rules, for example, by letting them win. This is all relatively normal, but children have to learn a different set of social rules when they play with other children.

Being bossy or always in charge doesn’t wash well with children the same age and you have to learn more shared ways of playing. Rather than leaving your son to experience the negative consequences of being bossy such as being rejected or excluded from games, it can be helpful to make sure to also take time to teach him positive social skills.

For example, take time to prepare him when he is due to meet a cousin or another friend. You can remind him that “when Mark visits, ask him what he wants to play with . . . then play his game first before you try your game”. You can also closely supervise his play with another child, and positively coach him in sharing and taking turns.

The key is to intervene only a little bit and then to back off and let the kids get on with it. Once your son begins to see the benefits of shared play, he will practise it more. Of course you can praise and encourage any examples you see – “You really enjoyed playing with Mark, it was great the way you shared the game/listened to Mark’s ideas as well.”

Big noisy situations with lots of kids are generally the hardest situations for children to share and behave appropriately. It can help to start small with your son. Invite his favourite cousin or friend over for a one-to-one play date, when you will have some time to more closely supervise the play so your son naturally experiences the benefits of sharing.

You can use stories and TV programmes to explore with your son how to be social and get on with other children. For example, if there is a story about a boy who is excluded, you can ask him how the boy might feel and what the other children should do to make him feel better? Or if there is a story of a child being bossy or demanding, you can ask him how that makes the other children feel and what might be a better way to ask for what he wants? Give him the opportunity to think through solutions to conflict situations away from the heat of the moment. Over time such conversations should increase his empathy and understanding of people.

If you want to teach him how to get on with other children, it is important that you don’t tolerate him being rude or bossy towards you, even if it does not bother you too much. If he starts demanding something rudely, you can pause and say “I can only help you if you use a polite voice” or if he is being bossy in playing a game you might assert the rules, “It’s Mummy’s turn now . . . let’s see how Mummy does.” The key is to get him used to waiting and taking his turn – a hard lesson for any child. Make sure to make it easy for him at first and to praise any progress he makes.

While there are some challenges to parenting an only child, there are lots of advantages.In surveys, most only children report the experience as a positive and that  being an only child afforded them lots of extra time and attention. Indeed, one girl I worked with recently was delighted to be an only child, especially when she saw all the squabbles and fights her friends got into with their brothers and sisters.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, July 2012.  John writes in The Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.