Maudlin and Associates ™
Karen Maudlin
Psy.D., CPCC
Kenneth Davison
Cindy Takiguchi
Manette Galván Turner
Robert Gregory
Daniel Doebler
Trevor Simpson

We have a wonderful, intelligent, athletic, socially adept, handsome 7-year-old who is a master manipulator. He is a born leader who exhibits bossy and disruptive behavior at school and church. We've tried rewarding him for positive behavior, but he seems unfazed when he doesn't get a reward. We have removed everything from his room, leaving him with nothing to do but read- but he seems as if he's fine with that. We pray, read, talk, and play together all the time. I am very involved in all areas of his life. I want to cultivate his wonderful, positive characteristics without killing his spirit. Please help.

A. In truth, a big part of being socially adept is knowing how to behave appropriately in social situations, knowing how to share and take turns, and demonstrating genuine kindness to others. It sounds like your son, while intelligent and having the potential to be a natural leader, has not learned these facets of being socially adept. So it's great that you are catching this problem while he is still young and ready to learn.

Your son has many terrific qualities, so I suggest encouraging those activities designed to bring out his best. A structured activity that teaches leadership skills, cooperation, and service- such as Awana, the Boy Scouts, or the Boys Clubs of America- can help him tune up his social skills while nurturing his natural gifts.

Parental involvement in these kinds of organizations is wonderful, but in this case, I'd suggest you limit your involvement to dropping him off and picking him up. That way your son will learn to negotiate social situations on his own. It is likely the leader will notice much of the same behavior you have seen, so allow him to discipline and redirect your son as the organization does with all it's members.

It would also help to work with his teacher, Sunday school teacher, and any coaches he has to develop a behavior modification program for his disruptive behavior. Let these adults know you're aware of these behaviors, and ask for their feedback on a regular basis. Let your son know you're paying attention to how he acts, and will dole out appropriate rewards and consequences. You might even want to make a chart where you can honor his good days with stickers and offer a weekly reward for improved behavior.

It's also a good idea to give your son clear guidance during social interactions. While he is old enough to have friends over to play without much supervision, his behavior warrants close attention from you. Set up a play date for your son with a peer who has a strong sense of leadership and who exhibits the kind of sharing and consideration you'd like to see in your son.  Before the play date, talk specifically with your son about sharing, taking turns, and letting the guest decide the first activity. Encourage him to plan a few activities and to say at least two kind statements to his friend during the visit. When the friend is at your house, stay within hearing range so you can rate his behavior, and reward accordingly.

In terms of concrete discipline tactics, I wonder if you have taken away things (bedroom items) for too long at a time. Set up a new program where he can get back his belongings sooner with good behavior. (At his age, the maximum time for losing something should be two weeks; after that you'll forget he had the item in the first place.) Instead, try limiting his TV or computer use for a day, two days or a week. Find out what motivates him by asking him to make a list of rewards for good behavior- and use those "favorite things" as leverage in your behavior modification system.

Help him understand that the need for change is not just to make him easier to live with; the way he treats people will impact him as well. He needs to know that people don't like to be bossed around and manipulated. If his behavior continues, he will lose friends. He also needs to know that God calls all of us to be loving and kind to others. When your son exhibits these behaviors, he is acting with the very heart of God.

You'll need to be extremely consistent and specific with your son. Name the behaviors you want him to change and reward him/give consequences immediately when you see him in action.