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4 Year Old Bossy, Social Conflicts

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I have a 4 and a half year old daughter who struggles with emotional control and also perhaps very rigid thinking. She is very bright, but also very sensitive. She has a big imagination, can be very nurturing and kind and helpful.

My main concerns are around her ability to form friendships -- she is very happy to play by herself though enjoys playing with others as long as it is on her terms. She is very bossy and if the game isn't going her way or other children are trying to direct the game in a different way she doesn't cope. Often she will storm off or start to boss around the other child (can lead to screaming etc). The other day at daycare she called another child a bad name when he wanted to join in the game but she didn't think he should/could. Her teacher told her that wasn't the way to talk to friends and she started yelling at her teacher "you can't tell me that, you're not coming to my birthday party etc etc" then started to throw things around. The teachers removed her as they were concerned for the safety of her and others.

I am concerned that she can't handle her emotions and goes so quickly to "˜anger'. We previously have taught her to walk away when she is angry (rather than scream and throw things) but now I'm not sure this is a good idea because she isn't learning how to confront and problem solve things. Also she is walking away from us and teachers when we are telling her something she doesn't like to hear. I have tried empathy with her around being angry and frustrated but she pushes me away and/or shuts down, she doesn't want to talk about these things. I think she gets easily anxious and perhaps down on herself.

I am worried about her starting school in 6 months time, she is very ready intellectually but not so much emotionally. How can I help her to control her anger and not be so quick to get angry and shut down? Also how can we help her in being with friends and being okay with them having a turn of being the lead or understanding that it is okay when others think differently or want to do things differently?


Four year olds are famous for acting like bullies. They're experimenting with power and are still working out how to get their needs met without resorting to threats and hitting. "You can't come to my birthday party!" is classic at this age. But when I heard your daughter used it against her teacher, I both laughed and winced.

So here's what I see happening. A very sensitive girl who has definite ideas about the way she wants things to be; and who gets easily overwhelmed and frightened around other kids, simply because she is so sensitive and anxious. She attempts to feel better by asserting control over the situation, which is a natural human response.

Naturally, she can't control other kids her age. They want control too and have their own ideas about how the game should be played. When other kids challenge her, her fragile defenses fall apart. She becomes overwhelmed by fear and anger. She goes into flight (she leaves the game in a huff) or fight (she yells, throws things) mode. At times, she may freeze and withdraw. She gets so overwhelmed that she can't think rationally (of course the teacher would not be coming to her party) or to negotiate reasonably.

You have taught her to walk away when she is angry rather than scream and throw things. That is great! She simply cannot always control herself well enough to stay and engage without fighting. It was the right thing to do. But you are concerned that she also walks away from you, and from her teachers, so we do need to address that.

I agree that your daughter struggles with emotional control and rigid thinking. She needs to learn the normal give and take of all relationships. And I share your concern about her starting school, given her emotional immaturity.

Here's what I'd recommend.

First, let's address your daughter's emotional fragility. All kids are disappointed when they don't get what they want, but by four, most can manage their upset enough that they can engage with other kids more productively than your daughter. As you say, she moves too quickly into anger. That's a sign that she very easily thinks she is being threatened by an emergency situation, even during "normal" play with other kids.

Your attempts to empathize with her are exactly on the right track. She needs a safe place to vent these emotions, so that she can release them and feel more internal balance. However, it isn't really the anger that is troubling her. The anger is simply the defense she employs so she won't feel the vulnerability and fear. So when you empathize, she shuts you out because your empathy takes her to the feelings underneath. They're scary! That's why she is getting angry to begin with; most of us defend against our deeper vulnerabilities by lashing out. 

So those feelings of fear and powerlessness are what are driving your daughter's lashing out at other children. She needs you to give her a safe place to work through these feelings. Here's how.

1. Get her laughing.

Laughter will take the edge off her anxiety to help her access her upsets. Laughter releases the same anxieties as tears. At home, say "Let's play the bossy game..... You get to be the boss to start." Let her give you orders. You have to follow the orders, loudly lamenting that she always gets her way. Be silly, not pathetic, to get her laughing. The point is as much laughter as possible. Be sure you bumble and mess up as you try to follow her orders. Try other games as well, with the goal of ten minutes of real laughing every morning and every night.

Start playing school with her. Let her boss you around and control everything. Be silly and get her giggling. Ham it up. Be hopeless and clueless.

Also play games like "Remote Control" where she is in control of the situation. If you can get her giggling, she's releasing anxiety, and it will be easier for her to cry about these things, and to talk about them. You will also find that the more you play with her about these issues, the more trust will build up between you and the more likely she is to cry when she's upset.

2. Welcome crying.

Find a time when you will not be interrupted for an hour. Initiate a cuddle session where you make a warm connection and hug her a lot, so she feels safe. Look her in the eye and say:

"Sweetie, you had such a hard time with the other kids last week (or today). Remember how mad you got? And you were so mad at the teacher, too. You must have been so mad and sad and scared."

She will probably shut you out. After all, those feelings are not exactly pleasant, and you are suggesting she feel them. She may lash out at you verbally, maybe even push against you physically. But as long as you stay empathic instead of confronting, she will also be intrigued on some level. Kids intuitively WANT to heal, to unburden themselves, to express their upsetting, stored-up feelings.

Don't, of course, let her hurt you. But if she wants to push against you, you can say "You want to push against me. That's ok. Here, you can push against the pillow, and I will hold it for you." Often kids need to push on something as their anger surfaces.

If she says "Shut up!" or "Go away!"or if she hits, move away a bit and say "You are so upset about this that you want to hit me (yell at me) because I am talking about it. But I can help you with this, so it doesn't happen. I know it upset you and I can help you with it. I will move away, over to here, but I will stay with you. I won't leave you alone with these upsetting feelings."

If she runs away, give her space, but follow her at a respectful distance. Don't say much, maybe just: "It's upsetting even to think about this. Don't worry, Sweetie, you are safe. I am right here to help.

What you want is for her to get past the anger to the fear beneath it. Stay soft and compassionate. If you've been doing a lot of laughing with her, she will be more likely to cry at this point. Eventually, she will rage, push, and then break through into fear. You will know the fear because she will tremble and cry. You don't need to talk much once she begins crying. Remember that she will only feel safe enough to do this if you resist the urge to analyze or even verbalize much about it. Just say, "That's right, Sweetie. Everyone needs to cry sometimes. You can let it all out. I am right here when you are ready for a hug."

What if she doesn't move into crying, but instead she is angry, cranky, obstinate, difficult, ornery? That means she is stuck in the anger and scared to go into the hurt/fear. Your job is to give her the opportunity to cry, but also to help her feel safe enough to do so. That means you set a limit to give her something to cry about, but you stay calm and empathic no matter what. So you might set a limit in a warm, calm tone: "I hear you want a cookie now but it is too close to dinner. I know that's disappointing, Sweetie. Nothing is going the way you want right now, is it?"

Your daughter will probably need to cry deeply this a few times, but you will find her a more resilient, secure person afterwards. She will have the internal resources to cope better with the normal challenges of four year old life. She won't move so quickly into upset and anger because she won't already be carrying a full emotional backpack of upset feelings with her. Because she is a naturally somewhat anxious person, and very sensitive, she will always be more easily upset than many kids, but with this tool you are giving her she will learn how to manage her volatile emotions.

You will also find that your relationship becomes much closer and that she will be more willing to open up and talk with you about the things that upset her.

3. Foster Emotional Intelligence and Social Skills.

Now, let's talk about emotional intelligence and social skills. Your daughter can't really hear and learn when she is upset, so you can't expect her to learn how to treat friends while she is upset. But the time to teach emotional intelligence is really all day, every day. And that leads naturally to teaching social skills.

The two most important components of emotional intelligence are the ability to manage emotions, and empathy for others. Let's talk first about emotional self-regulation.

We have already talked about managing emotions by learning to let ourselves cry. When we accept all feelings, we gradually learn to manage them. (When we stuff emotions, they are no longer under conscious control and we become prone to outbursts).

Another foundation-block of emotional self-management is soothing. That's because the way kids learn to soothe themselves is by being soothed. Literally, when we soothe an infant, the infant begins to build the neural pathways so that she can soothe herself. Some kids don't get the soothing they need in infancy, either because the parents don't comfort her when she cries, or because she is very high-needs. Either way, these kids continue to need a tremendous amount of physical soothing so that they can release the oxytocin and other soothing hormones that help them soothe themselves. Over time, they gain the ability to calm themselves physiologically. So I would recommend that you make a daily ritual out of snuggling your child (at bedtime or some other time). Also, whenever she gets upset, offer your warm embrace to comfort her. That will help her learn to soothe herself when she's upset.

4. Make sure you're modeling self-regulation, offering empathy, and using loving guidance.

Another essential ingredient of learning to manage our emotions is having our parents stay calm. When kids get upset, they feel like it's an emergency and they act accordingly. If we can stay calm, we can acknowledge that they feel like it's an emergency, but we signal with our calmness that it isn't. That helps kids learn to calm themselves when they're upset. In fact, their nervous system actually takes its cues from our nervous system and wires itself accordingly. When we stay more calm, our child grows a calmer brain.

In addition to emotional self-regulation, empathy is the other major component of emotional intelligence. Empathy is the ability to feel things from someone else's perspective. A certain amount of empathy is innate, in that our mirror neurons automatically tune us into what someone else is expressing. But that can get in the way of a very sensitive kid, who feels the agitation and upset of every kid on the playground and doesn't know how to manage it all. The way kids learn to manage those feelings is by having their own feelings met with empathy. That teaches them that emotions are not an emergency and keeps them from going into a state of alarm in response to other people's emotions. So sensitive children especially need our empathy to help them cope.

Finally, emotional intelligence can be helped along by how you manage discipline. Since four year olds are experimenting with power, it's important not to use discipline that derives from our power over them. If we order our child around, we are modeling bossiness. If we resort to force, we are modeling bullying. There's a long answer on my website to another mom of a four year old about how to help him develop both emotional intelligence and social skills that I think will be of great value to you, click here to read.

5. Stay involved to intervene, support and teach during play.

Some social skills come from developing emotional intelligence, and some you can work on by playing with your daughter. But it is also extremely helpful to be present with your daughter so that as she plays with another child, you can intervene BEFORE things get explosive, to model and teach problem-solving. So if you can set up one-on-one playdates and stay close to monitor the situation, you can really help your daughter learn that such situations can be managed without drama.

Don't be afraid to step in. Get right down on the floor and help your daughter and her friend sort out their difficulties. Here's an example of how to do that (written for siblings, but applicable with peers as well): How To Intervene When Siblings Fight. All four year olds need this kind of help to learn social skills, but some more than others.

Three to six months is probably enough time for you to see a real change in your daughter by using these strategies. She will still be super-sensitive and easily overwhelmed by social situations, but she should feel less threatened by social interaction and should therefore begin handling it more gracefully. If you don't see real change by then, it would be a signal that you need some outside support. For instance, there is some possibility, although it is slight, that she is on the ASD spectrum, and needs professional help to learn social skills. It is also possible that she is struggling with anxiety or sensory issues that are creating extra challenges. So if you don't get traction on this issue in the next few months, please don't hesitate to get outside support.

I hope this is helpful. Your daughter sounds like a wonderful girl, and I do think your intervention now will help her a great deal to lay the foundation she needs for good relationships as she gets older.

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