By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q: I have an almost 4-year-old daughter who is extremely bossy – to me, to our family, to other children. Any advice?

A: A young child’s behavior is her way of letting the world know how she feels before she has developed the ability to put her feelings into words.

To understand what her bossiness is “saying,” watch and listen carefully.

If she wants everyone to go along with her ideas about what and how to play, she may need guidance about cooperation.

If she expects everyone to cater to her whims, you can set limits to teach her that she can’t always have her way.

If she seems bossier at specific times, there may be triggers to such behavior – like hunger, fatigue or overstimulation. Watch for these cues and help her to avoid them. If her bossiness seems a bid for attention, schedule regular times to play together so you won’t find yourself pulled in to play whenever she demands it.

When she gets bossy, tell her it’s no fun for you when she acts that way. Then remind her of the great time you had during your last play date. Let her know you’re looking forward to the next one. A child may be bossy before she has learned how her behavior affects other people. Let her know that no one likes being pushed around.

How do you and others respond when she can’t do as she pleases? Giving in won’t help, though it may be tempting if she throws tantrums. Instead, help her learn to control herself. Ask how you can help – with a hug or some quiet time to herself.

Some children who feel that their world is out of control may try to control other people. In this case, ease the pressures on her. Look for times and places when she can have her way – such as choosing her cereal or the color of the clothes she wants to wear.

At 4, the social skill to monitor and change behavior in response to others is a work in progress. Four-year-olds are learning to share, to take turns, to invite other children into their play, to follow another child’s lead – the back-and-forth of communication. Is anyone bossing or bullying her? Often children who are rough on others have been victims of such treatment themselves.

If your daughter is in preschool, talk to the teachers about how she gets along with her peers. They can help her learn how to compromise and get along. In the classroom she will have plenty of opportunities to practice.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.