My brother and sister-in-law moved close to our house this summer. One of their sons (my son’s cousin) is a real tyrant though, who insists on having control and manipulates my son. This bossy kid is unable to share and demands his way with tantrums constantly. I don’t know how to address this behavior with my son. I do not feel it is healthy for anyone to boss others around like this. I would never allow my child to do that. What would be the best way to bring this up with my son and teach him to stand up for himself, or talk about it with my sister-in-law and ask her to work with her child on this? These situations can be so awkward and I don’t know where to start because I don’t want to offend, but I hate how my child is being treated.
You are really asking me two questions. The first is how do I teach my child to enforce boundaries and not get pushed around by others? The second is should I bring up bad behavior to the child’s parent and how does one handle a conversation like that without offending?
We get a little excited by these people problems though, because there are great learning opportunities here for everyone involved. For you, it is a great exercise in speaking your truth and being your child’s advocate, and for your child, there is important opportunity to learn how to enforce boundaries and decide how they will allow other people to treat them. Learning this now could save your child years and years of trouble later in life. The bossy cousin also has a great lesson coming, about how you must treat people if you want them to stay in your life.
We would recommend you start with a conversation with your child, though, and see if he can change the situation by enforcing boundaries on his own. We believe teaching children to enforce boundaries is one of the most important things you can teach them because it will set them up to have healthy relationships for the rest of their lives.
Adults also need to work on finding a healthy balance between showing up for others and taking care of ourselves. Most of us find showing up for others is easier than taking care of ourselves. We believe this happens because you have been subconsciously programmed to see taking care of yourself as selfish and bad — but it’s not selfish. It’s healthy and wise.
If you don’t take care of yourself, ask for what you need and stand up for yourself, you will soon be empty and have nothing else to give to anyone. Remember, you are the one in charge of making sure your needs are met and your bucket stays full. This could mean staying away from people who drain you, asking for the time alone, or for whatever space you need to refill and nurture yourself. You must show your children how to do this by example. If you struggle with this, we highly recommend you get some coaching or counseling to work on worthiness and receiving.
Or you might have the opposite problem and be really good at taking care of yourself, but struggle to want to show up for others. Either way, you get to work on balance.
Here are some tips on teaching children to enforce boundaries:
1. Ask questions
Find a time to ask your kids some questions about how they feel about playing with the cousin who insists on controlling them and always having his way. Ask them how it makes them feel and what they think is fair in those situations.
Great Parenting Tip: You should always ask questions and listen to your children before you give any advice on anything. Find out what they already know and ask questions to see if they can figure out the right answer on their own.
2. Ask permission to share
If they can’t see the answer, then ask if they would be open to some ideas on how they might handle the situation.
Great Parenting Tip: Always ask permission to share your ideas or advice and make sure the child is open to it before you say a word. This shows you respect them and their views. (Do this with adults, friends and family too).
3. Teach principles
Once you have permission, explain to them the concept of compromise and explain the need for everyone to have a say and to have a turn. Spend time teaching your children the importance of seeing everyone as the same (in importance and value) and that everyone should have the opportunity to choose how and what to play.
It’s important as you discuss the behavior of the cousin, you do not put him down in any way. You have a great opportunity to teach compassion here and this child has the same value as your children, it’s only his behavior that you are commenting on, not his intrinsic worth as a person.
4. Give them language
Equip your child with the language to enforce boundaries through role-playing the scenarios with him. This will help him feel confident to discuss the problem next time it occurs. Teach him how to stand firm and share his feelings lovingly using language like, “I think it would be fair for all of us to have a turn at deciding the game today. When you choose all the time it makes me not want to play with you.” or “Absolutely, let’s play your game, and then let me have a turn at deciding the next game so we all get to do what we want to do.”
If language such as this is unsuccessful and the cousin’s behavior doesn’t change, then it’s very helpful to equip your children with the language to excuse themselves from the play or ask for help from an adult, without appearing like a tattle tale. Giving him phrases such as “OK, I don’t feel this is fair that you keep choosing the game and it’s not very fun for me to go along with your ideas all the time, so I’m going to go home and play by myself for a while and choose something I want to do.”
You can decide from there whether to speak to the child’s mother yourself or just keep your son at home with you. The other mother may ask, at some point, what’s going on and why your child won’t come play anymore. Be prepared with the same tips above to have a loving conversation with the mother. Ask questions and listen first to see if she has seen any problems or concerns when the boys played together. Find out if she was aware, at all, of what was happening. Then, ask permission to speak your truth. There is a great communication worksheet on our website which can guide you through having mutually validating conversations.
Remember to refrain from judgment and don’t speak down to the other parent as if you know more or better. Speak to them as an equal and you will receive the same respect you are giving them back and you can hopefully come to a mutual solution.
Begin the conversation with a permission questions like, “Hey, would you be open to talking with me about how the children are playing? I’m a little concerned with something I see is happening.”
If you receive a "no" then you know it’s either not a good time or that the parents are not open to feedback or a mutual solution. This will then help you to make the decisions that are healthiest for your children. Receiving feedback without being prepared is often hard to take, so asking permission ensure you create the best environment possible for the conversation.
When you speak your truth try to use more "I" statements than "you" statements. “I have noticed that when our children play your son has a need to consistently have his way and is not open to compromise. I find that my child is not being heard or having a turn, which I don’t feel is healthy for him. I wonder if you would be open to us as parents doing our best to get involved, to ensure all the children are getting a chance to share their ideas and choose a game, as this is really the healthiest way for them to learn to play and get along. Would you be open to helping me with this?”
Learning to have these boundary conversations is challenging, but this healthy dialogue really does make for lasting relationships. You may need to have a few conversations with your child about speaking his truth in a loving way before he has the confidence to speak up for himself, however, these are all wonderful and healthy discussions that will serve your child well in their future.
You can do this.
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Kimberly Giles is the president and founder of Claritypoint Life Coaching and 12 SHAPES INC. She is an author and professional speaker. She was named one of the top 20 advice gurus in the country by Good Morning America in 2010. She appears regularly on local and national TV and Radio.